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Stupid is as stupid does

Errol Morris kicks off a five-part, 20,000-word series about how the test of true stupidity is our inability to recognize our own stupidity. (Or, in Forrest Gump's phraseology: "Stupid is as stupid does.") It's called "The Anosognosic's Dilemma: Something's Wrong but You'll Never Know What it Is," and it revolves around the idea of "unknown unknowns," particularly as reflected in the famous quotation from Donald Rumsfeld (February 12, 2002) about instability in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion:

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. So when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say well that's basically what we see as the situation, that is really only the known knowns and the known unknowns. And each year, we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns."

Rumsfeld took a lot of flak for that statement (including the Foot in Mouth Award from the Plain English Campaign for "a baffling comment by a public figure") but it was actually one of the smarter things he ever said in public.

But as Morris observes, it's still vague and (intentionally) misleading:

Rumsfeld's famous "unknown unknowns" quote occurred in a Q&A session at the end of a NATO press conference. A reporter asked him, "Regarding terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, you said something to the effect that the real situation is worse than the facts show..." Rumsfeld replied, "Sure. All of us in this business read intelligence information. And we read it daily and we think about it, and it becomes in our minds essentially what exists. And that's wrong. It is not what exists." But what is Rumsfeld saying here? That he can be wrong? That "intelligence information" is not complete? That it has to be viewed critically? Who would argue?

In fact, Rumfeld's next few sentences are almost as famous (and, to some, equally cryptic):

"It sounds like a riddle. It isn't a riddle. It is a very serious, important matter."

"There's another way to phrase that and that is that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It is basically saying the same thing in a different way. Simply because you do not have evidence that something exists does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn't exist. And yet almost always, when we make our threat assessments, when we look at the world, we end up basing it on the first two pieces of that puzzle, rather than all three."

In actuality, however, Rumsfeld was employing the notion of "unknown unknowns" to claim that he had a reasonable certainty about WMDs -- something, in fact, he did not have evidence to support. (This would later become an infamous justification for the invasion of Iraq in the form of the talking point: "We can't afford to wait for the smoking gun, which could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.") In response to the very next question at the above press conference, Rumsfeld said:

"I think that if reasonable people, publics, if publics look at the world and look at the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which is pervasive -- people who want those weapons can get them. The terrorist states have them -- one or more of the various types of weapons of mass destruction. The terrorist states have intimate relationships with terrorist networks -- global networks. We all know that. They're all public. You know this. It does not take a genius to figure out that global terrorist networks are going to have their hands on weapons of mass destruction in the period ahead. No one can say if it's a week, or a month, or a year, or two years. All we do know of certain knowledge is that they are aggressively trying to get them."

So, while invoking the idea of "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns," Rumsfeld was actually twisting them into "known knowns": Because we don't know, we know. A year later (March 30, 2003), Rumsfeld's uncertainty about WMDs in Iraq had become a certainty -- all without the appearance of any actual evidence: "We know where they are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat." Amazing.

Rumsfeld, of course, was not being stupid -- just devious and disingenuous. (Well, maybe he was kind of stupid to think that nobody was noticing -- but he got away with it for a while, until reality eclipsed his rhetoric.) Morris, however, begins his series with the story of a bank robber who, when easily apprehended, protested that his image could not possibly have appeared on security cameras because, "I wore the juice."

Apparently, he was under the deeply misguided impression that rubbing one's face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to video cameras.

In a follow-up article, Fuoco spoke to several Pittsburgh police detectives who had been involved in Wheeler's arrest. Commander Ronald Freeman assured Fuoco that Wheeler had not gone into "this thing" blindly but had performed a variety of tests prior to the robbery. Sergeant Wally Long provided additional details -- "although Wheeler reported the lemon juice was burning his face and his eyes, and he was having trouble (seeing) and had to squint, he had tested the theory, and it seemed to work." He had snapped a Polaroid picture of himself and wasn't anywhere to be found in the image. It was like a version of Where's Waldo with no Waldo. Long tried to come up with an explanation of why there was no image on the Polaroid. He came up with three possibilities:

(a) the film was bad;

(b) Wheeler hadn't adjusted the camera correctly; or

(c) Wheeler had pointed the camera away from his face at the critical moment when he snapped the photo.

This actually does remind me of Rumsfeld -- who provided so many glaring examples of the ubiquitous human propensity for willful blindness in the face of misinterpreted evidence. Reading a newspaper story about the juiced bank robber led David Dunning, a professor of social psychology, to conduct a study he later published with Justin Kruger under the title "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments." Decribing what became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the authors wrote:

"When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, like Mr. Wheeler, they are left with the erroneous impression they are doing just fine."

Watch for it. It's everywhere.

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