Sunday, September 13, 2009

In defence of Donald Rumsfeld

Not a phrase one hears very often, but here goes.

A recent poll by the Plain English Campaign put George Bush top of the list of manglers of the English language and Arnold Schwarzenegger second, which is fair enough. But it puts Donald Rumsfeld third for this much-derided statement from 2002:
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.
But that makes perfect sense. When teaching editing courses I have used it as the best advice I could give an aspiring editor. It’s about humility: you don’t know anywhere as much as you think you do. What you are certain of, you don’t have to check, and what you’re not sure about, you do have to check. That’s all clear. But it’s the stuff that you don’t think to check – because it doesn’t occur to you there may be a problem – that will trip you up. Unknown unknowns, as Rumsfeld puts it.

Two examples:

1. I was asked to edit a memoir by an elderly former journalist and assumed it would be a breeze as he was such a pedant that I wouldn’t need to fact-check. On the first page when he referred to his favourite piece of classical music he got its title wrong and called it a symphony when it was a brief tone poem. I had to check every other “fact” in the manuscript in – I kept count – 23 reference books. There were lots of errors, mostly small but they were all things he didn’t know as well as he thought he did. Unknown unknowns.

2. When at Metro I edited one of the big murder stories the magazine was keen on in those days. The writer opened with a lyrical paragraph describing how at dawn the first rays of sunlight began to glint on the ripples in the swimming pool at the local primary school just as the killers were about to encounter their victim. It was a very affecting passage. The day after publication we got a letter to the editor pointing out that the school in question did not have a swimming pool and so the rest of the article was clearly unreliable and not worth reading. I had checked the spelling of every name, all the timings, every detail that I could – but it hadn’t occurred to me to check whether the school pool existed. It was an unknown unknown.

So I would tell my students to remember Donald Rumsfeld and his lesson in humility.

And now I wonder, if he wasn’t wrong about unknown unknowns, could he have been right all along about Iraq, rendition and Guantanamo Bay?

No, on reflection, perhaps not.

No comments: