Monday, June 21, 2010

Six Impossible Things

Consider this a follow-up if you like, though I don't think that's exactly right.
In my last post, I talked about proof and truth and belief.  And then I read the first part (the next four parts aren't out yet) of Errol Morris's article, "The Anosognosic’s Dilemma," in the on-line NY Times.  Morris takes off from a 1999 article by David Dunning and Justin Kruger.*
Dunning was intrigued by a bank robber he'd read about who thought his likeness couldn't be captured on film (the bank's cameras) because he'd washed his face in lemon juice.  He was sure that would work because he had conducted experiments with a polaroid camera which clearly proved his photographic invisibility.  Obviously (to Dunning and the cops, but not - at least in advance - to bank robber McArthur Wheeler), Wheeler is incompetent.  And what intrigued Dunning (and then his graduate student Kruger) was Wheeler's inability to recognize his own incompetence.
Here's Morris.
Dunning and Kruger argued in their paper, “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.”
It became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect — our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence. 
Morris interviews Dunning, gives some examples, and then focuses on Donald Rumsfeld's famous koan about knowledge.**
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.
Dunning thought that was quite something.  He told Morris,
That’s the smartest and most modest thing I’ve heard in a year.
Morris riffs off that for a bit before raising the philosophical question that seems to intrigue him.
Is an “unknown unknown” beyond anything I can imagine?  Or am I confusing the “unknown unknowns” with the “unknowable unknowns?”  Are we constituted in such a way that there are things we cannot know?  Perhaps because we cannot even frame the questions we need to ask?
Interesting for a kind of speculation I enjoy but don't want to pursue here.
Instead, what I want to pursue about the unknown unkowns, and why this can be seen (though I don't think it properly is) as a follow-up to the earlier post, is the other part of it.
Rumsfeld recognizes that there are things we are aware we don't know.  (Morris uses, as an example, the melting point of beryllium.)  But the unknown unknown, that there's the stuff you just don't know you don't know.  You don't even know what it is.
Morris's question - is there a category of stuff that's beyond our lack of awareness so that we cannot know of our ignorance? - points beyond that.
But I want to take it in another direction, back to McArthur Wheeler, inept criminal.
Because you, er, know, his knowledge about the invisibility-producing effect of lemon juice is a different sort of unknown unknown.  He started with theory.  Then applied a rigorous testing procedure.  As a result, he knew.  But he was wrong.
Unknown (in the sense that he didn't know the answer) unknown (in the sense that he didn't know that he didn't know the answer).
It's the falsely known (not the unknown known, say the name of the 7th dwarf, which is something quite different).  And it takes us back to the birthers and the truthers and the folks who insist that no innocent person would ever confess no matter what and that cops don't lie, regardless of the video.
But it also takes us back to all of us.
We all believe things that are, demonstrably, not true, though presumably we don't know what they are.  To some extent, that's because we're lazy.  We believe the politician or Wikipedia or Nancy Grace or whoever.  To some extent, it's because we trust our memory and perception more than we should.  
There are also the things we believe, with great certitude, that might or might not be true but that are, for us at least, and at least now, beyond confirmation or disproof.
Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens forcefully deny the existence of a deity.  Are they right?  They make compelling cases for the claim that a god defined as the omnipotent, omniscient, unique creator of the universe who oversees and perhaps reacts to or even intervenes in the day-to-day affairs of man and state is remarkably unlikely.  But they cannot falsify it.  The best they can do is say that there's no scientific evidence in support and that Occam's razor is (oddly, given that it's the eponymous Franciscan friar William of Ockham who developed the idea) points away from such a deity.  But that doesn't disprove god.  It just drops the odds.  
The theists have it no better.  Are there gaps in the understanding of the origin of the universe as grasped by the best thinking of particle physicists and cosmologists?  Yes.  Does that make them wrong when they (those that do) assert that there is no god? No.  The unexplained, even the currently inexplicable, is not proof of god as explanation.
Nor is error in calculus or error in explanation of biblical creationism evidence that the whole structure is a lie and, therefore, some other and identified structure is accurate.  But, and this is the point, we're all there.  We all believe things that are, at best, uncertain.
I started that earlier post by listing various evidentiary standards and suggesting that we mostly don't know what they mean.  Scott Greenfield pursued the idea with an explanation of how the very idea, so ingrained in our national and legal culture of "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" is ultimately meaningless.  But those measures (the list was incomplete, by the way) are the ones we have to deal with, and as Scott well knows, we can't just pretend they don't exist.
One key, at least, and this is why I'm carrying on about this now, is that we reach our audience where they are.  We engage them at their point of engagement, build belief, or skepticism from their base line rather than ours.  We lawyers pretty much all know that in theory.  It's the practice that's tricky.  And it's tricky precisely because we live in our own interpretive communities. 
Do this simply: The ghetto is different than the suburb.  Demography is telling.  It's not perfect as a belief measuring device, but it's a start.  So we want the jurors with the demographics we want (whatever they are).  And we want the ones who answer the questions the way we like.  And then we have to try and reach them not based on how we view the world, but on how they do.  As best we can.  Because what they believe is where we have to start.
Because proof, whatever the evidentiary measure, is about being convincing.  And that's about making people believe.
OK, maybe this is a follow-up.

Ballad of a Thin Man
Bob Dylan 
You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked and you say 'Who is that man?'
You try so hard but you don't understand
just what you will say when you get home
because something is happening here but you don't know what it is
do you, Mr. Jones?
You raise up your head and you ask 'Is this where it is?'
and somebody points to you and says 'It's his'
and you say 'what's mine?' and somebody else says 'well what is?'
and you say 'Oh my god am I here all alone?'
but something is happening and you don't know what it is
do you, Mr. Jones?
You hand in your ticket and you go watch the geek
who immediatly walks up to you when he hears you speak
and says 'How does it feel to be such a freak?'
and you say 'impossible' as he hands you a bone
and something is happening here but you don't know what it is
do you, Mr. Jones?
You have many contacts among the lumberjacks
to get you facts when someone attacks your imagination
but nobody has any respect, anyway they already expect
you to all give a check to tax-deductible charity organizations
Ah you've been with the professors and they've all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks
You've been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books
You're very well read, it's well known
But something is happening here and you don't know what it is
do you, Mr. Jones?
Well the sword-swallower he comes up to you and then he kneels
He crosses himself and then he clicks his high heels
and without further notice he asks you how it feels
and he says 'Here is your throat back, thanks for the loan'
And you know something is happening but you don't know what it is
do you, Mr. Jones?
Now you see this one-eyed midget shouting the word 'now'
and you say 'for what reason?' and he says 'how'
And you say 'what does this mean?' and he screams back 'You're a cow'
'Give me some milk or else go home'
And you know something's happening but you don't know what it is
do you, Mr. Jones?
Well you walk into the room like a camel and then you frown
You put your eyes in your pocket and your nose on the ground
There ought to be a law against you coming around
You should be made to wear earphones
Cause something is happening and you don't know what it is
do you, Mr. Jones?

*Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999, vol. 77, no. 6, pp. 1121-1134.
** Reproduced here from Hart Seely's "The Poetry of D.H. Rumsfeld" at  Watching it provides another dimension.


  1. You are on fire today. Dunning-Kruger is one of my all-time favorites, on which I've relied many times despite its having won an Ignoble Award.

    And then add Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns to the mix? It doesn't get any better than this.

  2. Aw, shucks.

    Of course, it's actually Errol Morris who brought them together.