Thursday, February 09, 2006

Unknown Unknowns Revisted

I recently attended a lecture on Health Law, Bioethics, and Human Rights given by Professor George Annas, the chair of Health Law, Bioethics & Human Rights at the Boston University School of Public Health, distinguished scholar, and a very nice man. During the course of his lecture Professor Annas made a passing and somewhat opaque reference to a rather remarkable quote by our much-maligned (by myself included) Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld.

The confounding quote in question, which Rumsfeld inflicted upon us during a 2003 press briefing on Iraq, is as follows:
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.

That unmanageable mouthful earned Rumsfeld the 2003 Plain English Campaign's award for most baffling remark by a public figure. And when you read it quickly, and especially if you have it read aloud to you, it sounds like absolute gobbledygook. But it’s not.
In fact, as much as it pains me to say this, I’ll venture that what Rumsfeld was talking about – the notion of "unknown unknowns" – is one of the most central themes in bioethics and biotechnology. Professor Annas may have made this point and if he did (and I missed it) I apologize in advance. But in case he didn’t, or even if he did, I think it’s important to draw attention to this concept.

Especially in the realm of bioethics and biotechnology there is great concern and much hand-wringing over the future consequences of emerging technologies such as reproductive cloning, genetic engineering, or any of the other “most egregious abuses of medical research." With all the prophesies of post-humans, armies of clones, and doomsday-by-genetic-modification scenarios (and, equally, all the utopian predictions of a world freed from disease, hunger, and poverty through the miraculous power of the gene) it is worth remembering that the only inevitable development is that the future will bring with it surprises, and probably great ones.

It bespeaks the fact that we must always figure on novelty without ever being able to figure it out; that change is certain, but not what the changed condition will be. Further inventions and discoveries, for example, cannot be anticipated and allowed for. Only the fact that there will continually be some, and among them some of great, occasionally even of revolutionary significance, is close to certain.
-- Jonas, Hans. The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1984. 119-120.

While we attempt to do the best that we can with unknowns of both the known and the unknown variety the capacity simply does not exist to fully and accurately predict what will or will not be possible, and what will or will not result from the technologies and policies we pursue today. And it is nothing if not dangerous to suspect otherwise.


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