Transcript for The Unknown Known - Errol Morris

Anne Strainchamps: The question of how and why we come to believe lies fascinates filmmaker Errol Morris. It's a theme that runs through all of his films, The Thin Blue Line, the Oscar-winning Fog of War, and his brand new documentary about former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. It's called The Unknown Known.

Errol Morris: I'm really fascinated about how we propagate error, how we come to believe false things and how we stick with those false beliefs no matter what. Once convinced that we know the truth, even if it isn't the truth, even smacking upside the head with a two by four isn't going to to change much of anything.

Strainchamps: You wrote this series of pieces recently in The New Yorker about a neurological problem. I don't even know how to say it. Morris: Anosognosia.

Strainchamps: There you go. Morris: The anosognosiak's dilemma.

Strainchamps: Yes.

Morris: It's a neurological problem that prevents you from knowing that you have that neurological problem. I was writing about something called the Dunning-Kruger effect, where these two scientists had done an elaborate series of social science experiments about, if you're incompetent you're usually too incompetent to know how incompetent you really are. That incompetence prevents you from an awareness of your incompetence. The Dunning-Kruger effect, what a wonderful effect. They called it a kind of social anosognosia. It's interesting. In these two movies that I've made, really they are movies about war. The Fog of War and now The Unknown Known, again about war and how we stumble into it for reasons often that can't be reconstructed, that aren't rational. There was a screening of The Fog of War here at the University of Wisconsin campus last night. One of the most striking things about that story is that McNamara saw himself as a supremely rational man, that the problems of the world could be solved with rationality, and at the very end of movie he tells us--and it's one of the really sad lines that I've ever put on film. He says rationality will not save us. It's this idea that somehow there are forces beyond our control that somehow drag us into conflict.

Strainchamps: Is that moment in the film? Actually, I think we've got it queued up. This is when he's talking about the decision to bomb after the Gulf of Tonkin torpedo attack.

Robert McNamara: Where are these torpedoes coming from? We don't know. Presumably from these unidentified craft. There were sonar soundings. Torpedoes had been detected. Other indications of attack from patrol boats. We spent about 10 hours that day trying to find out what in the hell had happened. At one point the commander of the ship said we're not certain of the attack. Another point they said, yes, we're absolutely positive, and then finally later in the day Admiral Sharp said, yes. we're certain it happened. So I reported this to Johnson and as a result there were bombing attacks on target in north Vietnam.

Morris: What's so interesting about this is that... I'm struck just listening to it here in the studio. We went to war on the basis of something that never happened. We later learned that that second attack in the Gulf of Tonkin did not occur. If you like, it's the WMDs of 40 years before Iraq.

Strainchamps: I'm thinking about our concept of the banality of evil. In a way, what you're interested in or what we're talking about is sort of the banality of the accidental reasons we go to war. It's not as though people all planned or knew even that this was going to be the pivotal moment. They got some information, they made a few mistakes. It was probably accidents and errors that kind of compounded from one person to another as they passed bits of information down a chain, but the result was a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Morris: In the case of Vietnam, 58,000 American service men and literally millions of Vietnamese.

Strainchamps: So it seems to me that one of the things that fascinates you is that chain of deception, those lies.

Morris: I'm not sure that I would even call them lies. It's all unanswerable. There's this idea. Everyone's familiar with it: the marketplace of ideas. Somehow if everybody is allowed to chatter away unendingly the truth will will out.

Strainchamps: Right, this idea that we live in an increasingly transparent society.

Morris: This is something I don't agree with it. The truth doesn't magically appear for any of us. The marketplace of idea--thank you, Adam Smith--doesn't produce truth. But it's the job of all of us, journalists, historians, investigators--you name it--to pursue the truth. The truth is outside of us and beyond us. We may never be able to grab a hold of it, but we search for it. We try to find out what is true and what is false to the best of our abilities.

Strainchamps: Well, thank you. It's a great place to leave it. Thanks so much for being here.

Morris: Thank you for having me.

Strainchamps: Errol Morris is an Oscar-winning director. His films include The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War, and his latest, The Unknown Known.

Comments for this interview

Mark Powell makes himself more of an ass-again and again (John Smith, 07/08/2014 - 11:19am)

Interesting how Mr. Powell has to correct his own incompetence. He can't even stand himself-although he is a lot easier criticizing his own pathetic inaccuracies than others.

corrected comment (fixing my own typos and adding a few words) (Mark Powell, 02/23/2014 - 10:46pm)

The subject, why we accept lies, is a very good one. Too bad WPR/NPR/PBS/CPB (in this case TTBOOK and Strainchamps) act out the bizarre idea they're part of the solution, not the problem.

And Morris is a funny (bad) guest for this very important subject, furthering the mockery of reality (which is sometimes conscious but usually unconscious. As Morris himself says, likely not even realizing his self-description, incompetence often doesn't even recognize itself. [He didn't say it that concisely but he said it. And he should've said that when it rarely does recognize itself, it denies itself.]) Hollywood gave the clown an Oscar, but as I showed in a University of California newspaper piece a few years ago, his "documentary" "The Fog of War" is loaded with factual errors. Arguably a few lies too, but mainly "just" incompetent, factual errors. See http://archive.dailycal.org/article.php?id=106268

CPB's problem, like that of the Post, Times, Journal, Smithsonian, leading Brit papers, all "top" media -- and academe -- is rarely lies (though they surely occur) but constant, simple, factual, academic incompetence in *history, geography, science and math* -- and their response behaviors when notified of error are even worse, as I've begun documenting in WPR. Got Kathleen Dunn on the phone last week and she was pathetic, acting like even the notion of legion uncorrected factual errors was ludicrous. Let's see what they say when lists are published, as a tiny part of years of vast files on CPB, themselves part of vastly larger files on "top" media and academe. I've decided to this point to conduct the study almost totally in private; articles such as the one cited above number only 30-40, almost all erased from the web by the errant, guilty, embarrassed and above all angry, and those working for them. The files can support thousands.

Wake up all. While it's good for a "quality" outlet to treat such as falsehood -- if they do so truthfully and accurately enough, and this segment's subjects are okay -- when will they present themselves as perps? They won't; they will continue resisting doing so with desperate fanaticism (often worse than Dunn's); and -- as the segment also noted, but for others -- likely even after they've been metaphorically smashed in the head with a 2X4. I'll be doing that. It seems I'm the only person who both can and intends to, at least in English in the West.

laughable "pot-calls-kettle-black" concept of segment (Mark Powell, 02/23/2014 - 10:39pm)

The subject, why we accept lies, is a very good one. Too bad WPR/NPR/PBS/CPB (in this case TTBOOK and Strainchamps) act out the bizarre idea they're part of the solution, not the problem.

And Morris is a funny (bad) guest for this very important subject, furthering the mockery of reality (which is sometimes conscious but usually unconscious. As Morris himself says, likely not even realizing his self-description, incompetence often doesn't even recognize itself. (He didn't say it that concisely but he said it. And he should've said that when it rarely does recognize itself, it denies itself.) Hollywood gave the clown an Oscar, but as I showed in a University of California newspaper piece a few years ago, his "documentary" "The Fog of War" is loaded with factual errors. Arguably a few lies too, but mainly "just" incompetent, factual errors. See http://archive.dailycal.org/article.php?id=106268

CPB's problem, like that of the Post, Times, Journal, Smithsonian, leading Brit papers, all "top" media -- and academe -- is rarely lies (though they surely occur) but constant, simple, factual, academic incompetence in *history, geography, science and math* -- and their response behaviors when notified of error are even worse, as I've begun documenting in WPR. Got Kathleen Dunn on the phone last week and she was pathetic, acting like even the notion of legion uncorrected factual errors was ludicrous. Let's see what they say when lists are published, as a tiny part of years of vst files on CPB, themselves part of vastly larger files on "top" media and academe. I've decided to this point to conduct the study almost totally in private; articles such as the one cited above number only 30-40, almost all erased from the web. The files can support thousands.

Wake up all. While it's good for a "quality" outlet to treat such as falsehood -- if they do so truthfully and accurately enough, and this segment's subjects are okay -- when will they present themselves as perps? They won't; they will continue resisting doing so with desperate fanaticism (often worse than Dunn's); and -- as the segment also noted, but for others -- likely even after they've been metaphorically smashed in the head with a 2X4. I'll be doing that. It seems I'm the only person who both can and intends to, at least in English in the West.

The Morris interview (Alan Fong, 02/23/2014 - 5:32am)

Listening closely [once worked in the biz], I wished Ms. Strainchamps had pursued a line of questioning with more context in mind. America had funded the war in Indo-China even while the French were still fighting it. The book Reporting Vietnam I notes the first American casualty there died in the Eisenhower Administration. Since this was my generation's war [ah the Universal Draft], the Tonkin incident seems like an asterisk in something bound to happen & NOT by accident.