Partial Knowledge is Extraordinarily Dangerous

“Partial knowledge is extraordinarily dangerous.”

I am sometimes asked about how to evaluate the information security and risk management needs of a given organization.  Other times a similar issue comes up, where a leader wants to understand what it would take to have some of their people become “security” experts.  In either situation, I am somewhat uncomfortable with my capabilities in the area of learning, and of the types of measurements that might help identify who is prepared to deal with material information security and risk management issues in diversified corporate environments, and why.  I currently have no formulaic response, no elevator speech.  I could use your input on this topic.

I was reading earlier this weekend.  CSPAN was on in the background.  And at some point, I heard Justice David Souter (U.S.Supreme Court) respond to a question about the scope about the value of Humanities education in a way that may help a little with the puzzle I posed above.

Justice Souter said that, “If I were attempting to develop a strategy (in support of Humanities), it would be based on the assumption that ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing… and an analog to that is that partial learning is a dangerous thing.'”  He went on:

“We have a number of examples of partial learning thrust on us over the last few years.  We know a lot more about military defense than we do about the divisions among the Muslim world.  We have a State Department that I have read, frequently, does not have very many Arabic speakers in it.  And one could go on with examples in the arena of what could be publicly-serviceable knowledge, and I think that if I have to have a starting point, I think that it would be that ‘Partial knowledge is extraordinarily dangerous.'” [this was around 1:16 into the program]

Later [around 1:36 into the program] Carolyn Brown, Director – Office of Scholarly Programs, Library of Congress, asked a question about defining with greater precision what the panelists mean by “Habits of mind?” and what should we do with it?

In response, Justice Souter summarized part of a speech by

“Howard Mumford Jones, where, after suggesting that ‘all Harvard graduates are illiterate, and committed to remaining illiterate,’ and he was sort of gently berating his audience by analyzing a day down to where there were, I don’t know… only 18 minutes left free, and then he asked: what should you do with it? — there was a pause — and answered (with passion) ‘You could read a book!'”

Souter went on to say that at some point one will “find a book so familiar that when there is a moment, one will open it.”  “Opening enough of those books,” he said “results in a lesson best described by Judge Learnard Hand, ‘who once said that if he could have his way, he would have engraved over every library, school, statehouse, and courthouse all over the the United States, a quote by Oliver Cromwell: ‘Consider that yea may be wrong…””  He concluded his thought with, “The habit of mind which characterizes the liberal arts, the habit of mind that opens the book, is also the habit which teaches us that lesson of Oliver Cromwell.  One is a physical habit, and the other is a habit of judgment that is likely to follow from it.”

Soon after, Patricia Q. Stonesifer, Chairwoman, Smithsonian Institution, cautioned of “The enormous danger of anyone living in a state of certainty…”  And she asked us to “Develop a state of uncertainty and combine it with a habit of real learning…”  Then she concluded with “One of habits of the mind is staying open to uncertainty.”

I think that there is some wisdom in these quotes for anyone attempting to assess their information risk management needs in a large corporate organization, or for anyone attempting to design an information security curriculum for individuals and groups who, until recently (or possibly until some point in the future) had never really thought about the topic.  Information security and risk management in a large, diversified, infrastructure-heavy corporate environment requires some of the breadth and specialization found in the university-level Humanities.  The differences between information security staff who can do what they are told, and those who can lead, involve a range of dimensions, but they are all dependent upon judgment.  I believe that there is a relatively healthy connection between the “habits of the mind” that Justice Souter and the other panelists discussed, and the type of judgment required for leaders in the information security field today.

What do you think?

— References —

American Academy of Arts and Sciences Symposium – Washington, DC
“The Humanities in a Civil Society.”
Recorded on Monday, March 9, 2009, at George Washington University.
Moderator: Leslie Berlowitz, Chief Executive Officer, American Academy

  • Edward L. Ayers, President, University of Richmond
  • Don Michael Randel, President, The Mellon Foundation
  • David Souter, Associate Justice, United States Supreme Court
  • Patricia Q. Stonesifer, Chairwoman, Smithsonian Institution

Watch C-SPAN’s coverage of this Symposium:

Justice David Souter: and his official bio at

Carolyn Brown:

Howard Mumford Jones:

Learned Hand:

Oliver Cromwell: or for more in-depth material see


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