23 April 2010, 0131 EDT

In every episode of the classic 1960s television series “The Prisoner,” Number 6 and Number 2 had this exchange:

Number 6: Where am I?
Number 2: In the Village.
Number 6: What do you want?
Number 2: We want information.
Number 6: Whose side are you on?
Number 2: That would be telling. We want information… information… information.
Number 6: You won’t get it.

The lack of information is a problem widely recognized by international relations scholars.

Face it, we study a field marked by secrecy and imprecision. The central unit of analysis is the state, with interests (or motives) that are virtually impossible to discern. Even capabilities are often ambiguous. As one scholar put it recently, “The force of uncertainty is absolutely central to every major research tradition in the study of international relations.”

The world was reminded of the certainty of uncertainty last week when the BBC and other media reported the following in regards to a mysterious recent incident in Asia:

An “external explosion” probably sank the South Korean naval vessel which went down near North Korean waters last month, an investigator says.

“The possibility of an external explosion is far higher than that of an internal explosion,” Yoon Duk-yong told a news conference in Seoul.

North Korea denies that it sank the boat.

Duck readers might be reminded of the mystery surrounding the destruction of something in Syria in 2007. Did Israel strike? Was the target a nuclear facility?

Indeed, it is not difficult to generate a short but nonetheless impressive list of important things we do not know about contemporary international politics:

What is the status of Iran’s nuclear program?

Is Osama bin Laden still alive? If so, where is he hiding?

(For Earth Day) What is the carrying capacity of the planet?

Actually, before I attempt to continue this list, I’ll just close with Donald Rumsfeld’s famous words on this subject:

“…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. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

Some days, I feel like someone who tries to read tea leaves or divine the present from a crystal ball.