Science, Pseudoscience, & Media Literacy

The Importance of What We Don’t Know We Don’t Know

Knowledge domains: what you know, what you don't know you know, what you know you don't know, and what you don't know you don't know

There’s a lot of knowledge out there in the world. We’ve all accumulated some of it, whether that’s by formal schooling, work, or life in general.

There are several different ways in which we relate to the potential knowledge that’s out there in the world, as shown in the modified Johari window above:

  • what we know that we know
  • what we don’t realize that we know
  • what we know we don’t know
  • what we don’t even realize that we don’t know

What you know that you know

This is the obvious part. Exactly what and how much is in this category depends on many things. With limited education combined with limited life experience, it’s probably going to be smaller, but with a larger mix of education and/or life experiences, this area can flourish like a healthy garden.

What you don’t know you know

There may be all kinds of things that have filtered into your brain by accident over the years, but you probably won’t realize it’s there until you’re prompted in some way to recall it.

What you know you don’t know

I know sweet bugger all about plumbing, and I don’t make any pretense otherwise. There are a lot of plumbing details that I have no clue even exist, but I know enough to recognize there’s a shit-ton I don’t know in that broad area of knowledge. Having a sense of what I don’t know helps me to recognize that my ability to flush a toilet doesn’t make me a plumbing expert.

What you don’t know you don’t know

This is rather wordy, but this is the whole realm of knowledge that you don’t even know exists. For example, you probably have no idea what oobleck modelling would entail, and had I not just said it, you would have carried on blissfully unaware that anyone might contemplate such a thing. But when I asked Google for a random science fact, all of a sudden we’re ooblecking.

So what?

The internet makes information readily available, so that it’s easy to go looking for things, but because of confirmation bias, we’re more likely to seek out information that’s consistent with what we already know in quadrant one.

I’ve noticed that it seems pretty common for people to underestimate how big that fourth quadrant is, which may lead them to assume that because they don’t know something, that means that nothing is known, full stop (e.g assuming there’s nothing more to be known about plumbing than how to flush a toilet). It then becomes easy to assume that opinions represent facts, since there don’t appear to be any facts.

This can also happen when people know some technical jargon from a particular field, and assume that knowledge adequately represents what is know about the field. A good example is when proponents of the law of attraction assume that knowing a bit a jargon about quantum physics puts them in a position to speak authoritatively about the subject, despite the supermassive black hole hovering in their quadrant IV.

I’ve had a lot of education, and while the obvious benefit is that it increases the size of what’s in quadrant one (what I know), what I think is just as valuable, if not more so, is that it shifted a whole bunch of stuff from quadrant four (that I’m clueless about) to quadrant three (I know it’s there, even though I don’t know the details). For example, I know that in 3rd year biochem class, I learned about the Krebs cycle. Do I remember it? Nope. But I know that human cells use energy in very specific ways, and that knowledge exists, even though it doesn’t exist in my head anymore. Those bits of biochem, microbi, physics, etc. haven’t reverted to quadrant four of the unknown; they’re hovering in quadrant three, and I can recognize that the most I can do in that area is flush the toilet.

None of us knows everything, or will ever know anywhere close to everything. But having some sense of our knowledge quadrants can make it easier to evaluate where we are in terms of the world around us and the knowledge that it holds. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing things, but it can be a problem to assume that knowledge doesn’t exist.

And in case you’re a fellow geek dying to know what oobleck is… https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/oobleck-bring-science-home/

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61 thoughts on “The Importance of What We Don’t Know We Don’t Know”

  1. Great post Ashley Leia. It is a gift to learn new things…especially what we don’t know that we don’t know. Then it becomes….well… a revelation. And, revelations are always good places to begin the pursuit of wisdom. Happy Monday. Cheers

  2. Is this a naive question or a rhetorical one: Do people actually believe that if they have no knowledge of something it doesn’t exist?

  3. Oh no! You peaked my curiosity on Ooblecks!

    What’s worse is that the link was an experiment! Arghhh, the temptation to try it is so strong!

    Must… resist… urge… Oh forget it. God willing, I’m so gonna try it with my children 😅

  4. We used something similar at uni i.e. the Johari Window and it always came back to me when working with students or newly qualified nurses. Some weren’t aware that they didn’t know that they didn’t know when it came to things like medication or assessing patients.

  5. Very interesting. The sheer scale of information and things ‘to know’ boggles my mind. I think the world would be a better place if people in positions of power admitted to not knowing, and being more open to learn.

  6. Hiya. This post for me calls up Risk Analysis that I have done in a prior life as a project manager. For those projects, the project manager tracks Known Knowns, Known Unknowns, Unknown Knowns and Unknown Unknowns. The project team seeks to develop risk severity by assessing for each risk for risk probability to occur and risk impact if occurred. Then the team develops risk mitigation strategies for each risk to see what can be addressed and what cannot. While most risk should be mitigated, there is still the likelihood of various risks that cannot be addressed or mitigated. This is particularly true of the Unknown Unknowns.

    It is fun for me to see this analysis of what you know / don’t know in the context of general knowledge or of “life knowledge in general.”

    Thank you for sharing!

  7. Oooo this is good! I too know fuck all about plumbing, and knowing what I do know helps me to realise there’s so much I don’t know. Some people think they know it all (probably quite literally) and seem ignorant to the fact that they really, really don’t. I almost like having a big fourth quadrant – it means there’s lots left to learn! xx

    1. Lots left to learn is good! Although not quite so fun when that learning is forced, like oh, you’ve got a stoma! And if I was in your shoes I’d be having fairly regular hissy fits at the diet gurus who claim to know how the GI tract works.

  8. Awwww yeah!
    So well written – and I’ve always loooved the concept of this square! Something so soothing about knowing there’s so much I don’t know 🤭

  9. I know that I don’t know even a thimble full of knowledge that is out there.
    I clicked on the link about oobleck. As soon as I saw it I recognized it. I have seen that several times on the Discovery Science channel. It is an amazing mixture that has some crazy properties. I know you can make it at home and it is a great science project for kids
    Thanks Ashley for this post! It was great!

        1. I think I did that at home as a kid, although it’s possible I’m making that up and just saw it on tv or something. But it comes from a chemical reaction of baking soda or something like that with another common substance.

  10. Hi there! I’ve been aware of my quadrant 3 being filled to capacity for my whole life. I’ve always just known somehow that my brain overlooks certain knowledge sets. Like, growing up in school, I paid close attention to writing feedback from my teachers, and I’d rewrite or make mental corrections based on their feedback. I’d put writing in quadrant 1. I’d put math and algebra there, too. But when teachers of similar high quality would try to teach me science or social studies, yeah, they didn’t have a prayer of infiltrating my brain with their knowledge. And I’ve just always known that those subjects and some other topics (car mechanics, visualizing maps, how the different branches of government works, et al) are never going to take up much residence in my brain. I’ve spent my whole life just owning the huge pile of stuff in quadrant 3.

    When something comes up in quadrant 4, and I’m like, “What the heck are you talking about? I’ve never heard of that!” It’s freaky. I always wonder if everyone else has always known of it, and I’ve been oddly in the dark. Another weird example of this (sort of) is when I watch Wheel of Fortune with my dad, and the bonus puzzle at the end is a phrase that I’ve never spoken aloud, which irritates me, because how can it be solved by the contestant when no one says it? Like, okay, “Nothing to quibble about.” Who says that? I don’t know if it’s antiquated, or what, but it seems sort of quadrant 4-ish because I’ve gone my whole life without having said it. But, anyway. Very interesting!! 😮

    1. I think pretty much everyone has more in their quadrant 4 than any other quadrant. But it’s interesting how different people manage to pick up different tidbits of knowledge as they go through life, even aside from differences in education.

  11. We see a general tendency of people to underestimate that pretty much everything that is known has an expert in it. So when we hear people making pronouncements about covid masking or infectious disease, we can hear they are in the opinion realm and not engaging with expertise or acknowledging their own knowledge gap. The PhD/MD who is making the health recommendations could still be wrong, but we’re taking their advice over dumb-ass who uses their own logic and experience.

  12. I’ll refer to part of your comment: “To put a religious spin on it, it’s sort of like the fundamental flaw in someone thinking that the knowledge they’ve accumulated comes anywhere even remotely close to to the amount of knowledge that’s known by an omniscient God. There’s value in recognizing that we are small compared to that kind of vastness.”

    This is also reminding me of the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby a person thinks they know something they don’t know, because they’re not aware that they’re unaware of something; specifically, how little they know. I think your Quadrant Two expresses the flip-side of this, whereby a person is unaware that they actually DO know more than they think they know.

    I find myself often having thought that the people around me know more than I do. I’m not quick to believe another person is stupid or ignorant, largely because I think: “They can’t possibly be that unaware.” But a lot of the time, they ARE that unaware. It’s just that I am unaware how unaware they are.

    Well, this is something of a linguistic labyrinth. An omniscient deity or Universal Mind would theoretically know ALL things — that which I know, that which they know, and what neither of us knows the other knows or does not know. Maybe this is why faith is part of the religious equation. One cannot possibly attain to the vastness of infinite knowledge possessed by the omniscient. So one takes what Kierkegaard called the “leap of faith” at some point, and begins to act according to what seems 99% true, despite the 1% possibility of error. Life is far too short to attain to total knowledge; and were we to seek it in full, we probably would not take any action at all.

    I do like your logic.

    1. On a conscious level, I tend to think that there are a lot of people who don’t know very much, but on a cognitive bias level, I can get caught in the trap of the curse of knowledge, and assume people have some of the same background info that I do.

      Interesting point that if we were to seek total knowledge, we probably wouldn’t take any action at all; I agree.

      1. To your first paragraph, some of this relates to Hanlon’s Razor. The saw, “never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity” is most applicable to people who are so intelligent, they have a hard time believing that others don’t share their knowledge base. They don’t realize how intelligent or knowledgeable they are in comparison to the norm. So they tend to explain other’s baffling statements in the direction of maliciousness or deceit, when in reality they are more accurately explained by ignorance.

        To your second paragraph, I think this is the case because the Total Base of Knoiwledge, if not infinite, is so vast that we human seekers of knowledge could never attain to it. And if we fix our priority on the accumulation of knowledge, it will eventually take precedence over the need to take action.

        In my opinion (as earlier stated) that’s why faith is essential — at least at some stage. Faith in “what” is another question.

            1. I still am not convinced it’s one of the classic razors. I knew of Occam’s Razor and Hanlon’s Razor, and I knew there were a number of others from that period. I might want to check a more authoritative source, as the descriptions seem very approximate. (It was a quick google search, as I was out the door.)

            2. I took a quick look and couldn’t get a clear answer on whether it’s a razor, but the duck test is recognized as a form of abductive reasoning.

  13. I think one of the things that separates me from my Dad is that I’m much more aware of what I don’t know… while he legitimately has declared himself an expert in whatever topic anyone could talk about with him (he’s also quite narcissistic).

    It can be pretty ridiculous when my younger brother (degree in chemistry) schools him on chemistry, because he’ll legitimately argue even when he is clearly getting “basic” science concepts wrong while insisting he’s right… until my younger brother asks him who has the chemistry degree and tells him exactly why he’s wrong. Then he shuts up but not before making some stupid last comment to get the final word in.

    I’m fine knowing I’m more ignorant than I am aware of, and I’m a curious person who likes to learn… so I get excited when people bring up quadrant 4 things unless they’re being condescending to me about it

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