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

modified Johari window of knowledge: from what you know to 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.

Quadrants of knowledge

There are several different ways in which we relate to the potential knowledge that’s out there in the world. This can be seen in the modified Johari window diagram 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. However, because of confirmation bias, we’re more likely to seek out information that’s consistent with what we already know (in quadrant one).

It seems pretty common for people to underestimate how big that fourth quadrant is. That 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). The Dunning-Kruger effect is a type of cognitive bias that makes it likely that people who know the least about a subject will assume their knowledge/competence is much higher than it actually is.

This can also happen when people know some technical jargon from a particular field and assume that knowledge adequately represents what is known about the field. A good example is when proponents of the law of attraction assume that knowing a bit of 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.

Expanding quadrant III

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 biochemistry 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, microbiology, 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.

We can’t know everything

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…

meme with an image of book spines: a book a day keeps the stupidity away
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57 thoughts on “The Importance of What We Don’t Know We Don’t Know”

  1. 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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