What you Don't Know You Don't Know

>> Monday, June 21, 2010

Read an interesting article today in the NYT (which I like reading, so there) which was discussing people ignorant of their ignorance.

Now before you start scratching your head wondering what I'm talking about, let me explain. Everyone has areas of expertise and incompetence, things they know well and things they don't know. Nothing wrong with that.

For instance, someone might not know all six wives of Henry VIII or why the fact he divorced his first was important. They don't know, but most might know they didn't know. However, there are others who won't have any idea who Henry VIII is or that he had several wives or that his need to throw his first wife over is a big factor in why that so many in North America are protestant. Unless you ask him, he doesn't realize he doesn't know nor likely care why you might think it's important.

There's nothing wrong with that. I know I don't know the proper formula for brick mortar. I also know that, if I decided to build a house by myself, I would have to learn a great deal I don't know (known unknowns) but there are likely dozens of other things I wouldn't even know I didn't know that could ruin what I was trying to do (unknown unknowns) and that I'd be foolish to attempt it without expert help.

The article was focused on these people who don't realize that there's so much they don't know. In the article, they were focused on incompetence/ignorance, people who were clueless about their cluelessness. And we all know folks like that. These are Darwin award winners and crooks too stupid to be believed. And talk show commentators. And, apparently, senators, or at least some of them.

But I don't want to talk about them. There are tons of posts and stories and articles about the chronically clueless. What I want to talk about is the fact that all of us - all of us - have some of these aspects, too, those areas where were are not only ignorant, but that we can't even objectively quantify our ignorance or the implications of our ignorance.

That's one of the things that drives me crazy in the space industry. Too many people think we've figured out all the unknowns, so we can cut our conservatism and safety margins to the bone. I say "nay nay," because I know those margins, those excesses, those versatilities are what kept Apollo 13 from being a tragedy and has saved our spacebuns many a time. Because there are accidents and failings you never even thought of, environments you never considered, aspects you just didn't see coming. (Though it's even more frustrating when people refuse to even address the problems you can readily see - but that's another story).

But it's not just true of space exploration. It's true of engineering and science, of course, but it's true of every day aspects of life. Unexpected illnesses or accidents happen. Jobs are lost. Things you didn't know you didn't know can bite you in the butt.

If we're smart, we not only acknowledge what we don't know, we look for experts where we can and prepare for the worst when there's no one that knows.


  • Jeff King


  • Quadmama

    There is a lot I don't know, and I'm willing to admit it. However, since I know the names of all of Henry's wives and how he "got rid of them" I feel smart. Joking aside, my favorite line in this post is "Things you didn't know you didn't know can bite you in the butt." Couldn't have said it better.

  • Shakespeare

    Every little bit I learn shows me how much I don't know.

    Don't get me started on math. Don't know it. it's one of the few things I don't really want to know, either.

    Now, I really wish I knew a bunch of languages. Fluently. Italian, Russian, Romanian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Greek, Latin...

    And that's only one facet. I know I'll run out of time... but until then, I'll keep learning.

    The greatest problem with the ignorant is not that they don't know, but that they do not wish to know, that they have stopped learning. They live under the delusion that they are ignorant of nothing because they do not like feeling uncomfortable, but denying ignorance only causes them to be complacent, instead of struggling to learn what they cannot yet see.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Yes, Quadmama, I've quite the lyrical gift.

    Shakespeare, I think they were trying to make a distinction between the willfully ignorant and people too clueless to recognize their ignorance. I probably blurred the line by mentioning talk show commentators.

    I think there is a potential difference between the two, but I admit it's hard to be sympathetic to people so certain of their omniscience that they are blind to reason, facts and alternates. Scientists can be prone to this problem - it's why science works so hard to ensure peer review and objective evidence.

  • The Mother

    The infamous Dunning-Kruger effect.

    Interestingly, the other side of being too ignorant to know that you are ignorant is that people who do possess a large amount of expertise in a certain area both: 1) UNDER estimate their own knowledge; and 2) overestimate everyone else's.

    Something to think about as we approach the ignorant--they might actually be even stupider than we think.

  • Stephanie Barr

    But there is a side effect to that last one, The Mother, in that many people who are experts in a particular field assume they have far more knowledge than they do (and give credence to what they have no matter the source far more than they should) in other fields. I see it far too often in my line of work.

  • flit

    the longer I spend in school the more ignorant I feel... there is SOOOOOOOOOOOOOO much that I don't know...and I'm sure there's even more that I don't know I don't know.

  • The Mother

    As you point out, the experts in one field are not experts in another. And so the Dunning-Kruger effect would apply.

    Plus, personality must play its hand. There are asses everywhere.

Post a Comment


Blog Makeover by LadyJava Creations