Ignorance: Vocabulary and taxonomy

By Michael Smithson

Michael Smithson
Michael Smithson (biography)

How can we better understand ignorance? In the 1980s I proposed the view that ignorance is not simply the absence of knowledge, but is socially constructed and comes in different kinds (Smithson, 1989). Here I present a brief overview of that work, along with some key subsequent developments.

Defining ignorance

Let’s begin with a workable definition of ignorance and then work from there to a taxonomy of types of ignorance. Our definition will have to deal both with simple lack of knowledge but also incorrect ideas. It will also have to deal with the fact that if one is attributing ignorance to someone, the ignoramus may be a different person or oneself.

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Considering uncertainty, awareness and ambiguity as a three-dimensional space

By Fabio Boschetti

Fabio Boschetti (biography)

The concept of unknown unknowns highlights the importance of introspection in assessing knowledge. It suggests that finding our way in the set of known-knowns, known-unknowns, unknown-knowns and unknown-unknowns, reduces to asking:

  1. how uncertain are we? and
  2. how aware are we of uncertainty?

When a problem involves a decision-making team, rather than a single individual, we also need to ask:

  1. how do context and perception affect what we know?

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Yin-yang thinking – A solution to dealing with unknown unknowns?

By Christiane Prange and Alicia Hennig

1. Christiane Prange (biography)
2. Alicia Hennig (biography)

Sometimes, we wonder why decisions in Asia are being made at gargantuan speed. How do Asians deal with uncertainty arising from unknown unknowns? Can yin-yang thinking that is typical for several Asian cultures provide a useful answer?

Let’s look at differences between Asian and Western thinking first. Western people tend to prefer strategic planning with linear extrapolation of things past. The underlying mantra is risk management to buffer the organization and to protect it from harmful consequences for the business. But juxtaposing risk and uncertainty is critical. Under conditions of uncertainty, linearity is at stake and risk management limited.

In several Asian cultures, like China, dealing with high uncertainty and volatility is day-to-day business. The country overall scores comparatively low on the uncertainty avoidance index as illustrated by culture researcher Geert Hofstede (2001).

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