How can we know unknown unknowns?

By Michael Smithson

Michael Smithson
Michael Smithson (biography)

In a 1993 paper, philosopher Ann Kerwin elaborated a view on ignorance that has been summarized in a 2×2 table describing crucial components of metacognition (see figure below). One margin of the table consisted of “knowns” and “unknowns”. The other margin comprised the adjectives “known” and “unknown”. Crosstabulating these produced “known knowns”, “known unknowns”, “unknown knowns”, and unknown unknowns”. The latter two categories have caused some befuddlement. What does it mean to not know what is known, or to not know what is unknown? And how can we convert either of these into their known counterparts?

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Four things everyone should know about ignorance

By Michael Smithson

Michael Smithson (biography)

“Ignorance” is a topic that sprawls across a grand variety of disciplines, professions and problem domains. Many of these domains have their own perspective on the unknown, but these are generally fragmentary and often unconnected from one another. The topic lacks a home. Until fairly recently, it was a neglected topic in the humanities and human sciences.

I first started writing about it in the 1980’s (e.g., my book-length treatment, Ignorance and Uncertainty: Emerging Paradigms), but it wasn’t until 2015 that the properly compiled interdisciplinary Routledge International Handbook on Ignorance Studies (Gross and McGoey 2015) finally appeared.

Given the wide-ranging nature of this topic, here are four things everyone should know about ignorance.

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