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Known Unknowns vs Unknown Unknowns: Two Sides of Ignorance

Known Unknowns vs Unknown Unknowns: Two Sides of Ignorance
Studies show that we are actually quite ignorant when it comes to everyday things. This is where known unknowns and unknown unknowns come into play.


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Known unknowns and unknown unknowns

Known unknowns and unknown unknowns
  • Known unknowns are the things we know we don’t know about (space travel, brain surgery, etc.) We can learn anytime about them but we’re not really expected to know about them.
  • Unknown unknowns are the things we think we should know about, but we actually don’t (how a bicycle works or what makes a toilet flush). These are common, everyday things we take for granted and assume we know how they function.



Illusion of explanatory depth

We think understand complex phenomena with far greater precision and depth than we rally do. We are are subject to an illusion.

Believing we know more than we actually do can lead us to prejudice without us even knowing.


The ignorance of our own ignorance

The main reason for the ignorance of our own ignorance is that we don’t need to know how everyday things work. They just do. We are used to seeing them wherever we go.


Sharing knowledge makes us think we are smart

Immediate access to knowledge makes us all feel like experts, when in reality we're not. And we certainly don’t consider ourselves to be stupid when we can research anything.

But it’s not just the rapid access to information that makes us fall for the Illusion of Explanatory Depth, it’s the way we consume this information.


Superficial information consumption

We browse the top of news items, we choose clickbait-y headlines and we allow tweets to inform us of global political moves. We tap into viral videos, we listen to soundbites and agree with memes.

This is a superficial way of ingesting knowledge. We never really deep dive into a topic. As a result, we know a lot of stuff, but not in that much detail: we know a little bit about a lot.



Science providing anwers

Science providing anwers

Despite the advances in science over the past century, our understanding of nature is still limited. Scientists still don't know what the vast majority of the universe is made up of or how cons...

Mysterian arguments

"Mysterian" thinkers give an important role to biological arguments and analogies.

Late philosopher Jerry Fodor argued that there are bound to be thoughts we are unable to think. Similarly, philosopher Colin McGinn claimed that all minds suffer from "cognitive closure" about particular problems. Just as animals will never understand prime numbers, so human brains are unable to consider some of the world's wonders.

Mysterians and pessimism

Mysterians present the question of cognitive limits in fixed terms: either we can solve a problem, or we will never be able to.

A possibility that eludes mysterians is one of slowly diminishing returns. We keep slowing down, even as we exert more effort, and there is no point where progress becomes impossible.

Win the black belt in political argument

  • People think emotionally, so forget facts
  • When people are asked to explain their beliefs about how a given thing works, they’ll actually become less confident...

Antilibrary: the power of unread books

Antilibrary: the power of unread books

An antilibrary is a private collection of mostly unread books. It is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool.

It should contain a collection of resources aro...

The antilibrary makes us aware of unknown unknowns

The vastness of the unknown can feel overwhelming, which is why people feel uncomfortable with accumulating books they haven't read. But embracing the unknown is what drives discovery.

The antilibrary is then a reminder of everything we don't know. Being surrounded by books we haven't read yet reminds us how limited our knowledge is - it is a humbling experience.

How to maintain an antilibrary

  • Make notes of all relevant references. When an author mentions another book, make a note of the exact reference, then research it. In the process, you will discover books that genuinely piques your curiosity that can be added to your antilibrary.
  • Ask fellow readers for recommendations.
  • Allow for chance discoveries. Ensure you leave space for interesting books that you randomly bought because the title or cover grabbed your attention.
  • Do not expect the proportion of unread books to decrease. The more you read, the more unread books will be added to your antilibrary.
  • Improve your relationship with knowledge. Your antilibrary may feel a bit anxiety-inducing. Remember that knowledge is a process, not a possession. An antilibrary is an investment in yourself.