What we don't know

In February 2002, at the height of media speculation over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld made the following statement:

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones".

To some it was a clever statement that encapsulated the confusion and lack of certainty of the situation, while for others it was simply the worst kind of political doublespeak, verging on absurdity. Regardless of the judgement on Rumsfeld's rhetoric, it serves to illustrate an important point about knowledge - that there are many things we don't know, and there are even more things that we are unaware we don't know. The quest for knowledge is a never ending human endeavour, because ignorance is dangerous. Without adequate knowledge we are unprepared for life, fail to capitalise on opportunities when they arise, and there may even be fatal consequences. That is why it is so important for all of us to share what we know and share it freely on social media. As I have previously opined, knowledge is also continuously changing, sometimes on a daily basis as scientific breakthroughs and new data bring fresh insights. The amount of new knowledge generated on the Web alone is staggering beyond belief.

It's actually quite easy to list what know we don't know - there are many websites detailing many of the areas of knowledge in which we are lacking. Cosmology is replete with such unanswered questions: How, for example, do we explain gravity? Why is the sun 400 times larger than the moon and 400 times further away, thus appearing to be exactly the same size and producing perfect solar eclipses every time? Is there life on other planets? How large is the universe... and how did it all begin? Here are five more questions that might keep physicists awake at night. There are many theories, but no definitive answers. Psychology also has many unanswered questions, such as how memory and recall works, or what functions certain areas of the human brain perform. Again, there are many theories, but we lack definitive answers.

It's challenging enough that we are aware of many questions that have no answers, but the most frightening aspect of life is that there are many things we don't know we don't know. We can't begin thinking about them, because they haven't yet emerged into existence and therefore we are yet to be aware of them. We don't know what problems we will meet in the future because the future is imaginary. How can we prepare for this? It has been said that 'what you don't know, won't hurt you,' but the thousands of people who lost their lives during the Asian earthquake and tsunami on December 26, 2004 would disagree if they still had voices. The early warning systems now operational in many ocean locations around the world might have saved many lives if they had been in place in 2004. Ignorance can indeed be dangerous, and that is the reason why education is so vitally important.

What you don't know will hurt you if it takes you by surprise. The future is uncertain, and will present challenges to future generations we haven't even begun to conceive. Preparation for the future should therefore be a prime function of all schools. Students who are aware that there are many things they don't know, tend to be good learners. Those who actively seek to discover the things they don't know become great learners. Students who seek to understand what is yet to be understood will find themselves well ahead of the field.

Image from Pixabay

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What we don't know by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Comments

Anonymous said…
great post seconded!

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