·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary

News & Politics

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know, Part 1

— November 29, 2016

In the United States, we allow all adult citizens to register to vote. Sure, there are some other locally relevant requirements, such as not being a convicted felon or establishing residency. There are also informal (wink wink, nudge nudge) requirements, such as being able and willing to jump through the ridiculous hoops necessary in some areas to obtain a “free” Voter ID. While these requirements place a burden on many potential voters, all in all, we allow a great many people the franchise. We trust them to make informed and appropriate decisions about the issues and candidates placed before them, not only for their own interests, but for their communities and the nation as a whole. Of course, this is predicated upon everyone concerned being interested and engaged enough to inform themselves, and on good information being available to all who would choose to do the research. Even more importantly, it requires people to be consciously aware of holes in their knowledge in the first place. Human nature being what it is, though, we don’t know everything, and often, we don’t know what we don’t know.

Life is filled with things we don’t know. While I wouldn’t say that anyone needs to know all the parts of the human body before voting for their Congressional representatives, it was only in 2013 that the anterolateral ligament was discovered. For hundreds of years we’ve been cutting apart and diagramming the human body, and we didn’t realize this part was even there, holding our knee joints together all along. How much else is there, that we don’t know about yet? If we aren’t open to the idea that we still have things to learn, and that the scientific method is the best way we’ve yet come up with in order to reliably discover new facts, will we choose representatives that respect science, funding it for the public good, and acting in accordance with the best knowledge available? More importantly, what will become of policy when roughly half of our citizens vote for anti-science representation?

The universe is full of mysteries. This year, NASA’s Kepler telescope observed an unusual object, the star KIC 8462852 (“Tabby’s Star”) that had irregular and bizarre changes in brightness, both as sudden dips and overall. We don’t know what’s going on out there, but that’s why we fund NASA. More important to policy is the other information NASA provides for us, by studying our planet as a whole. Climate change is not necessarily a linear process; it’s subject to feedback loops and rapid shifts. We need to know as much as possible about the changes taking place on our own planet, and fact-based observations of climate change are absolutely key for making sound decisions for our future. Yet President-elect Trump is set to dump NASA’s “politically correct environmental monitoring.” We don’t know everything we need to know, yet he’s deciding we don’t really need to know it.

One possible cause of KIC 8462852's idiosyncratic dimming is that the light is being partially blocked by a field of disintegrating comets, but really, we don't know. It's only a hypothesis. This artist's conception is courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech, via Wikimedia Commons.
One possible cause of KIC 8462852’s idiosyncratic dimming is that the light is being partially blocked by a field of disintegrating comets, but really, we don’t know. It’s only a hypothesis. This artist’s conception is courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech, via Wikimedia Commons.

Right here on Earth, there’s so much we don’t know about our fellow creatures. Efforts to save the whales have centered mostly on making sure we don’t slaughter all of them, and that maybe we ought to clean up old fishing nets and other waste that obstructs marine life. One recent discovery, however, showed us how ignorant we are about even the biggest animals. Whales have a sort of recognizable culture. Not only do whales live in family groups, much like we do, but different groups of whales in different parts of the world have different ways of doing things. Related families of whales form “clans” use the same “codas” (patterns of vocalizations) which are distinct and different from the codas of whales from other clans. Previously, the assumption had been that whales all over the world lived and “spoke” in pretty much the same way, but now we know that if a whale “culture” is lost, new whales moving into that culture’s former space would probably come in with different knowledge and ways of life not optimized for the new territory. What else is there that we don’t know about whales, and for that matter, all the other life forms hurtling through space with us? It matters, if we want to prioritize biodiversity and promote conservation.

Everything we learn reveals even more that we don’t know.

How we deal with this affects more than just the obvious. I’ll discuss the implications of this situation in Part 2.


The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification
Anatomy of the anterolateral ligament of the knee
“Tabby’s Star” Keeps Getting Stranger
Trump to scrap Nasa climate research in crackdown on ‘politicized science’
The Lost Cultures of Whales

Join the conversation!