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We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know, Part 2

— November 30, 2016

In Part 1, I discussed some recent discoveries, such as a portion of human anatomy that is entirely new to science, a mysteriously dimming star, and the culture of whales. Each of these revelations hints at what we don’t know about our world. But does our ignorance matter when it comes to politics and public policy? I would argue that it does.

What we know is dwarfed by what we don’t know, that that includes how we relate to other people. What we see around us might not even look the same to other people, such as those with color blindness. Different information inputs lead to different outputs, different perspectives, and different results, and as the programmers say, “garbage in, garbage out.” But what is “garbage,” in the context of human experience? Is the set of colors observed by a colorblind person any less real than the colors that the rest of us see? Couldn’t this also be a metaphor for why we don’t all have the same opinions and perspectives on, well, anything?

Martian canals depicted by Percival Lowell. This work, considered in the public domain in the United States, is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Martian canals depicted by Percival Lowell. This work, considered in the public domain in the United States, is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

How we perceive the world, coupled with what we don’t know (and maybe think we do) is how we come to conclusions about the nature of reality and our place in it. Consider astronomer Percival Lowell’s observations of the surface of Mars. Looking through his telescope in the early 1900s at a world far different from our own, he saw what appeared to be canals on its surface. It made perfect sense to him that these were the remnants of an extinct civilization. His hypothesis, backed by his sketches, became a trope in science fiction for years. The only problem? There weren’t canals on Mars. What Lowell saw reflected back to him through the lens of his telescope were the blood vessels covering the back of his own eyes. Truly, we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.

When faced with what we don’t know, many people take the immediately face-saving way out by pretending to know about it. Comedian Jimmy Kimmel makes hay of this tendency by asking opinions of people on the street about completely fictional items, such as who they thought won a Presidential debate that didn’t happen yet. It’s completely forgivable to not have seen a political debate or to not possess some other bit of knowledge, but if we are interested in the best possible outcomes for more than just ourselves, we should be more intellectually honest about it.

Lie Witness News – Presidential Debate Edition, courtesy of Jimmy Kimmel Live

Purveyors of fake news have been taking advantage of what we don’t know in order to profit from inciting outrage. There’s a certain quality among many Americans to embrace news and run with it, especially if the story matches their pre-conceived notions and tells them what they desperately want to hear. Jestin Coler, founder and CEO of Disinformation Media, and the man behind some of the notable fake news that was widely shared in social media leading up to the recent presidential election, explains in an NPR interview: “It was just anybody with a blog can get on there and find a big, huge Facebook group of kind of rabid Trump supporters just waiting to eat up this red meat that they’re about to get served.” Coler explained that he also wrote fake news meant to hit liberals right in their confirmation bias, but it really didn’t get off the ground. “You’ll get debunked within the first two comments and then the whole thing just kind of fizzles out.”

I suspect that a major reason people share fake news instead of debunking it and moving on is the sheer confidence that they’re right. People who have some clue about what they don’t know are more careful, perhaps doing some research to confirm that something they’d like to believe is actually true. This is becoming a rare skill nowadays. Researchers from Stanford found that students from middle-school age through high school and college had difficulty evaluating the factual content of information found online. Students failed to check sources, discern between advertisements and news stories, and had low standards for judging credibility. One of Jestin Coler’s fake news stories that appeared on the fake “Denver Guardian” news site could have been debunked easily if readers would have checked at all deeply into the site’s provenance, but adults have many of the same issues as the students in the Stanford study.

In the end, what can we do to cope with the difficulties of navigating through what we don’t know? A sense of humility is a good start. Being able to admit that we don’t know something is important. Nurturing a sense of curiosity in ourselves and in our kids is another step. We don’t have to know about whale cultures in order to elect good representatives, but a wide and deep knowledge base, even about “unnecessary” things, means we’re likelier to have good data to draw upon when we need to make important decisions. Similarly, we might not need to study economics, climate science, foreign relations, world history, and medicine (although they help!) in order to vote, but being able to evaluate how well our leaders know these things is crucial for good government.

What we don’t know can hurt us.

What our representatives and leaders don’t know can hurt all of us. We have to admit our ignorance before we can learn anything, but since there’s a whole lot we don’t know just waiting to be explored, the only thing holding us back is our pride.


This Is How Colorblind People See The World
The Martian Canals of Perception
We Are All Confident Idiots
We Tracked Down A Fake-News Creator In The Suburbs. Here’s What We Learned
Stanford researchers find students have trouble judging the credibility of information online
Toward An Ignorance-Based World View

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