How don’t you know what you don’t know?!

True story: when I was a graduate student, I supervised a sort of mini-lab of undergraduates. For reasons that are completely opaque to me know but I’m sure made a lot of sense then, one of these students told me and my partner how his father would be like (and please read the following in a hilarious dad voice, which is how the student said it to us): How do you know what you know!? Of course this turned into a classic line for us and, not infrequently, my partner or I would turn to the other and demand (in all an all-caps voice): HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU KNOW! We dropped the question mark because, really, it obviously was intended to be a claim, or maybe an interrogation. Anyway, one day, I mentioned the line back to the student who was like: Huh? and also: That never happened and my dad never said that. But my partner and I have distinct memories of him telling us this. How do WE know what HE doesn’t know! Could he have unknown what he knew? Could we know something that isn’t? Were we in some secret dastardly psychology experiment about memory and truth given that we were, after all, in a psychology department at the time? How did WE know what we knew?! Anyway, the story above is useful in three ways. (1) It gives us the awesome question-slash-interrogation

How do you know what you know?!

(2) It also gives us an example of competing knowledge claims. We knew he told us his dad said it, but he “knew” his dad didn’t and that he never told us he did. I put irony marks around his ‘knew’ because it’s important to cast doubt on other people’s authority in competing knowledge claims, and I learned that in the book of rules.

And (3) it’s also a good anecdote to lead to what all the cool kids are talking about: epistemologies of ignorance. And also awkward surpluses. Trust me, this is going to give you words for things.

So, let’s be honest, I could have also started with Donald Rumsfeld because that’s where all feminist philosophy of science starts AMIRIGHT!? More because he said this in 2002 (which I personally recall and Wikipedia also says is true):

Reports that say there’s — that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that 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. (fuscia mine ALL MINE!)

You can tell he's knowing all your knowns right now.

You can tell he’s knowing all your knowns right now. (from Wired)

Everyone laughed then, but they should have been careful because isn’t he the one who shoots his friends on camping trips? I, personally, recommend caution around friend-shooters. For example, instead of laughing like this HAHAHAHAHA, try ha ha; just saying. (OK, I know it was Dick Cheney who did that but allow me some fictional leeway here.) Actually, what he said was actually really interesting (I pass my proclamation). Good old Rummy was like: there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Let’s finish that 2×2 and include unknown knowns. Am I just throwing words together? NO. Here’s why:

Known Knowns = How we know what we know? = epistemology

Epistemology is about different ways of authoritative knowing, like how knowledge comes to be accepted as knowledge, and how different ways of getting knowledge get slotted into different disciplines. HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU KNOW! SO FAR SO GOOD!

Unknown Unknowns= How don’t we know what we don’t know? = epistemology of ignorance

The exact opposite of known knowns is unknown unknowns. I mean, really, there are like a million things you don’t know; why? Maybe some things are just unknowable, like why milkshakes are so boss. But some things? It seems like we could know them. Like, hey, in France they don’t collect statistics on race/ethnicity, so no one can really measure state-wide discrimination by minority ethnic/racial status. BUT THEY COULD. They don’t know about rates of ethnic/racial discrimination because they don’t collect the stats. That’s how they don’t know what they don’t know. I just happen to like that factoid (I hope it’s still a true one) and I’m not picking on France because j’adore les baguettes.

Do you want to read more about feminist epistemology of ignorance? WHO DOESN’T? (That’s kind of a pun!) Try these great articles by Nancy Tuana (on topics near and dear to my sex researcher heart):

Known Unknowns = How do we know what we don’t know? = epistemology of ignorance

This is kind of another opposite of known knowns, and another way to think about epistemologies of ignorance. Like: think about the France example (with melted brie soooo goooood). I was a bit tricky up there because the rates of ethnic/racial discrimination are unknown in France, but are they known to be unknown? Or unknown to be unknown? Obviously, for us to discuss an unknown, someone’s gotta have an idea about it. But is it an unknown to the majority of people for whom it would be relevant? You could argue that the lack of French stats on ethnic/racial discrimination might be a known unknown to those who are discriminated against (they certainly know there is a lack of information that could be important and useful about their experiences) and an unknown unknown to the people in power who just happen to not see these things are worth knowing (like, one could not even have the idea in one’s head about it, so it’s not a debate about whether to measure these stats, it’s just a not-there issue). Anyway, the known unknowns are basically things we might want to know (or not) but don’t. They are gaps in knowledge we know exist, unlike gaps the majority of us don’t see. Known unknowns are like discomfort with the knowledge status quo, whereas unknown unknowns are like status quo is all we need.

Unknown Knowns =  How don’t we know what we know? = awkward surplus

I like unknown knowns a lot because I see a lot of academic work that exists in this space. You know that paper that shows that thing that kind of calls into question what everyone’s doing? And you know how everyone knows about that paper but ignores it? That’s because that paper exists in the land of awkward surplus (not quite as delicious as the land of Dairy Queen (R), to be honest). Awkward surplus is like that weird fourth cousin thrice removed who you just wish would disappear at your family event. It’s like the one bad book your favorite author wrote. It’s like when I was in grade 2 and realized that people could see, from behind, everyone’s bums wiggle when they walked, which was definitely Really Embarrassing! and Not Okay! such that I decided I had to drop that knowledge immediately from my mind in order to live. It’s like you have a little box to put papers and books and pieces of knowledge in when you don’t want to pay attention to them. You close that box and put it far away, in the corner of your attic and let spiders spin cobwebs around it and maybe cast a curse on the box too, while you’re at it, but that part is optional. You don’t deny the knowledge. You don’t debate it. You don’t even disbelieve it. You just ignore it. It’s so awkward! It’s wearing plaid pants! Can’t it just go away if you  close your eyes and go lalalala?!

Do you want to read more about awkward surpluses? You’d rather not know? Ha ha, another pun. Anyway, I highly recommend this great piece by Joan Fujimura, again about some topics I love (Love All The Topics!):

Bonus! Unknown Knowns = How do we come to unknow what we once knew? = epistemology of ignorance

I think there are two ways to have unknown knowns. One is the above (awkward surpluses) which is more about how we don’t know things we know now. But we could also think about how we don’t know things we once knew. Like, you know those things you learn randomly, like, say, people used to pickle watermelon rinds?! WHO KNEW THAT! I mean, people who pickled watermelon rinds, OBVIOUSLY, but um, since then, like now, who knew?! Or, people used to know that it was good for women to move around during labor but medical science largely is like: staying still is the bestest way to have a baby since pickled watermelons. And, now, everyone’s like: wait! Remember the moving?! That was better apparently! And when I say ‘everyone’ I mean mostly ‘midwives’, but without the irony quotes because midwives are awesome (full disclosure: I’m not a midwife but one of them helped a baby out of my vagina) (full disclosure: I will mention that I have a vagina in this post) (full disclosure: that disclosure was too late). Why are there pieces of knowledge we now think to be true and thought were true originally, but somehow got erased in between? How do pieces of knowledge that have truth to them become fully out of the scope of what most knowers know now? Good thing there is epistemology of ignorance! Otherwise we’d never know. Another pun!

I like this article by Londa Schiebinger about the topic (and, full disclosure, I don’t think it’s a difficult read intellectually, but I found it difficult emotionally because it covers some gruesome but important colonial medical history among slaveholder treatment of various slave groups):

I also like this article by Vandana Shiva about indigenous people’s landcare practices versus those of colonizers:

The end!

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1 Response

  1. Stacey Ritz says:

    Sari, can you just write about ALL THE THINGS? From now on, whenever I want to know something I didn’t know before, I want to read it AS WRITTEN BY SARI. And even the things I already know, I want to know again AS WRITTEN BY SARI because they’re more hilarious and fun that way.

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