Jun 222010
see also: The Four Stages of Competence
  1. Unconscious Incompetence
    The individual neither understands nor knows how to do something, nor recognizes the deficit, nor has a desire to address it.
  2. Conscious Incompetence
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, without yet addressing it.
  3. Conscious Competence
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires a great deal of consciousness or concentration.
  4. Unconscious Competence
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it becomes “second nature” and can be performed easily (often without concentrating too deeply). He or she may or may not be able teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

I commented on an interesting article I read today in the NYTimes about agnosonosia, which is a word that means something like the “disease of not knowing.” I was attracted to the article because I have come across that word before, in a different context of the article, which was about a certain medical condition

The author was struggling with a concept that I find to be very important for intellectuals and I was shocked that the author did not understand this concept. It is the concept of the “unknown unknown.”

Donald Rumsfeld famously commented on it years ago, and the media attacked him. I spent many a debate trying to explain why Rummsfeld’s comment showed great wisdom, and those that mocked him for it showed showed great ignorance. I got a lot of grief about that, but I know I am correct.

This author brings the comment up again because he does not get it. So I tried to explain it to him…


“The author of this article does not seem to understand the difference between “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns. He says…

“The fact that we don’t know something, or don’t bother to ask questions in an attempt to understand things better, does that constitute anything more than laziness on our part?”

“The fact that we don’t know something…” is a description of a known unknown, like the word “ctenoid”or the melting point of beryllium, which the author mentioned. We don’t know these things because we “don’t bother” to know them. These are known unknowns.

Unknown unknowns, on the other hand, are things that fall outside of our worldview completely. We don’t “bother” with unknown unknowns because we did not realize that that we COULD bother with them.

The idea that the recreational Scrabble player has a profound ignorance of the game – that for this person, there are many unknown unknowns – is not based on the fact that he does not know the word “ctenoid.” Ironically, the author’s view that the recreational Scrabble player’s ignorance is only an ignorance of vocabulary is a perfect example of the unknown unknown, for what the recreational Scrabble player and the author of the article don’t know that they don’t know is that proficiency in statistical mathematics, more so than simple proficiency in vocabulary, separates the top pros from the rest of the competition. For example, professionals use a technique called “tile tracking” which helps them make strategic decisions that go far beyond any vocabulary skills.

“By being aware of how many tiles are in play and how many are left, you can have a better idea of how the board will shape up, and you can predict which letters you might draw.”

Recreational Scrabble players like the author of the article know that they have weak vocabulary skills and they know that they are not professional grade Scrabble players, but they do NOT know that studying statistical mathematics is even part of the game. They think the outcome of the game is simply determined by who knows the most vocabulary words.

That, my friends, is a perfect example of the difference between a known unknown (the idea that a weak vocabulary makes for a weak Scrabble player) and an unknown unknown (the idea that weak math skills can prevent you from becoming a pro).

This example also serves to show that the nature of unknown unknowns are such that they live completely outside our “worldview” and their discovery enlarges our perception exponentially. The fact that math is an important tool to the professional Scrabble player enlarges our understanding of the game itself. Unknown unknowns, once discovered, enlarge our perception of reality in ways that known unknowns simply cannot.

And this is why they are so important. To the extent that we cannot even conceive of the existence of the unknown unknown can only limit our ability to enlarge our understanding, and to the extent that intelligent people deny the existence of the unknown unknown, we doom ourselves to the folly of thinking that we can defeat professional Scrabble players simply by studying the dictionary.

There can be no wisdom without the acceptance of the existence of the unknown unknown for nothing else than this does wisdom mean.

 Posted by at 6:20 am

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