Unknown Knowns?

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.Donald Rumsfeld, 12 February 2002. Emphasis added.

I’ve loved the above quote from Donald Rumsfeld for a long time. It hits you hard like a zen koan: upon first hearing it, you think it’s nonsensical, possibly even word salad. But after further reflection, it strikes you as actually quite profound, and even eloquent.

At least that was my response to it. If you responded differently, you might just want to stop reading now, because the rest of this post might not be for you.

Anyway, it’s a quote that I find myself returning to again and again, even 15 years (yikes!) after Rumsfeld first said it. And I thought of it today, when I watched a recent episode of Tom Scott’s Youtube series “Things You Might Not Know.”

Click on this image to go to Things You Might Not Know’s video “You Can Hear The Difference Between Hot and Cold Water”

This video struck me because it made really explicit, to me, the existence of the one category of “unknown” Rumsfeld doesn’t address: there are unknown knowns. To break it down in simple terms, like Donnie did, there are things that we know that we might not even be aware of knowing.

This isn’t exactly earth-shattering news. What I’m talking about is very similar—though subtly different—from the idea of “tacit knowledge” that Michael Polanyi first brought up in his books Personal Knowledge and The Tacit Dimension, first published in the 50s and 60s. Tacit knowledge refers to the idea that there are some things we know that we don’t often explicitly explain or codify,  and for that reason may not know how to adequately explain. Tacit knowledge is often linked to a sense of “know-how,” an operational understanding, a series of techniques and approaches.

Back to the video: the title makes a statement that I initially thought was absurd. You can tell the difference between hot and cold water by listening? How? Why? Huh? I watched the video expecting to gain explicit knowledge, a little “trick,” a “life hack.”

And then the presenter pours water. From two identical pitchers, into two identical mugs. They don’t show it happening, so as not to give you any visual clues. Until the moment the pouring began, I was waiting to hear the trick. I didn’t expect to have any idea which was which. But when I heard the water being poured, I just instinctively knew. One just sounded “cold.” The other sounded “warm.”

I realized that I had encountered something even deeper than “tacit knowledge.” I had discovered, within myself, a piece of tacit knowledge that I wasn’t even aware I possessed. When I read the title, it had actually struck me as absurd. You can’t tell the temperature of water from how it sounds! But there it was. I could. I knew that already, tacitly, without even knowing that I knew it.

There are unknown knowns.