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Episode 31 — What You Don’t Know You Don’t Know

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There’s what you know, what you don’t know…then there’s what you don’t know you don’t know. That third category is the biggest and it’s the one where all the fun stuff is. So how do you get into that third expanse and make effective use of it? We’re going to tackle that in this episode.

Hosted by Bitesize Bio’s own Dr. Nick Oswald featuring Kenneth Vogt of Vera Claritas.

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Nick Oswald

03:35 Hello, and welcome to The Happy Scientist podcast from Bitesize Bio if you want to become a happier, healthier and more productive scientist you’re in the right place. I’m Nick Oswald, the founder of and with me is the driving force of this podcast Mr Kenneth Vogt, my friend, mentor and founder of the coaching company Vera Claritas. Today’s episode is called What you don’t know you don’t know. What is that all about? Ken?

Kenneth Vogt

04:03 Well it’s a little bit of a brain twister at the beginning. Once we describe this I think it’ll become clear to everyone. And then the real mystery will be how do you figure out what you don’t know you don’t know it because that’s where that’s where all of the learning is and that’s where all the creativity comes from and all the imagination so it’s a really vital area, because you can think oh that’s just impossible, so why bother.

04:33 As bio scientists, you are dealing with the impossible on a daily basis, so you better get good at this so we’re going to help you today. So, we’ll start off with the most obvious thing: you know you know you know you’ve worked hard in fact to gain the knowledge that you have, and especially for many of you, with your advanced degrees, you know that. You put a lot of effort into knowing stuff. So, these are things that you’re aware of, and that you understand, because you know there’s the dichotomy of knowledge of the things you might know, but you don’t really don’t really get them.

05:16 But in your case it’s really important that you understand and you’re constantly pushing the envelope on that, there, there are there are limits to our current understanding of many things, and so you are really striving to understand things that that have been uncovered and have been discovered and that’s great and you can make a whole career out of  just that never go beyond that and there’d be nothing wrong with it it’d be fine yeah you you’d be useful, you would enjoy yourself but, but it is quite a bit more limited than and it’s possible for you.

05:55 So the next area of knowledge is the things you know you don’t know so the things you’re aware of, but you’re certain you don’t understand them. And you know, in a more mundane sense, you might be like look I certainly know how to drive a car, but I am certain that I do not know how to fly a 787. You know, knowing what you don’t know can be quite useful and it’ll keep you from getting into trouble. It’ll keep you from doing things that are dangerous or that you just couldn’t succeed at. And there’s nothing wrong with that there, it has not impacted my life one iota that I can’t fly a commercial airline. hey  but I’ve known all my life I couldn’t do it and it’s fine and it does open up the possibility that now that I know I don’t know.

06:47 Why could I choose to know it? I could go out and learn that and I could gain that skill and it doesn’t have to be something that extreme obviously it could be little things. And if you think about all the things and all the skills you’ve developed over time, they’re all things that you learn how to do it, it may have started off where you learned how to walk and you learn how to talk, but you after a while you learn how to use certain equipment in the laboratory. You, and you know things that an average person might not know how to do, and some of them might have been simple will some of them wont.

07:22 Nick and I spent a lot of time with some folks that are expert my craft purpose and yeah, to my mind, you know As somebody was outside of the scientific field, I thought well every scientist uses a microscope They must all be experts at it boy, did I find out no not so it’s a it’s quite a thing to be a true microscopy expert well for most of you are scientists, you know you’re not that. And so, what do you do in a situation like that well you go to two experts when you need assistance with that. When you need to really push the envelope on the equipment you’re using or the message that that you’re putting into practice, you go to experts to get help.

08:06 So this leaves the final area of knowledge, what you don’t know you don’t know and it’s I can’t give you an example for that, because the moment I give you an example, well then, it’s something you know you don’t know. And so, you have to look at that and think that’s tough, but we all know that there are things that we’re not aware of, and sometimes we know that we’re not aware of things, but often we don’t know.

Nick Oswald

08:38 And I’ve got an example Ken. An example from the history of biology, which I think is an example of what you’re talking about here, I hope it is anyway. Right, so back in the mists of time last century, when I was an undergrad we were taught that every on the genome. There were genes and then everything in between the genes was junk DNA was dismissed as junk DNA and that was, there was no question of that struck me at that point, there was no question of you know that being or the attitude was it there was no question of that actually being anything other than junk. But actually, since then we’ve discovered that there’s a whole range of functions that we didn’t know about that, many of which are very important for understanding of biology, but also for disease, treatment and things like that so at that time we didn’t we didn’t know that we didn’t know that that stuff was important.

09:58 And, in a way, as it comes back to that one thing that we talked about quite a lot is humility about realizing that just because you don’t know what something is doesn’t mean that it’s nothing if you see what I mean. You must be open to the fact that it could be something other than what you think it is with the information that you have.

Kenneth Vogt

10:23 Right and what you don’t know you don’t know kind of breaks down into two categories and that’s kind of the first one, that is, that is, that something you understand, but you’re not aware of, in other words you knew there were genes there, there were things in between those genes. You knew something was there, but you assume they didn’t, they didn’t have any value, well it can’t be.

10:47 It can’t be that way we’ve come to. Come to learn, I mean I’m speaking as a neophyte here, but I’ve heard stories about this, but it began with you, you least you saw something. But there’s other stuff you just plain didn’t see and you know I remember, there was a time not that long ago. When we didn’t even know there were any genes and, by the way, every one of us who’s on the spot and listen to this podcast every one of you, there was a time when you didn’t know about genes. You had to learn that somebody had to have to open your eyes to that as a concept even, and, at the beginning, maybe they told you about it and you only had the fuzziest understanding of what that means and kind of like my present understanding of it. You know, I have a vague idea what a gene is all about, but you know, not to the extent that any of you do because you’ve dug in that much deeper and so that’s part of what happens here yeah you have to take a look at knowledge and kind of and see where you stand in relation to it.

11:57 So I want to give you a kind of a landscape for knowledge, just a way to think about this so that I’m going to  break it into four groups, what are called the known knowns. The unknown knowns. The known unknowns and the unknown unknowns.

12:16 So to think about them. Know knowns that’s just knowledge that’s just the stuff that we would typically think of as now and more personally, we can think about it now, there will be things that we’re aware are known in the world, but we don’t know about. So, and that might be part of what’s in the unknown unknowns So, in the case of unknown unknowns the impact is unknown, but the existence is no so think of it as untapped analogy And we meet analogy you haven’t yet access, you know it’s there, though, and maybe it’s in that in that paper you know you should be reading or it’s in a conversation with a more experienced colleague, but there’s a there’s an unknown known up there. Well then, about these things that you like but you’re talking about Nick, that there are a moment ago, known unknowns, these are the areas of risks.

13:13 If we just stuck with that assumption that all that’s just junk DNA how much would have been lost, how much has how much have we grown since we wouldn’t accept that notion of this is just junk and more study was put in more effort was made and then finally these unknown unknowns, these are the unfathomable uncertainties, we did we just well that’s where all the juices, this is where discovery comes from this is where creativity comes from. You know it’s not much of a discovery for you to go to textbook and learn something you didn’t know before it was it was right there in the book, you know and it’s not even that much of a discovery to my I don’t want to take away from discovery of things like what this supposedly junk DNA is all about, because I mean it’s still meaningful, but first discovering that there was this thing that would they label junk DNA.

14:19 That was a huge step forward and you may think it’s a huge first step, you think if that’s a step forward, all we do is get to a place where we don’t know anything, yes, but it is critical to know what you don’t know that that is where all the opportunity lies. So, I’m going to pause there for a second and let that sink in there, Nick and see if you have anything more to say about it.

Nick Oswald

14:47 Well, I think that the only thing I’d say as well, the main thing that I would say is that to check the show notes, if that is confusing, because we have that landscape of knowledge mapped out in the show notes the known knowns unknown knowns known unknowns and unknown knowns so that’s so.

Nick Oswald

15:13 so if we’re looking at discovery, you know, this being I guess that the main take home from this is to be aware that the kind of the world can be divided into that into those four sections really or the all of the possible knowledge can be divided into those four sections and just to be aware of that, I guess that would be the first step, because then you that gives you the humility to say Okay, you know to be aware that there are things that you that you don’t know. Which is the first step on the path to investigating them and then uncovering what is actually going on there.

Kenneth Vogt

16:00 yeah, I’ve noticed Nick that in quite a few episodes you’ve explicitly referenced humility and it’s becoming kind of a theme for the podcast because it’s such a critical component to being a successful and happy scientist. it’s if you’re just not going to get anywhere if you think you know everything.

Nick Oswald

16:20 yeah that’s the thing is that in a way, the less you can assume. The easier your life is in a way, because the more open you are, the less you’ll path yourself.

Kenneth Vogt

16:33If the less you assume the more you will see.

Nick Oswald

16:36 well That is real that’s a great way to look at it yeah.

Kenneth Vogt

16:39 yeah we’ve all done that, because we think something is a certain way that’s how we see it and whether that’s literally about a site or about experiences, you know. That we’re having with other people, or it is so easy to cut yourself off from things that you’re actually getting input from but you’re blocking the input. You won’t hear it, you won’t see it, you know you won’t feel it and it all comes down to you, setting up preconceived notions about how things are. So to know what you know is pretty easy, and you know what you know that we didn’t there isn’t even a barrier there and to know what you don’t know that’s also pretty easy you’re that you’re very clear on that and so the question is how do you see something we don’t even know it’s there because that you are here, we are telling you about how important it is.

17:37  To grasp what you don’t know you don’t know and you’re going yeah great you just told me I can’t know it, so how am I supposed to know about what I don’t know you know, in that, in that setting so there’s a way to do this so I’m going to give you I’m going to give you the tools so that you can become aware of what you don’t know you don’t know I don’t want to start off by telling a tale about myself. One I’m not proud of and yeah like many of you, I was a precocious little child and I was good in school, and I really liked math and I was good at it and I couldn’t understand why the kids complained about math but how they hated it so hard. Just to me it was just so obvious, and it was so orderly and beautiful and I just thought that was fantastic.

18:39 And then I got I got place to do an advanced math class I’m I was placed in algebra your earlier than it would have been typical in my school system and I’m so excited this is going to be awesome and I’m going to be great at this and the teacher starts off and she starts talking about formulas with letters not just numbers And I didn’t get it, she gave that first lecture at the end of that class I was like a deer in the headlights I did not understand what this X was. X equals 2 how can X equal to it’s in the alphabet you know I just I just couldn’t get it, and it was so here was this thing that I didn’t know I didn’t know I’d never even heard this concept before. And I walked out of that class scared that ah no this is, this is the moment where my identity is this this smart kid who gets math was all over, and I was in the class, you know for the other advanced kids and they were getting into least so it appeared to me.

19:53 I thought I’m doomed but I don’t know what happened, I went home that night scared I went to sleep and I woke up and I understood it. I woke up and I got it.

20:08 Part of it was I had this compelling need to get it, it really mattered me So that’s one of the things that it starts out being you need to be committed to being able to see the things you don’t know that you don’t know. You got to make conscious choices that way now in my case, the conscious choice was made from a fairly weak position, I was afraid to not get it. But I could have come from a much more powerful position of being excited to learn and where I was going to reach out for it, but you know get there, whatever way you got to right.

20:45 If you’re being motivated by moving away from something you know I don’t want to be the guy that doesn’t understand this. Okay use that better yet, though, if you can be excited about I want to be the person that gets it I want to be. I want to be a discover, I want to be an explorer, I want to learn things that nobody’s even thought to learn before.

21:11 And you have so many great examples in bio science for this you’ve had so many go before you you’ve got great possibilities. For heroes and mentors, you know nice when I say heroes, I mean you know that might be some of the people that have made great discoveries, you know Louis Pasteur or and you know that l, but you can have mentors that are there right in your lap right now. They can be professors you’ve had in the past, they can be fellow students that you came up with that just you know really have the spark. So, make use of those people to help you and, and so you know to do that, you got to commit to the idea I’m going to explore what I don’t know I don’t know. Anything you want to weigh in there on Nick?

Nick Oswald

22:03 Nothing specific is coming to mind, but I think that yeah, I think you’re on the right path and I’m looking at the rest of your notes.

Kenneth Vogt

22:12 Okay, let me go to this and feel free to interrupt me. So, the next one, I want to make is beyond commitment if you trust that you’re headed in the direction of new knowledge. Give yourself that opportunity you don’t have to even see any signs of it. That’s kind of the point, how many times have you learned something where it just like it came to you in a flash. Or you had an intuition or a hunch, these are not uncommon experiences and yeah they are, they are wholly rational no they’re not well guess what we’re not wholly rational.

22:53 Now I’m not I’m not advocating irrationality here, but I am pointing out that rationality is limited. It only takes you so far so don’t be afraid to go beyond rationality, go a little further and trust that there’s going to be something there to find now. I’m not saying that every time that you look under a rock you’re going to see something that’s not true. But what the one thing that is going to happen is you keep looking into rocks you’re going to see things.

23:20 So trust that there are things out there to learn, and there are things out there, that you will find you know that it’s not just that they’re out there you’re going to, you’re going to run across them if you continue to make the effort. The power that trust is to have curiosity, to have that curiosity is going to give you the energy to keep experiencing things that are out there and keep trying new things.

23:54 And again, we can go all the way back to childhood we’ve been doing this, our whole lives you wouldn’t know how to do anything if you hadn’t been curious about something and I suspect that for the for the kind of folks that end up as PhD bio-scientists curiosity is probably been a regular part of your life, up until now. You know their whole groups of other people that I would say, you know you can’t guarantee that curiosities can be much of a factor there, but I think with this crowd yes curiosity is pretty Naturally there, so tap into that and expand on it, you already know how to do it, so be really good at it and if you if you don’t think you’re really good at it get better at it and it’s just it’s a matter of practice, you know, putting your time in and you’ll be more curious and just always be looking for one more thing, what else can I learn here, what else could I know here now, what else is possible And then finally another thing to consider is the idea of freedom and that is that you’re free to see things you’re free to learn things and experience new things you’re free to experience something new and unexpected.

25:13 I realized that it can be useful for things to be orderly and, in some cases it’s practically necessary and, in some cases for what you’re doing it’s a matter of safety that things be reliable, but you know what, new and unexpected things happen, sometimes your entire experiment just dies. In and wow that’s horrible right except there may be something really important to learn there and that that gives you the opportunity then to see something you didn’t know you didn’t know and I mean I can’t undervalue freedom be free and what you’re doing because you’re the ones on the cutting edge for me sitting here behind my computer I can’t I can’t even see where you are.

26:05 You talk about what I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know what I don’t know about what you guys are doing on a regular daily basis and it’s fantastic that you’re doing it otherwise I’d have to do it and I just don’t have time I’m doing other things, but you know, the same thing is happening here, you know the things that we’re talking about in this podcast you probably don’t have. In many cases, put a lot of thought into some of these things well. That’s why we have this podcast to introduce these things to you to let you know about some things you don’t know you don’t know. Because you may never, never consider them before, and for good reason you’ve been busy with other things. This is my admission. So, any further thoughts Nick ?

Nick Oswald

26:52 yeah, so I think if you just take it back to the level of just talking about you can apply this to all different things. Apply this viewpoint, all different areas of your life, but just taking it into the area of your job as a scientific discovery if that’s what you’re if you’re if you’re a researcher and the moment. Just again this isn’t This is, as you said, this is becoming a theme on this podcast but for me you’re looking at these. You know, forcing these qualities and yourself to trust curiosity and freedom to be open to explore what’s happening in front of you, rather than just assuming and being pathed.

27:32 And, and the context of discovery that’s you know more than just you know it’s a very important thing for me the pivot or curiosity and trust, because what we often see or what I’ve often seen in science is this whole thing about chasing results about going for result you’re tamping down the curiosity, because you don’t trust that the work you’re doing is going to take you where you wanted to really wanted to, and where, will you need to get to get to the next milestone, the next paper or the next funding or whatever, and so you sacrifice curiosity and freedom for what feels like more security in terms of trying to get the result that you need.

28:24 But if you can just open that up and be aware of that, although that you’re trying, you know you would like a specific result to happen if you can sit back and say well be open to another result, and that would just take you on a different path, then that is much more pristine discovery than this kind of trying to force results.

Kenneth Vogt

28:45 Right and this takes us back to episode one and two of this podcast the first episode was talking about the human needs of certain date which may speak to a lot of you all just automatically like yes, I love that, but the second human eaters variety and variety, is the place where you get into these, these unknowns.

Nick Oswald

29:09 yeah, I mean that’s the thing you’re an explorer so explore don’t try and you know, make the past before they are actually defined in front of you, even if you think they are.

Kenneth Vogt

29:19 Right and, as you noted a moment ago, Nick to this applies in your whole life, and I think back to something use an example for me I love sushi But I’m a white boy from the Midwest How would I have ever had sushi well I moved to California and I saw the sushi restaurants around And, of course, of course, being you know I proud Wisconsin boys like what who would eat raw fish that’s crazy, you are doing such a thing well so for years I didn’t try it and, but I just kept seen in thing I got to know I got to know I got it what is it that did it it’s so exciting to people and I thought well I’m going to go in one time, when I have a terrible experience. I’m going to waste money and then at least be able to say, I know, and I won’t care anymore, and I liked it.

30:14 Then I thought on a bring my kids and my kids were little you know what like five, six years old and I thought ah they’re going to hate it, you know my son sat at that sushi counter And he looked at those fishing, you know the things laying in the corner and he saw the octopus and it’s basically a tentacle was suckers on it and he’s like I want that. He wasn’t afraid to try something new and I thought man, if I had had this attitude five years earlier, I would have been enjoying sushi that much longer. This applies across the board in your life applied in work for sure, but then spread it out and rest of your life too and you’ll find it gets easier everywhere, once you start implementing this curiosity and freedom in the world.

Nick Oswald

31:05 It’s definitely interesting when you look at what limitations you place on yourself by just assuming that you can’t do this or that you are this or whatever, if you can dissolve that, then you can open some.

Nick Oswald

31:24 Okay yeah, another interesting and useful way to look at the world Ken Thank you very much.

Kenneth Vogt

31:30 All right, thank you.

Nick Oswald

31:31 So if you enjoyed the episode today, and you want more you know you can find more of the stuff on and on Facebook  at and Ken mentioned earlier the episodes 1-9. we’re talking about human needs, and so on. Well if you go back to episode one to nine in fact contain a lot of foundational principles that if you haven’t listened to them already it’s worth going back and listen to those, please let us know what you thought by joining us on Facebook that happy scientists club and let us know what you thought, let us know how you feel that applies to you or doesn’t and any questions that you might have the rice as well, so that just leave us me to thank you again for another great episode Ken.

Nick Oswald

32:29 Thanks to everyone for listening in and we’ll see you again next time.

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