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known unknown

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

A known unknown is information whose existence someone is aware of but does not possess. Known unknowns are what drives many scientific experiments, search engine and database queries, business intelligence (BI) and data analytics, among other channels of inquiry.

The researcher, web searcher or data analyst seeks information that they want and lack: They know what it is they don’t know, and they establish a method to access that information. A search engine query is often designed to find information that the user understands is available, such as how to write a will or bake bread, or what local theatres are showing a particular movie.

Known unknowns can also represent potential risks. In project management, for example, time and cost estimates are inherently uncertain because of factors that are outside of the organization’s control, such as supply chain issues. These are known, in that it is understood that particular events might occur but it is unknown, and often unknowable, whether or not they will. In security, a known unknown might be knowledge that there are current threats to network security but no information about whether they are impacting your network in particular. 

Known unknowns contrast with three other categories of information and comprehension:

A known known is solid information, in your possession and you understand its relevance to you.

An unknown known is information that is in your possession but whose value has not been identified.

An unknown unknown is unidentified information. As former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously expressed it, “There are things we do not know we don’t know.”

This was last updated in February 2019

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