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Curator's rationale


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Wikenigma - an Encyclopedia of Unknowns Wikenigma - an Encyclopedia of the Unknown

Curator’s rationale . . .

The Short Version :

Research projects constantly chip away at the vast unknown. But, for various reasons, not everyone likes to pro-actively publicize details of what we still don’t know. Wikenigma, however, does.

The Long Version :

When I first mooted the idea of Wikenigma, several colleagues pointed out valid, intrinsic, problems.

The first was that, as a general rule, people don’t like uncertainty. For example - someone who’s suffering from a condition that has an unknown cause, and who’s being treated with a drug that works in ways which no-one understands, might not be overly enthusiastic about being informed of all that ( exampleplugin-autotooltip__plain plugin-autotooltip_bigKetamine (treatment for depression)

The use of Ketamine to treat Major Depressive Disorder was formally investigated in a 2006 report for JAMA Psychiatry. A team based at the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Maryland, found that :

"Robust…
).

Nevertheless, even though the ‘Fear of the Unknown’ is very real, widespread, and some would say is a useful evolved trait, I think that Wikenigma’s remit - to (re)ignite curiosity - is a powerful enough motive to more than outweigh any unease which might be caused by drawing attention to an ocean of uncertainties. I say ‘(re)ignite’ because it seems self-evident to me that children and young adults are intensely curious about almost everything – but that curiosity does tend to wane significantly as years go by (for reasons that are as yet far from clear).

The second problem is the enormity of the task. By definition, all research work worldwide is (or at least should be) attempting to transform ‘Known Unknowns’ into ‘Known Knowns’. It’s a gargantuan project – probably never-ending. To make matters worse (or better, if you’re an 'Unknowns' enthusiast) ongoing research tends to generate several new questions each time it manages to answer an old one.

Bearing all that in mind, it recently occurred to me that Wikipedia suffers from exactly the same incompleteness dilemma – because it’s not possible to give an absolutely full description of anything, unless you use the same level of detail as inherent in the thing being described. An instance of the so-called ‘Mapping Problem’ - viz. a truly accurate map would have to be at a scale of 1:1 – and therefore be completely impractical. (example ).

A third stumbling block is that some unknown things are so much more important than others. For example, the fact that no-one knows how Glacier Miceplugin-autotooltip__plain plugin-autotooltip_bigGlacier Mice

'Glacier Mice' were first described (and named) by Icelandic researcher Jón Eyþórsson in a 1951 letter to the Journal of Glaciology.

They are found on the surface of glaciers, and are typically 7 to 10cm in diameter, being composed of small stones covered…
get around wouldn't normally be considered as important as the fact that no-one understands what causes Parkinson's Diseaseplugin-autotooltip__plain plugin-autotooltip_bigParkinson's disease

Also known as Parkinson disease, Parkinson's, idiopathic Parkinsonism, primary Parkinsonism, PD, or paralysis agitans - is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system resulting from the death of dopamine-containing cells in the
. For that reason, the site uses an ‘Importance’ star-rating system to draw attention to articles which seem particularly relevant. It’s still a real problem though, because research projects do tend suffer from the ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ effect – tackling unknowns which, as general knowledge progresses, get ever-more-fine-grained over time. So, in Wikenigma, as the Big Unknowns get listed, the tendency is to move towards ever-more-obscure articles. But again, Wikipedia suffers from exactly the same dilemma.

There's one further issue. A trait which psychologists like to call a 'Given'. Research teams (and their funders) are, understandably, far more keen on drawing attention to what they have discovered, than they are on highlighting questions they haven't yet been able to solve. So the resulting science coverage in the mainstream media ends up being heavily biased towards following the success stories - largely ignoring the unsolved puzzles which remain.

To sum up : any attempt to list ‘Known Unknowns’ can only ever be a partial, fuzzy solution. But exactly the same can be said for ‘Known Knowns’. And, as Wikipedia has shown to its global readership, it’s definitely worth listing them. (When it comes to ‘Unknown Unknowns’ of course, we can’t even begin a list.)

Having registered all that, it still seems to me that it’s a worthwhile project to at least try to highlight some areas where knowledge is obviously lacking. As the front page of Wikenigma says, the idea is to act as a Catalyst for Curiosity in a general sense – as well as trying to identify possible starting points for (re)cultivating interest in scientific, academic, and of course, armchair-based research . . . 944 so far.

Martin Gardiner, curator, Wikenigma.
London, 2022.


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