Does anyone else get bothered by how many observations are marked as "unknown species"?

I have a different definition of unknown knowns, keeping the subject constant: Things that I don’t know that I know. (Or that you don’t know you know, &c.)

For instance, think about reading a novel written by someone who lives in a very different social or technological world than you. There’s a massive amount of information that the author assumes the reader will have. The full extent of that information only becomes apparent when it is absent. As the confused reader in this example, many of the author’s unknown knowns are experienced by you as known unknowns.


Yeah, I often considered the unknown knowns to be those things buried in my brain (maybe in my reptile brain) that I’m unaware of at a conscious level but are known to me at some deeper level. But that’s probably way off topic.

Then, it can be interesting down the line to see which of those formerly Unknowns move right along from a very-high-level ID to genus or even species. Sometimes, I am so tickled when I get notifications for something ID’d at very high level that has already been reviewed by others with real expertise. After languishing in Unknowns for months or more, suddenly an observation has a relatable ID - amazing!


I think we may have seen an example of this in the recently closed thread. the last post before it closed said

I was puzzled by this. I went ahead and bolded the “unknown known” – that is, instead of simply withdrawing the species level ID, I am confused as to why they didn’t revise it to a broader ID of Genus Amaranthus or Family Amaranthaceae (depending on which taxon they meant by “amaranth”). Then the observation would have only gone back to that level instead of to Unknown. But this may be a case of being unaware at a conscious level of something that is known to them at a deeper level.

And no, I don’t think that it is way off topic. It’s a likely explanation for things being marked as Unknown.

Withdrawing the ID is one click. :-) Entering the broader ID is more robust to a variety of future possibilities, but this may not be obvious at the time. Absent a reason to choose one option over the other, minimizing effort is reasonable enough.

There’s something similar going on, I think, with some previous discussions in which people were annoyed by others entering coarse IDs—something like, “Anyone can see it’s a rabbit, but why would you identify it as ‘rabbit’?” Something known but, I guess, considered so trivially obvious that putting it in the ID field was objectionable. People are strange.


This is not a case of an observation being entered as unknown and left as such by an observer who never returns to it. You are taking things out of context again.

Once I discovered that my observation had become “unknown” on account of the other user deleting their account, I did in fact reenter an ID. (Once again, please note that it was only unknown because I did not receive any notification that the other ID was now gone. I had no reason to expect that the ID would suddenly disappear. Anyone who had looked at the observation during this time would have seen my withdrawn ID and likely speculated that something odd was going on.)

Why didn’t I initially enter a new, broader ID in response to the disagreeing ID instead of just withdrawing mine? Frankly, I saw no need. The observation had an ID provided by the other user, which I suspected was correct but was not confident confirming. (Before you criticize me again for not following up and learning how to distinguish the two species: I decided that at present I was simply not practised enough to see the relevant distinctions for this genus and that my time would be better spent trying to master some other, slightly less intimidating taxon. So I left the observation with the other user’s ID, to be confirmed by others or to return to myself at some later date.)

That is what matters to me – that the observation is labelled, ideally as accurately as possible. This was the case. I felt no need to subsequently prove that I at least know the genus by putting this as an ID. Again, anyone who looks at an observation and sees the history of IDs and withdrawn IDs can reconstruct the process that went on (provided that part of this history doesn’t simply disappear without warning).

I have a number of older observations where I originally entered a relatively broad ID which I could now correctly identify to species level. In the meantime, they have reached “research grade”, sometimes with multiple confirming IDs. I suppose I could go back and add my own species ID now, but again, I don’t see any reason. I was where I was in the past; now I know more but I prefer to apply this acquired knowledge to future observations rather than adding another, unneeded agree to an existing one.


All I know is I’m pretty sure I know less now about all things that are knowable than I thought I knew decades ago. Knowing one’s own ignorance is a learning process.


Just to ensure that complaints about off-topicness have some justification, I ran across a nice real-world example of unknown knowns. I bought a laser rangefinder. The battery compartment has a little lid that unscrews, which the designers provided with an unlabelled directional arrow.

Does the arrow point in the direction to open the battery compartment, or the direction to close the battery compartment? The designers surely knew, but it did not occur to them that this was a thing they knew that other people might not know.

(It points in the direction to close the compartment, as it happens. I guess they’re not worried about how you’ll open it, but think you might forget which way it goes when you close it.)