What Do We Really Know Anyway?

This week I came across two seemingly opposite, but related quotes. The first came from a fellow writer and blogger who was describing her self-publishing process. She was discussing what she knew when she started the process and what she knows now. She says:

I’m also aware of around another 50% of things that I know I need to know…

Christine Betts, The story continues … my  self-publishing journey

I love the curiosity in the statement. It shows how far she has come and how open she is about learning what she doesn’t know.

It is different than the other kind of not knowing I read about this week. This quote came from an article about Dr. Barbara K. Lipska. I wrote about this book a few weeks ago. It tells the story of a neuroscientist who begins experiencing strange symptoms as a previous breast cancer moves into her brain.

In the article in the Washington Post, the writer, Libby Copeland, paraphrases Lipska:

The thing she’s realized, Lipska tells me, is that we don’t know the things we think we know.

-Libby Copeland, She made a career out of studying the brain. Then hers veered off course.

Though this quote seems less hopeful, showing our fate as unlucky humans who can’t possibly know what might befall us, it made me think about it in less dire terms. In the business world, saying that someone doesn’t know what they don’t know is a put-down.

It’s a way of saying, a person should have the forethought to prepare for whatever might come. It’s usually used to point the finger. Of course with our health, blame isn’t always relevant.

Though modern medicine seems to have it all figured out, it too has many unknowns. There are even words for the things it can’t define, such as idiopathic, which means of unknown cause.

Today, doctors are also trying to manage the things it may not know. Doctors practice “active surveillance”, which is a way of managing the known unknown. Active surveillance may be practiced instead of treating a patient with a less aggressive form of cancer. Instead of receiving treatment the patient may return to the doctor for tests and biopsies every six or 12 months to see if cancer markers have increased and if treatment is needed.

For a doctor, not treating may be the hardest thing. But it’s hard for us all. We all want to be the person who knows everything.

Admitting we don’t is harder.

A version of this post was previously published on CatherineLanser and is republished here with permission from the author.

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