The art of problem solving: Why I don’t know what I don’t know

How do we deal with problems we can’t solve? Or questions we can’t respond to? “I don’t know” is one of the most difficult statements an engineer can make.  However, just stopping at “I don’t know” is, to me, one of the most tragic mistakes a good engineer can make.  I believe that it is important to know why I don’t know before I can lay the issue to rest. 

So what have been some of the more common reasons why I have found myself not knowing the solution to a posed problem?

In the spirit of loving myself, I will start by throwing the blame around.  Sometimes our not knowing comes from the structuring of the problem.  If the wrong question is asked, it is impossible to get to a solution.  In fact, even if one could get the right answer to this wrong question, the actual problem would remain unsolved because this “right” answer, while being a correct answer to a particular question, is not the “right” answer to the right question.

Because language is a flexible tool (as opposed to the lovely rigidity of numbers), it is usually necessary to query the problem formulation when we encounter an “I don’t know” situation.  If we can find a different way to look at the problem, it is possible that the “I don’t know” could be converted to an “I see…” Of course, all this could be averted by simply requiring all those posing questions to engineers to structure them as block diagrams, write them in binary or have them as unambiguous images, but if wishes were horses, there’d be a massive waste disposal issue for our local governments.

Other cases of “I don’t know” are as a result of inadequate knowledge or resources available to tackle the problem.  A simplistic case in point would be my life before discovering imagination in mathematics (or rather, the imaginary number- the square root of -1.  Also variously denoted i or j, depending on whether you are a mathematician or an electrician. But I digress).  In those carefree days, solving a quadratic equation would begin with examining the term under the root sign in the quadratic formula.  If the value was negative, then there was no need to proceed.  I could gleefully write “no solution” and move on to more pressing matters.  Gone are those days.  I would consider it sacrilege today if a student gave me a “no solution” response to a quadratic equation simply because they have encountered the square root (by the way, do we have plants with square roots- the way we have square watermelons?  But again, I digress) of a negative number. Of course, said sacrilege could be absolved on the basis of how the problem was framed (which I have referred to just a few words back- say, for instance, if the equation’s solution needed to be a real value rather than a complex number).

I take two approaches to solving “I don’t know” situations involving inadequate knowledge and/or resources.

One is to search.  Of course, this requires that I have time, motivation, sufficient internet bundles and no interesting novel waiting to be completed.  The second approach is to be a child, knowing that I know not, and wait for a teacher to come along and rid me of my ignorance, i.e. make use of time to see if said knowledge will just wander around somewhere close enough for me to sniff it out and grab it for myself.

Finally, there are cases of “I don’t know” which are as a result of the solution to said problem being beyond the reach of the human race…for now.  In short, these are the cases where “I don’t know, you don’t know, nobody knows”.  The best formulators of such problems by far seem to be super short human beings with an infinite capacity to defy logic- also known as toddlers. However, once in a while, we might, in random moments of deep thought and inspiration, come up with such “I don’t know…nobody knows” type problems.

How do I deal with these?  The same way I deal with toddlers- distraction.  “I don’t know.  Wanna go play”… For my own questions “I don’t know.  Here’s a black forest slice” or “I don’t know.  I heard volume 6 of ‘A song of ice and fire’ is out” (by the way, that last one- it’s wishful thinking…for those who are about to flood my message box with “What? When? Where? How? Who? Which? etc questions).  Once sufficiently distracted, it’s easier to forget that there’s something that should be nagging me as well as every sensible Homo sapiens on the planet.

So, next time someone tells you “I don’t know”, don’t feel like a nagging toddler for asking “Why don’t you know”. Who knows, it could lead to a revelation.  Or a slice of cake.

About the Author: 
Lina Owino is a mother, daughter, wife, sister and Head of the Department of Mechatronic Engineering at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Engineering, Kenya.

One thought on “The art of problem solving: Why I don’t know what I don’t know

  1. Interesting read. Just realized I don’t know a lot of the things you do know.
    PS. They say the hardest words to say (most likely they meant for men) aren’t I love you, but I don’t know.


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