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Donald Rumsfeld was widely mocked when he talked about “known unknowns”. However, as is often the way with these things, the phrase has now taken on a life of its own. People now use various versions of this little formulation to explain that they don’t know everything that they don’t know but that they do know some of the things that they don’t know. You know?

I was thinking about Rumsfeld’s aphorisms when I was at a meeting yesterday talking about dementia and connected communities. We were particularly looking at the question of how best to combat the stigma associated with dementia.

A key part of the Government’s National Dementia Strategy is early diagnosis of dementia. There are many benefits to this approach but one of the problems is that with diagnosis comes stigma. People with dementia can lead fulfilling lives but I think I am right in saying that despite many improvements in treatment, the condition is still progressive and incurable.

This adds up to diagnosis potentially being both a label and a sentence, from the point of view of the person being diagnosed with dementia.

This raises the question; is it better not to know?

This raises the question; is it better not to know? Or to not know that you don’t know?

Similarly, part of the focus of the RSA’s Connected Communities project is researching ways of supporting communities, particularly in deprived areas, to be more engaged in the decisions that affect their local area.

At the moment a whole series of decisions are being made about how public services will be delivered in these areas. From one point of view it would make logical sense for us to argue that people should be more engaged in decisions around cuts and service re-design. However, I am not sure if that is right.

The various branches of government are currently offering people a variety of ways in which they can engage with the decision making process. These including consultations, focus groups and public meetings and so on and so on.

The experience of the people taking part in the engagement mechanisms will almost certainly be a negative one. People will learn more about the threats to various services and will be asked which cuts they most support. It would not be surprising if people’s reaction to this type of engagement was anger, anxiety or frustration. I met someone recently who told me that she turns the TV off whenever she sees politicians because it makes her feel anxious.

This raises the question; is it better not to know? Or to not know that you don’t know?


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