Example 1: Anecdote (couldn't find reference online) Designers of astronaut suits struggled with knee/elbow joints... until someone ELSE told them of the armor of (I think) Henry VIII.

Example 2: An irrigation system fails because the designer had not known about phenomena (and thus their countermeasures, already in use elsewhere) that occur in those specific circumstances (geological, or wildlife, etc).

Example 3: [edit: removed, misleading]

Example 4: Searching for inexpensive but hard containers for microsculpture tools / works-in-progress, spending months rejecting tool boxes and solutions for modellers and hobbyist jewelry makers, finally settling for a DIY solution... and years later learning of the very low wholesale price of single-use medical equipment like PP vials, especially Eppendorfs

Example 5: Product designers trying to avoid infringing on patents: must first find anything potentially related before addressing it.
5.a) Being sued because the patent infringed on was on an algorithm used in a totally different branch of industry

Example 6: The intention behind an "Is there anything else I should know about" question

Example 7: Trying to find out whether "an" is the correct artcle to use before the quoted part in Example 6, without knowing the name of the grammatical role that part plays, whether it is an exception, etc - reducing the effort to browsing in hopes of finding a similar enough example

Example 8: Spending 60 hours searching for the official name of this phenomenon, asking around, reading Wikipedia (starting from "logic", "information", "knowledge", "paradox", ...), judging it salient enough to be named - though just maybe not, and how am I to know?

[edit] The emphasis is NOT on unpredictability, but on information/knowledge already extant, known to someone, somewhere, being very difficult (short of chance or external input) to find because you can't know the questions to ask without already having some knowledge of the answer.

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    Sadly there is no antonym for serendipity. – Bookeater Feb 21 '16 at 11:09
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    Not an phrase in use but "Outside Context Knowledge" (variation of Outside Context Problem) seems appropriate. – Kelly Thomas Feb 21 '16 at 13:05
  • An idiomatic expression for this is "not knowing where to begin looking for an answer." – zwol Feb 21 '16 at 19:02
  • @zwol or that there is an answer to search for. Or a problem in the first place. – kaay Feb 21 '16 at 19:05
up vote 27 down vote accepted

The exact thing you are looking for is called the Relevance Paradox. The wiki actually includes your irrigation example.

When searching for knowledge - of which there is really quite a lot - one doesn't search for things that do not seem to apply to the situation. So, when searching for information, you first try to establish what items would be relevant to the matter at hand. But, starting from the point of having no information, you are likely to be missing information that would make the relevance of another piece of information obvious.

  • Oh memory, why do you fail me so... Hopefully now I won't forget again, if not the name then the fact it is on the list of paradoxes after all. Thank you! – kaay Feb 21 '16 at 19:41
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    A link to the article or its definition would be nice. – Mari-Lou A Feb 22 '16 at 10:33
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    @Mari-LouA, I am stuck at work and on my phone, but there's a sunyit.edu link that's the first google hit. Its a wiki article - could some kindly bystander edit that in? – Sean Boddy Feb 22 '16 at 13:16
  • Upvote for the link. Bravo cobaltduck! – Mari-Lou A Feb 22 '16 at 15:23
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    Here is an undeletion request for this Wikipedia article. If anyone has anything to add, please do. – kaay Feb 29 '16 at 21:55

Not sure if I understand your question 100 percent, but here goes my take.

One sometimes distinguishes between known unknowns and unknown unknowns. For example, if you're planning a mission to Mars, you may not know the speed of wind on your landing spot, that would be a known unknown. But there will also be circumstances/phenomena which you simply cannot foresee. Those would be unknown unknowns.

Perhaps you could somehow use the latter?

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    Perfect (was just about to post this myself)! Of course credit should go to Donald Rumsfeld for immortalizing these phrases: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/There_are_known_knowns – Dan Romik Feb 21 '16 at 8:55
  • Forgot about unknown unknowns... yet it doesn't quite match my intention. But you've helped me clarify the question, thank you. – kaay Feb 21 '16 at 10:47
  • I do, of course, acknowledge that this might still be the closest answer there is, if no-one has named what I have in mind... unknown knowns? – kaay Feb 21 '16 at 10:59
  • OK, not unknown knowns - unless Slavoj Žižek agrees to put quotes around "unknown" when using his definition (or "unacknowledged knowledge", it sounds more appropriate). – kaay Feb 21 '16 at 11:17
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    Make that 10k rep :D – ThreeFx Feb 21 '16 at 23:11

The learner's paradox is that in order to learn about something, you must first know that thing. As Socrates puts it:
[A] man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know[.] He cannot search for what he knows--since he knows it, there is no need to search--nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for. –Quora.com

The emphasis is NOT on unpredictability, but on information/knowledge already extant, known to someone, somewhere, being very difficult (short of chance or external input) to find because you can't know the questions to ask without already having some knowledge of the answer.

It sounds like the researcher's version of bootstrapping, a term used in linguistics as well as in relation to computer operating systems. Since it's a general term, it can be applied to the questions you're asking about as well, where you need a little information to get more.

In literal terms, a bootstrap is the small strap on a boot that is used to help pull on the entire boot. Similarly in computer science, booting refers to the startup of an operation system by means of first initiating a smaller program. Therefore, bootstrapping is a general term used to refer to the leveraging of a small action into a more powerful and significant operation. - wikipedia

  • Related, yes - but it's more about the growth of complexity out of a basic seed, than the inability to know about the seeds without having them already. – kaay Feb 21 '16 at 11:33
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    @kaay That's an ambiguous statement - I think you're referring to bootstrapping by your growth of complexity reference, not the inability to know reference, but let me know if you meant the opposite. The idea I was trying to get at with bootstrapping was that you need to have the seed to do anything - no seed, no progress. To take your example 8, you can now use the term bootstrap to start the search for related words (perhaps something along the lines of recursive knowledge). – Lawrence Feb 21 '16 at 11:56

I have always thought the phrase inelegant but you can't know what you don't know or you don't know what you don't know is often used sympathetically to someone pleading ignorance.

This stackexchange questionhas more information about the use of the phrase.

Sounds like you have a conceptual metaphor mapping problem. A conceptual metaphor is the overlay of one concept or idea on a completely different subject area. The problem you have identified is a difficulty in making that cognitive leap from one subject area to another because of a lack of initial connection between the two fields. You lack a "link" hence it is a mapping problem.

You might call this Domain Knowledge, or the Problem Domain. Domain Knowledge refers to information generally only known by people who are experts in the field, even if that information might be of use to people in other fields, who might not even know enough to know what to ask. Determining the Problem Domain for any given problem may be impossible without the appropriate experts in the field, and it may be impossible for those not in the field to even know which experts are needed.

I searched "unserendipitous" and found a crossword reference to HAPLESS. That seems appropriate, although if you're looking to coin a word: help-less?

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