I follow some YouTube channels on classic video gaming (retrogaming). Several of these channels have published videos on a certain product that was hyped in the marketplace in the early 1990's as an amazing new gaming accessory but that then suddenly disappeared from contemporary discourse (e.g. gaming magazines) and may have never appeared on shelves at all. The channels seem to be in agreement that while the product was real and got canceled around the time of its scheduled release, the question as to whether or not it ever made it onto store shelves anywhere in the world (and made available for purchase by the general public) as a retail release is unknown.

To be clear, as a retrogaming question, my particular question is probably on-topic at both Arqade and Retrocomputing Stack Exchange, but I am more interested in the general case of "we don't know" or "nobody knows" claims.

If a claim about X meets general notability requirements (e.g. widely believed and/or notably claimed by a celebrity or other notable public figure), does it matter if the substance of the claim is not "The fate of X was Y" but rather "We don't know what happened to X"? If so, is it acceptable to ask "What happened to X?" as a question, or would we be limited to considering "Is it true that nobody actually knows what happened to X?"?

Another example of this could involve my studies of ancient tales that exist on the borderline of true history and legend. Historians generally define a border zone of varying width between events and dynasties that are clearly historical and ones which are almost certainly fictitious, with varying degrees of confidence assigned to events and figures within that border zone, but generally concluding with "we don't know if this was real or not, it might have been". Is asking about the "truth" of one of these events or figures in-scope? For example,

Simon Jones, the official city historian of East Podunk, Tennessee, claims [cite] that it is unclear whether King Varkoooi XIV of the Seventh Semi-Minor Dynasty of Neo-Pre-Post-Paleo-Classical Western Ruritania actually existed or was invented to legitimize the royal claims of the Restorationist Kings of the Eighth Semi-Minor Dynasty and/or the early Quasi-Regents of the Early Period of the postwar, pre-crisis, trans-Magdegonian Neo-Post-Paleo-Classical period of Western Ruritania. Did King Varkoooi XIV actually exist?

1 Answer 1


I am worried this answer might be a bit vague - I don't have a simple, straightforward solution.

We sometimes get questions like the King Varkoooi XIV one: an expert scholar says "opinion is divided about the truth" and we get asked "So which opinion is correct?". That's very difficult to answer, and the OP is unlikely to leave satisfied. We normally expect answers to reflect the consilience of the experts, and if there is no consilience, then it is too much to expect the users of this site to be able to come in and finally resolve a problem that scholars cannot solve. (There are various exceptions, like when the original claimant is wrong about opinions being divided, and an answer can show that.)

When someone says "We don't know." my first question would be "Who is we?"

Do they mean just the author(s) don't know? In that case, it is unanswerable. We cannot read the minds of the authors - we can only take their word for it. It is off-topic, but also not very interesting. So what if a particular reporter is unaware of a particular fact?

Do they mean "the authors and the experts in the experts/witnesses they spoke to"? That is also troublesome, because there may be some people who think they know the answer, and may have told the authors that, but they merely may not have been convincing. If the police say they don't know who committed a crime, they may well have been told exactly who it was, but lacked sufficient evidence to be sure.

Do they mean "the entire world" and/or "the literature"? That's tricky for several reasons:

  • some people might believe they know the answer, but can't get consilience.
  • it is impossible to poll all the people and all the literature.
  • there are situations where there are some people who know but won't say. No-one knows if the Alcatraz Escape attempt in 1962 succeeded, and no-one knows who D.B. Cooper was... unless the perpetrators survived the crimes they committed - in which case, they themselves know, at a minimum.

Hopefully, the claim will be clear from context, and we can address the meat of the question. But, I don't want to flatly endorse "We don't know" questions if they are just going to get bogged down in such definitions.

e.g. I could argue that someone knows whether the gaming accessory made it to the shelves. The Product Manager almost certainly did, even if I can't tell you who the Product Manager was. If it was on shelves, the shelf-stackers knew. But no-one will be happy if the question gets that as an answer.

There is another issue which I don't think is what you asked about, but it is a pet peeve so I think it is triggering my hackles unreasonably.

Sometimes writers say "Scientists are still not entirely sure how [X] works." which can sound surprising, but can be said of any topic, if you just drill down far enough. Scientists are still not entirely sure how analgesics work... or the immune system.... or gravity. They are still publishing new papers every year as they dig further and further into them. But that doesn't mean we can just discard the incredible amount that they do know about these topic, and treat their opinions and models as merely guesswork.

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