Eve, my eldest, has just begun her GCSE exams and there has been a healthy debate raging in the Gilmour household regarding whether there remains a case for learning facts and pursuing knowledge. It has been argued that, in the days of Google, there is little point cluttering our brains with facts when we can effectively outsource knowledge to the internet. We know where to look, therefore, why learn it?
And this is a perfectly valid question, although it presupposes that as a society we know more than might actually be the case. Recent research showed that more than 50% of those under 30 can’t name the largest ocean on Earth, the palace built by Louis XIV, or the first artificial satellite. Of course, in many situations, learning simply isn’t worth the bother. Why, for example, learn about car mechanics? After all, there is a garage down the street full of experts who can deal with this sort of thing for us. And this is a perfectly reasonable argument. In today’s world we are outsourcing the retention of memory and knowledge to the internet and this is often a good thing, but, it comes with a drawback. The cloud is making us meta-ignorant: unaware of what we don’t know or, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we are increasingly living in a world full of unknown unknowns...and I believe that this is dangerous.
Research shows that there is a direct correlation between poor levels of general knowledge and behaviour. When asked, would you throw your pet off a cliff for £1 million, roughly 7% of the British public said yes. Amongst those who scored poorly in a quiz of general knowledge, the percentage of people who would say yes was double that. The less informed are either greedier or less kind to animals.
In the same survey, those who didn’t know which document King John signed in 1215 were far more likely to say that people should be able to smoke in pubs. Those who can’t name their MP tend to say it’s OK for a business to post fake online reviews under a false name and those who believe that early humans coexisted with dinosaurs are more likely to refuse to vaccinate their children for measles, mumps, and rubella.
This kind of research might seem trivial and frivolous, however, it has made me challenge the assumption that you can always look up the knowledge that you need, when you need it. A “general background” in science (or anything else) isn’t something you can look up on a lunch break sitting on a park bench. It’s acquired through lifelong learning. At the most recent SCIS conference, Dr Catherine Calderwood, the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, spoke about low medical literacy levels in Scotland. She made the case that, with 43% of the working adult population unable to correctly identify the right dosage of paracetamol to give a 12 year old, education is a crucial factor in improving public health.
So I would agree that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake might not be that worthwhile. But I would also contend that without a framework of general knowledge we are left unable to process simple information and make good decisions. While knowledge might not be wisdom, it might just be a prerequisite for wisdom and I am yet to be convinced that the digital revolution has changed this...
John F Gilmour