Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Knowledge, ignorance, and wisdom

I subscribe to Usenet groups. A few days ago, there was a brief conversation about the ignorance of people in general, and the younger generation in particular. I’d heard it all before. The following is a slightly revised version of what I wrote.

People are smart about different things. Always have been. Necessary and useful knowledge changes from one generation to the next. In the Olden Days, it changed very slowly, so that what an elder knew was useful not only to children but to grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Now it changes so fast that much of what you learned a few decades ago is now obsolete. For example, a lot of stuff I learned about cars when I was a kid was already obsolete when I learned to drive. My uncle showed me how to baby a choke to keep the engine running until it warmed up. He  kept a cork in his Morris 8 to wedge between the choke knob and the dash to hold the choke cable out until the engine warmed up. The car I learned to drive on didn't have a manual choke.

The rate of knowledge obsolescence has speeded up enormously. Read a mystery novel from 10 or 20 years ago, it's already historical fiction. Same goes for old TV shows and movies. It's easy to believe that the young 'uns are ignorant. They're not. They not only don't know what we know, they don't need to know it. They know other stuff, just as we knew stuff our parents didn't know (and didn't think worth knowing).

It’s worse, if that’s the word, when it comes to wisdom and insight. What's really worth knowing is for the most part unlearnable until you have enough experience to even recognise it as knowledge, let alone as useful knowledge. "Too soon old and too late smart". That's life.

Anyhow, all of us rely on other people's say-so for most of what we think we know, just as they rely on us for what they think they know. There's very little firsthand knowledge and analysis in anybody's head. Not enough lifetime to do much more than learn what you need, and a bit of what you like. We take other people's word for almost everything. See The Knowledge Illusion, published around the same time as our discussion of the kids’ unwillingness to learn from us became a topic for discussion.

Quick now, what does the heart do? How does it work? How do you know? Did you do the dissection and observations yourself? Etc. And how come humans dissected human and animal bodies for thousands of years before Harvey realised the heart pumped blood around the body?

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