People who live under a rock
April 14, 2008 4:26 PM   Subscribe

How do people become stupid?

Or, shall I say "How do people STAY ignorant?" We all came into the world ignorant about how life works. Some wisen up, others stay in the dark. What is it that separate those two kinds of people?

With the information explosion (internet, wikipedia, tons of tv stations/shows, the news) that we had within the last decade, how can anyone remain uneducated about basic things?

Some examples:
*I know a MAN who is 55 years old and does not know what testosterone is. But, he watches tons of educational TV like the discovery channel, TLC, history channel, KDNL, etc.
*I know people who are in COLLEGE, who think Africa is a country. I know several people who don't know how to ride a bike. Some college kids think a woman will not get pregnant or an STD if he "pulls out".
*I am in grad school and my mom's a teacher, I didn't know what tenure was until it came up in classroom discussion during my first semester. I also had no knowledge of what was a flagship university.

The existence of my own ignorance is the most alarming. Furthermore, is that I don't know HOW I became ignorant and what to do about it. I watch the news, I browse metafilter and wikipedia to learn new stuff, I watch educational TV shows, I went to college, my mother went to college, I'm getting my Master's in May, I like to read non-fiction, I am curious about the world...yet I feel that I am still very naive.
posted by sixcolors to Society & Culture (82 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
People come to learn what they're interested in. If you're not interested in the machinations of academia, why would you know anything about it?
posted by phrontist at 4:28 PM on April 14, 2008


Part of it is cultural. Some knowledge is basic to certain cultures and classes, while it would never come up in the lives of someone from a different culture or class.

For example, a high school student whose parents are wealthy may know more about stocks, bonds, mutual funds, etc., horseback riding, sailboats, etc. while a child the same age of poor parents may have no clue about those things because it is not part of his/her world.
posted by PinkButterfly at 4:30 PM on April 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


I know several people who don't know how to ride a bike. What does that have to do with anything? Do you know how to safely tie in to a climbing harness?

I don't see what distinguishes this question from "Why doesn't every single person know everything there is to know?"
posted by 0xFCAF at 4:33 PM on April 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


i never learned how to ride a bike because i never owned one.
ignorance cannot be remedied without opportunity and resources.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:33 PM on April 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


Ignorant people are those who don't know what you know - it's utterly subjective and a useless classification. Once I stopped labeling people as ignorant, I realized that many knew a ton of things that I didn't know...and a lot of those things were more useful than the names of hormones.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 4:36 PM on April 14, 2008 [16 favorites]


I never learned how to ride a bike because I'm hate the feeling of falling.

Does that answer your question? No? Then I think PinkButterfly and thinkingwoman have the right answer.
posted by muddgirl at 4:37 PM on April 14, 2008


There was an episode of This American Life you'd enjoy. It was all about people not knowing things that should be common knowledge. One lady was absent from school the day the "There are no such thing as unicorns" memo was passed out. She didn't find out the truth until she embarrassed herself by asking a group of friends why we never seem to see unicorns in these here parts.
posted by HotPatatta at 4:38 PM on April 14, 2008 [19 favorites]


Response by poster: That's interesting, PinkButterfly. I was going to add this in my OP, but didn't want to sound mean. I don't consider majority of my family as the most educated people. Most of my friends are educated, but I wouldn't consider most of them as "worldly".

So, does being educated have a lot to do with WHO you know?
posted by sixcolors at 4:38 PM on April 14, 2008


Classic bell-curve discussion, baby. Lest you feel discouraged about the supposed stupidity of so many people, why not bone up on Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences? You may be able to find new metrics to analyze the cognitive abilities of your fellow humans - this Theory is a tonic to the misanthropy of the Bell Curve.

If you want to know how to get folks to understand more about basic concepts such as testosterone, you could check out Michael Caine's tactics in Educating Rita. However, as Michael Caine finds out, the road to uplift is paved with heartbreak. Be forewarned.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:41 PM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


Part of it truly is cultural. What country do you live in, you didn't mention it?
posted by fire&wings at 4:44 PM on April 14, 2008


I know several people who don't know how to ride a bike.

I can speak to this, because I didn't learn to ride until I was 23 (at which point I just taught myself). I had balance/hearing problems as a youth, and didn't get the hang of it right away. My parents tried to teach me, but they were caught up in a divorce while I was at the usual age for learning. It got put aside, we moved to a more urban environment that was not very conducive to learning, and I never really thought about it again until I was an adult.

I still don't know how to swim.
posted by desjardins at 4:48 PM on April 14, 2008


I know several people who don't know how to ride a bike.

I have a friend who wasn't taught how to ride a bike when she was a kid. She was raised by a busy single mom who wasn't very well-off and didn't have a lot of extra money or time to buy a bike and teach her kid. Not having learned as a kid, my friend didn't have a lot of motivation to learn as an adult. So she still doesn't know how to ride a bike, but she plans to learn someday.

The existence of my own ignorance is the most alarming. Furthermore, is that I don't know HOW I became ignorant and what to do about it.

I recommend trying to think about the wide variety of different circumstances people have to deal with in life, and trying to put yourself in their shoes.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:49 PM on April 14, 2008


I know a MAN who is 55 years old and does not know what testosterone is. But, he watches tons of educational TV like the discovery channel, TLC, history channel, KDNL, etc.

I saw a History Channel program on how the world was going to end in Dec 2012 because the Mayan calendar says so. Then I watched one on global warming. Both topics were presented as if they were equally valid. So I'm not sure the History Channel is actually helping your friend out.

Also people don't read enough.
posted by fshgrl at 4:49 PM on April 14, 2008


There's a saying that only the wise know how ignorant they are. No one can know everything, and people tend to be more knowledgeable about things they are interested in. Formal education helps a lot, but if you're not interested in the topic, you probably aren't paying very much attention and may not actually learn it, at least not beyond the test.
I think it is important to stay up to date with information, and to pay attention to the world. I try to do that constantly. And yet I still feel embarrassed when I realize I don't know something people around me seem to take as common knowledge. I shouldn't, because unless I was absorbing knowledge all day every day, and even then, I couldn't possibly learn everything there is to know.
I think the important thing is to constantly keep yourself open to new knowledge and new information. The other thing is to remind yourself that just because you know something doesn't mean everyone else you meet will know it too.
posted by sandraregina at 4:51 PM on April 14, 2008


Some people, when they run across something that confuses them, they stop, research, and basically don't move on until they've satisfied their curiosity. Some people, they just go around the obstruction. It's much easier to be ignorant than it is to learn.
posted by nomisxid at 4:51 PM on April 14, 2008 [7 favorites]


With the information explosion (internet, wikipedia, tons of tv stations/shows, the news) that we had within the last decade, how can anyone remain uneducated about basic things?

With the information explosion, and the explosion of technology generally, has come an explosion of "basic things". And, as TLF points out, there may not be much overlap between what you would consider to be "basic things" and the corresponding set in somebody you consider ignorant.

There's also a bit of confirmation bias behind your question as well, I suspect. People who are stupider than you are often annoying, so their existence and their stupidity tends to stick in your mind. The thing is, though, that if you're of average intelligence, half of the entire world is stupider than you are. If you're smart enough to work out how to pay Matt $5, that proportion will be higher.

But it's important to realize that ignorance and stupidity are not the same thing. People don't, in general, fail to know the same things you know because they're stupid.

I am curious about the world...yet I feel that I am still very naive.

That sounds like a healthy perspective to me. Next thing to work on is acquiring enough equanimity to allow others their own naivete.
posted by flabdablet at 4:52 PM on April 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


The multitude of books is making us ignorant. Voltaire
posted by Submiqent at 4:53 PM on April 14, 2008 [6 favorites]


The existence of my own ignorance is the most alarming.

Why should it be alarming? I would think it more alarming to encounter someone who believes he knows everything! Will Durant said "Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance." No matter how much you know, you are still going to be ignorant of the vast majority of what there is to know. And that's a good thing --- lifelong learning is one of those things that makes life worth living IMO.
posted by headnsouth at 4:53 PM on April 14, 2008


It's opportunity, not ignorance.
posted by netbros at 4:54 PM on April 14, 2008


I'd suggest you look into "The Epistemology of Ignorance" or "agnatology." The term was coined by Charles Mills to describe the production of ignorance about racial prejudice through common agreement to ignore that fact, but it's come to be used in a lot of different contexts to explain how a culture produces spaces of ignorance and blank spots on the map, either for some or for all. One classic example is midwifery, which was significantly more knowledgeable about female reproductive systems and techniques than eighteenth century medicine, but which was phased out and ignored largely because its practitioners were women rather than men.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:01 PM on April 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


With the information explosion (internet, wikipedia, tons of tv stations/shows, the news) that we had within the last decade, how can anyone remain uneducated about basic things?

You can easily argue the other side though: who needs to know things when you can just look it up on Wikipedia, or IMDB, or whatever?
posted by smackfu at 5:06 PM on April 14, 2008


I think its worth repeating (as others have said) that cultural or social-class differences greatly influence the areas in which we are educated. I spent a lot of time growing up on a ranch in Wyoming, so I know plenty about herding cattle, repairing barbed wire and general hard work. I know next to nothing about financial things ( I dont even balance my checkbook) such as investing or business markets.

Another thing worth remembering. Yes, we do live in highly technological times, *IF* you are in a first world country. Technological access drops off quickly. The average WORLD citizen is lucky to have access to electricity, maybe a telephone.. but hardly internet.
posted by jmnugent at 5:09 PM on April 14, 2008


Reading fiction actually is very helpful for general knowledge because you are exposed to cultures that are not your own. You learn other people mindsets and ways of life.
posted by francesca too at 5:13 PM on April 14, 2008


You're defining "stupid" in a really narrow way. You're equating it will "lack of common knowledge." I think this is a boring use of the word "stupid," because the cultural forces that make one item common knowledge and another obscure are pretty arbitrary. But to be fair to you (and to my chagrin), I think many people share your definition. If a guy doesn't know that Idaho is a state, he's dubbed stupid.

Fine. Common knowledge gets its name because it's supposed to be the stuff anyone picks up just by living life with eyes and ears open. So why do some people fail to learn it?

Well, if they did learn it, where would they learn it? In school? There are at least two reasons why one might not learn common knowledge in school:

1) It isn't taught. Maybe some schools teach it. Mine didn't. (I went to public school in the US.) Geography is often strongly associated with common knowledge (why?). In my school, we were never taught that subject. Seriously, in K-through-high, I don't recall a single Geography lesson. Most of my schooling was about nouns, verbs, addition, multiplication and athletics.

2) Even if common knowledge is "taught" in schools, it may be taught badly. My schools were terrible. Most of the subjects were taught via mindless drills. The focus was on passing tests and pleasing teachers. It wasn't on acquiring permanent knowledge. (Your question doesn't include reasoning-ability in smarts, but for my own sense of completeness, I'll mention that my schools didn't focus on reasoning, either. Just drills and toadying.)

School is the greatest common denominator of growing up. It's the one chance anyone gets to learn the same stuff as everyone else. So if it doesn't happen in school -- or if the school "learning" doesn't stick -- it will happen or not, based on random events that befall each person. How much did that person's parents care about teaching common knowledge to him, etc.

We often learn common facts via peer pressure. For instance, though your friend doesn't know what testosterone means, I bet he knows what fuck means. On the schoolyard, the kid who doesn't know swear words is an outcast. So another answer to your question is that our culture -- or many cultures that exist nowadays -- doesn't prize the sort of common knowledge you're talking about. In other words, a kid probably won't get beat up if he doesn't know the capital of Georgia.
posted by grumblebee at 5:18 PM on April 14, 2008 [9 favorites]


i actually agree with what smackfu said. you don't need to know everything in the world if you have good research skills and know where to look to find different types of information.

is riding a bike a life skill essential to everyone's survival? no? then why does it surprise you that some people don't know how to ride a bike?

look, i'm one of those people who finds out a niggling little fact about something, and that leads me to want to learn more and more about it. so i do, and as i'm doing that i find MORE stuff that i want to learn about...but there isn't enough time in the day, and even if i were immortal, i doubt that i would ever come to learn everything.

frankly, your question kind of pissed me off because you assume that everyone has the same educational background as you. a lot of college students think that "pulling out" is safe sex. do you want to know why? because they went to some bullshit high school that didn't have a sex ed program worth a dime, their parents were probably ignorant about the facts too, or else never had the sex talk with them, and there aren't any video games or tv shows expounding the fact that the rhythm method is bs. they have not had the opportunity to learn otherwise, and until they do they will remain ignorant.

did it matter in your life--ever--what a flagship university was? then why on earth would you know what it was?

there are so many different levels and types of education. i may have more book knowledge than someone who went to a vo-tech, but i am completely ignorant about how to build a house, repair a car, or fix a leak. i could learn if it suddenly became relevant to my life, but until then, there are other things i want to learn about.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 5:34 PM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


The world is a complicated place, and people specialize...
posted by paultopia at 5:50 PM on April 14, 2008


In terms of the ratio of things you know vs. things you don't, you're at about 0.1%.

I wish!
posted by Neiltupper at 5:53 PM on April 14, 2008


I may be stupid, but surely, pregnancy is unlikely, if he "pulls out" in time.
posted by Chessbum at 5:57 PM on April 14, 2008


You don't "become" ignorant -- you can call yourself ignorant when your knowledge and skills are insufficient for the environment in which you live. So if I surround myself with theoretical physicists and want to have conversations about theoretical physics, I'd look pretty ignorant because I can barely spell theoretical physics. And if I travel to a village in Malawi where everyone is a subsistence farmer, I will look exceptionally ignorant because I can't farm, I've never plucked a chicken, I can barely cook on an open fire, I won't know how to tell a good joke, and so on. That's ignorance. In my usual sphere of activities, I'm not ignorant at all -- I know things I should know, I have the right skills, and I manage to not embarrass myself more than normal. Change my context, though, and I look very ignorant.

Not riding a bicycle? That's not having a particular skill, that is useful only if you need to ride a bicycle.

Not knowing the details of the birds and the bees? That's not ignorance -- that's a really visible sign of the structural failures of our educational system. If you rely on friends telling friends as your main sex-ed program, possibly supplemented by half an hour in sixth grade where some nice lady comes into the classroom and shows some really confusing slides and talks about menstruation, well, that's the result you get. Want a different result? Provide a different educational experience.

By and large, people hear and learn what they are interested in, what speaks to them, what feels useful to them. By and large, most people manage to muddle through. A lot of people you might be considering miserably ignorant actually possess a wide array of useful and necessary skills that you may someday wish to draw upon.

Can you weld structural steel? Tune a piano? Change a diaper? Perform a C-section? All of those are really important things, and yet none of them rely on knowing about bicycle riding, sex-ed, geography, or tenure. Ignorance is as ignorance does; if you aren't going through life constantly finding things you know nothing about, you need to get out more. There's no embarrassment in not knowing, but there is in not being able to learn when you need to.
posted by Forktine at 5:58 PM on April 14, 2008 [6 favorites]


Response by poster: did it matter in your life--ever--what a flagship university was? then why on earth would you know what it was?

This was a topic of debate in one of my classes. Should the flagship university in our school system change their name to University of X at X, to just University of X? The issue of tenure was brought up often in class. My professor got on me for not participating in classroom discussions, and it hurted my grades. See, I'm going to grad school to be an student affairs administrator. Yet, I don't know jack shit about student affairs. I don't know how I became so ignorant about the very field that I want to go into. People don't want to hire me because I have no experience, yet I need experience to learn. My ignorance of certain things IS really really impacting my life, and this extends outside of grad school.

The 55 year old guy is not a friend, he is one of my uncles. He is extremely ignorant, and it has negatively impacted his life. I think it is really unfortunate.
posted by sixcolors at 5:58 PM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


sixcolors That's interesting, PinkButterfly. I was going to add this in my OP, but didn't want to sound mean. I don't consider majority of my family as the most educated people. Most of my friends are educated, but I wouldn't consider most of them as "worldly".

So, does being educated have a lot to do with WHO you know?


Yes.

You learn things from the people who you interact with, especially as a child who may not have access to research materials (or the thought to go research). A child whose parents are friends with lawyers, doctors and other professional types will most likely pick up some tidbits from them. But if you're a child whose parents have friends working minimum-wage jobs or hardly have any friends because they work all the time, the range of people, and thus information, you are exposed to is drastically limited.
posted by PinkButterfly at 6:03 PM on April 14, 2008


As a computer programmer I have a lot of personal experience with the boredom threshold. Many people ask me questions about their PCs which I would be happy to answer, if they would just pay attention for more than 3 minutes. They seem to think I am trying to cram my 34 years of experience into their brains...right...as if.

I'm sure I do the same to people when I ask them how to fix something around my house.
posted by forthright at 6:04 PM on April 14, 2008


grumblebee School is the greatest common denominator of growing up. It's the one chance anyone gets to learn the same stuff as everyone else. So if it doesn't happen in school -- or if the school "learning" doesn't stick -- it will happen or not, based on random events that befall each person.

Very true. I tutored elementary through high school students from underprivileged schools when I was in college. The homework assignment for the 10th graders one day: pairing the names of the adult animals (i.e. cat) with the names of their offspring (i.e. kitten).

There are many factors which would explain why a student would be in a situation like that, but I wouldn't call that student stupid for not knowing what students at a better school do.
posted by PinkButterfly at 6:10 PM on April 14, 2008


Perhaps some people remain ignorant because they don't bother to look up information that they encounter but with which they are unfamiliar--for example, someone in a graduate program for student affairs might look up what things like tenure and flagship universities are if they were subjects that came up in class discussions repeatedly, particularly when ignorance of such topics affected the individual to the point of being unable to participate in class.
posted by Polychrome at 6:11 PM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


who needs to know things when you can just look it up on Wikipedia, or IMDB, or whatever?
smackfu touches on an interesting point there. When I was an apprentice, learning bucketloads of new things (as opposed to now, as an undergrad, where I'm learning bucketloads of new new things - or should be, instead of reading MeFi ;-), a wise man told me this:
"You don't need to know everything - you just need to know where to find it, and how to understand it when you do."
Of course, the real trick is to know what you need to know permanently, what you can ignore until those times you need to look it up, and how to tell the difference. And, outside of standing upright, eating, and shitting, most of that falls into domain knowledge - stuff that's particular to the environment you live in. I couldn't trap, kill, clean, and cook a mongoose - but I can tell you how to strip, clean oil and dag, and adjust a 2000-type telephone switch (a pointless skill these days, I must admit!), or how a S12 exchange switches and routes traffic.
posted by Pinback at 6:15 PM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: Perhaps some people remain ignorant because they don't bother to look up information that they encounter but with which they are unfamiliar--for example, someone in a graduate program for student affairs might look up what things like tenure and flagship universities are if they were subjects that came up in class discussions repeatedly, particularly when ignorance of such topics affected the individual to the point of being unable to participate in class.

I agree that is the case some times, but not all the time. My professors in my program are pretty spontaneous, they don't always tell us what topics will be discussed in the upcoming classes. I have never even heard of the words "tenure" and "flagship" until they were suddenly brought up in class. If I remember correctly, the original classroom discussion had to do something with helicopter parents, I knew a lot about that subject and came prepared....unfortunately classroom discussion veered off to something unrelated. How could I look up something, that I never heard of?
posted by sixcolors at 6:22 PM on April 14, 2008


Lots of things can be responsible for ignorance. I was once so depressed I shut out the outside world but still hung out with friends and went on dates and whatnot but... I had no idea my own country had a new Prime Minister. Think of the cluelessness that must be involved for that to be the case--the amount of news that I would have to have missed to have missed an entire election: newspapers, television, signs on peoples' yards, conversation... etc.

However, until I was made aware of the situation I had no idea that I was unaware of it. I know that might sound obvious, but what I mean was that I didn't, in any way, make a conscious effort to tune out. It happened because of my mental state. And before you claim that it's not that relevant because of a mental condition, keep in mind that no one I knew was aware of my situation. Everything seemed normal to everyone around me and I functioned as well on the outside as I do today.

So yeah, people can stay ignorant without trying. Life's a lot better (for you and them) when you're humble, patient, and understanding enough to appreciate that not everything is always as obvious or clear as it seems.
posted by dobbs at 6:33 PM on April 14, 2008


If you want to be a university administrator, and you have knowledge gaps about how universities run, you should start reading publications that are focused on academia. The Chronicle of Higher Education website is a good place to start. Go to your school's library and speak to a reference librarian about what other academia-focused publications your school gets (Academe is another one to look for). Spend one hour a week (for starters) just browsing around those publications. If you come upon a concept that you don't understand, look it up online for a quickie definition and then read up on it if it seems to matter for your job.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:59 PM on April 14, 2008


How could I look up something, that I never heard of?

I'm sorry if I misread what you wrote; I assumed that "The issue of tenure was brought up often in class. My professor got on me for not participating in classroom discussions, and it hurted my grades" meant that you'd been exposed to the idea of tenure more than once (often), and that in such a recurring situation you might be motivated to find out what it was all about. If you've only just heard of something, then no--you can't look it up. You can ask (and run the risk of some people thinking you're ignorant).
posted by Polychrome at 7:02 PM on April 14, 2008


I dont even balance my checkbook
Take this turn of phrase, for example. Balancing a chequebook is a skill almost totally unknown in my country - unlike in the USA, almost nobody ever has lived their personal financial life out of a current account chequebook, so both the term and the specific skill are almost non-existent.

Is almost the whole country ignorant? No. The personal banking system was different, so we did things a different way and used different terms. The end effect is the same, yes, but the terminology, the method, and the skills are different.
posted by Pinback at 7:12 PM on April 14, 2008


Your question: "How do people STAY ignorant?"

My answer:
Because the bulk of all truly stupid people, by my definition, are those that believe they know everything and are not open to facts, opinions or view points of others. How they got this way is beyond me but I guess it is probably due to up bringing, environment and a self serving attitude or pure laziness.
posted by bkeene12 at 7:24 PM on April 14, 2008


As others have said, I think it's a matter of how curious a person is. I work with a woman who quit school in the 7th grade because she was pregnant. Never went back, never got a GED. She was hired as a file clerk, and someone decided to teach her how to read EKG's. Now she can read them better than most family doctors I know, and easily as well as the Cardiologists we work for. But if she comes across an abnormal EKG, she can't tell you why it's abnormal. She can recognize all sorts of rhythm disorders and tell you the proper names for them, but she has no clue how the patient got that way. And she doesn't care, because it's not part of her job to know. "Ignorant" is used nowadays as an insult, and while I wouldn't call this woman ignorant, I have a hard time understanding her lack of curiosity. But maybe that's just me.
posted by dogmom at 7:27 PM on April 14, 2008


Most people are incurious about things that do not appear to directly and immediately affect their biological fitness. And that means things that did not affect fitness over six million years of human evolution. Testosterone directly affects fitness, but knowledge about testosterone, not at all directly.

Note that this explains the obvious "exception", curiosity about gossip about celebrities. Humans evolved as social animals highly dependent on their peers, and their status among their peers. To our instincts, celebrities "look like" the 150-or-so humans in our local social group.

One of your examples, knowledge about pregnancy, does have a direct affect on fitness. But in this case, it's more fit to be ignorant and wrong: thinking that pregnancy and STDs can be easily avoided provides a rationalization for engaging in risky behaviors that increase the ignorant individual's fitness (by resulting in more progeny on average) and that the individual is programmed to want (he wants the sexual pleasure, regardless of whether the he "wants" progeny; his genes want progeny, and don't care what appetites they must invoke in the individual). Consider the knowledgeable educated person, who abstains form sex out of dear of STDs and pregnancy; he has few or no children. An ignorant fellow with a head full of mis-information is more likely to be a "baby daddy" (and STD vector) to multiple women -- er, multiple mothers.

But for most people, the great majority of people, knowledge of testosterone and tenure do not increase fitness. (For grad students and university professors, of course, that knowledge does increase fitness, and that's in part why those people know about those things.)

The vast majority of people are ignorant and incurious, and not worse off for it, at least in terms of spreading their genes.
posted by orthogonality at 7:44 PM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have never even heard of the words "tenure" and "flagship" until they were suddenly brought up in class. If I remember correctly, the original classroom discussion had to do something with helicopter parents, I knew a lot about that subject and came prepared....unfortunately classroom discussion veered off to something unrelated. How could I look up something, that I never heard of?

You do it the same way everyone around you is doing it -- by faking it until you have a chance to make it. You get what you can from context, and then you do your level best to keep up a good face until you have a chance to figure out what is really going on. Sometimes that means knowing who is an ally and you can lean over to and ask "what is that guy talking about, 'flagship universities'?" Sometimes that means when everyone else is getting coffee and bullshitting, you run downstairs and run a fast Google search.

In the long run, as a life-skill, it means getting really, really good at asking questions that will bring out the information you need without exposing your total ignorance on a subject. "Could you give me a concrete example of what you are talking about?" Questions that start with, "Just to play devil's advocate, ..." are a good way to do this; so is phrasing your question from within someone else's stance: "How do you think (bigshot helicopter parenting theorist) would respond to that claim? Aren't those ideas really at odds with each other?"

Because unless you live in a small, self-satisfied bubble, you are going to constantly be walking into situations where the rules are changed at the last minute, unfairly, and where the agendas are set by others operating with different information. Not knowing something is not ignorance, but refusing to learn about it is. I am suggesting that many of the people you think are not ignorant are actually just as limited as you are, but have learned a set of social skills that buffer that ignorance, and mitigate its visibility, giving them a chance to either learn what they need to learn, or just move on and hope that it doesn't come up again.
posted by Forktine at 7:48 PM on April 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


There was an episode of This American Life you'd enjoy.

Thanks for that link. That is an awesome episode I hadn't heard before. I hope the asker (and everyone else) listens to it. I know I feel a little less alone now.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 8:04 PM on April 14, 2008


I have worked with people who are almost entirely incurious about the world around them.

When they get a newspaper, they read the sports section only. When they get home, they turn on the TV and watch junk. They don't read books, and probably don't really own any. They don't eat foods they haven't eaten before, and if they go on holiday they go to a destination where it's basically doing the things you'd do on a long weekend, but in a warmer climate. They seem happy to continue along this road for the rest of their lives.

However, they do their job well, love their families etc. One of these guys is an expert fitter and turner, who can do amazing stuff on a lathe. I could maybe turn that lathe on, given time to locate the switch. His knowledge is focused, and earns him a living. He doesn't seem to be interested in actively seeking knowledge that doesn't directly benefit him.

If I end up in a discussion of sport, they are aghast at my ignorance of it. I only have the faintest inkling of how most sports work as far as rules, etc.

For many people, knowing lots of things just isn't important. The curious amongst us see something working and take it apart or read up on it to understand it. The others just use it and never consider it.
posted by tomble at 8:22 PM on April 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


Yeah...for the past few years, whenever I was bitching about a professor I'd say, "Yeah! but he/she's got ten year!".........luckily it sounds close enough.
posted by pilibeen at 8:34 PM on April 14, 2008


This is a non-answer and more of an observation, but a lot of people are pretty hostile to people who know more than they do. I remember trying to explain to the CEO of a nonprofit I worked at (she was an Ivy League grad) how email works and she flat out said, "I don't know what you're talking about!" several times even though I'd broken it down wikihow style until I finally just gave up. She seemed pretty angry and referred to me as "A Brain" even though I'm not at all a genius or have any special technical knowledge...I was just curious once and read up on it.

I've been thinking lately that people who know less or don't find out things for themselves are happier. I keep thinking about the girls on The Hills when I think this. How happy and successful they are, in their obliviousness...
posted by onepapertiger at 8:42 PM on April 14, 2008


Oh, I meant to start out with: I don't think a lot of people have much of an incentive to learn stuff because people are so hostile to knowledge and "nerds" and "brains"...
posted by onepapertiger at 8:44 PM on April 14, 2008


Backing up tomble's statement - a lot of people simply don't like to learn. That is, they'll learn whatever is needed to get by, however "getting by" is defined. A lot of people are passive learners- they'll casually take information in if it's presented to them in a mildly entertaining fashion (your example of the History channel applies here). They'll learn enough to be a part of the social group they wish to join (pop culture for water cooler talk, yachts for the Hamptons). They'll take in opinion as fact if it comes from a source they deem authoritative (Sunday morning sermons, Fox News, the History Channel). But they don't make an effort to check their sources or validate their beliefs.

It's very much a geek mindset to actively learn, to explore, memorize, and question as much as possible, in diverse and esoteric subjects, and, perhaps more importantly, take pleasure in learning. This is relatively rare, in any population, regardless of opportunity or income.

A lot of people barely crack open a book after they graduate from high school. A lot of people are proud of that fact. That's not to say they they are bad people, just that they don't like to learn. As a result, their beliefs and knowledge, outside of the requirements of their job, essentially ossify from the age of 18 or so. That's ignorance.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 9:17 PM on April 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


Then there's the truly inexplicable. Shortly after we moved from NYC to rural Ohio, a certain lifelong resident of this area asked my wife what cream is. Cream. He (~40 yrs old) had no idea it came from cows like the ones in the field next to his house. He was not joking. How is this possible?
posted by words1 at 9:48 PM on April 14, 2008


12% of adults believe that Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc.

Some people don't think that learning is any fun?
posted by snowjoe at 9:50 PM on April 14, 2008


My wife is often confounded by how much knowledge I have on a large number of unrelated subjects, even though I never finished college. It's really just that I have lots of knowledge that she does not, and so I seem considerably less ignorant than I actually am. This is a product of opportunity as well as desire; I read more than she does, and often pick up books specifically because I don't know anything about the subject -- and yet, even as an adult in my thirties, I incorrectly pronounce words that I otherwise use correctly because I learned them in books rather than from conversations.

Similarly, I have been using the Internet (and precursors) to communicate electronically since I was around ten years old (1981-ish); and it amazes me when someone (like yourself) writes like this:

Some examples:
*I know a MAN who is 55 years old and does not know what testosterone is. But, he watches tons of educational TV like the discovery channel, TLC, history channel, KDNL, etc.
*I know people who are in COLLEGE, who think Africa is a country. I know several people who don't know how to ride a bike. Some college kids think a woman will not get pregnant or an STD if he "pulls out".
*I am in grad school and my mom's a teacher, I didn't know what tenure was until it came up in classroom discussion during my first semester. I also had no knowledge of what was a flagship university.


In my mind, it is absolutely astounding that you would write so many non-acronym words in all caps -- it comes across as inappropriate emphasis, invites confusion with acronyms, and gives the impression of an ignorant person. Yet you continue to do it, for whatever reason. Who knows why?

also, you made a list of three bullet points that actually contains five separate items, but that's picking nits.
posted by davejay at 11:08 PM on April 14, 2008


I think I see the OP's point. There are things you'd expect everyone to know, and there are things that everyone really should know. Someone might have never seen Star Wars, or heard of Mark McGwire, or know what the best hand in poker is. If you were one of them, I might look at you funny, but I won't think you're a moron or anything.

If you couldn't point to your home country on a map, or knew who major figures in your government were, eg, the Vice President (which, apparently, apply to a decent fraction of Americans), that'd be a different story. Really, really bad educational systems could account for geography ignorance, but not current events, so it's not entirely attributable to schooling. A lot of it can also lay in your friends, co-workers, and family, and you just sort of learn about most "common sense" items through happenstance. Yeah, reading helps, but I think watching tons of TV does too, as much as no one would like to admit it. You do hear a lot of references to material of actual value. Heck, I learned about the Hegelian Dialectic watching Northern Exposure as a high schooler (although I did have to look it up to find out more).

The OP's question kind of reminds me of the infamous contestants on shows like "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" that get the easy questions wrong. Although I can't really blame the guy who didn't know who Hannibal was. Other than the elephant thing, I have no idea who he was, and just never came across anything that wouldn't informed me about him. But if you grew up in American and never heard of the Three Blind Mice, than I would indeed wonder if you lived under a rock. And yeah, I'd genuinely be surprised if you never learned to ride a bike, assuming you were an American of an "average" upbringing, anyway.

And I can't swim, either, desjardins.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 12:17 AM on April 15, 2008


On tenure - I have a vague idea of what that probably is, from reading some autobiographical comments asimov made during forwards for short stories in various collections. He references 'getting tenure' at a university somewhere - I presume, therefore, that in his country of residence, 'tenure' is something desireable for an academic. I get the feeling it makes you difficult to fire, perhaps gives you certain perks, and some level of job security.

I've worked as a research academic at one of my country's top universities, by the way. And I still don't know what tenure really is - because it's not really part of the system here. It's something you get in America.

Flagship - I know what that means in roughly nautical terms from watching (and reading) too much Star Trek. I know that Office is the Flagship product for microsoft; and that the current apple flagship product is the iTouch. I'd guess from that that in a university context, that flagship means, roughly, the top university in that city/state/country. Although we don't have one of those around here, either.

I know about the geography of Europe around the time of the Roman Empire from reading asterix comics. I know a lot about sex from science fiction. I know about social conditioning from 1984 and 'A Brave New World'.

I remember being absolutely stunned when, at the age of about 22, I realised that 'balancing a chequebook' wasn't just an expression - that USians still actually used cheques. I remember being equally suprised about the cost of cars over there, they can make cars for that much?

On the other hand, my personal trainer comments nearly every session that I'm a really fascinating person to know, because I know a little about nearly everything. Black holes and event horizons? Sure. What an asthma attack is? Sure. How 4WD handles differently from rear or front wheel drive in wet or dry conditions, on curves, on straights. History of science fiction. History of fiction in general. What the gutenburg bible is. Brief summaries of every major world religion. The origin of certain linguistic oddities in the english language. Anything you ever wanted to know about blood. Thanks to metafilter, I also know more about finance than I ever thought there was to know.

This is accumulated cruft that I've picked up over the years from a variety of really odd sources. Mostly interesting people. But for some reason, I seem to have absorbed more than most.

There are people who actively resist learning. They are ignorant out of choice - when presented with new knowledge, they reject it. They fear knowledge and wisdom. These people make me sad.

There are people who filter - they hear only what is immediately interesting. They forget or disregard most of the odd bits, or anything they don't immediately understand. These people are often interesting, but very narrowly so.

There are people who don't, won't, or can't filter - they hear, and often remember, nearly everything, and what they remember but don't understand, they try to hunt down the meaning and knowledge until they do understand it. These people are wonderful and fascinating and awesome, because they know so much interesting stuff. Wierd and wonderful. But often with odd gaps in their knowledge.

I have odd gaps. I seek out people who know stuff I don't in order to fill in those gaps. Like USians using cheques. Like what the currency of Vietnam is. Like how fast you can go on an autobahn. Like how a supercharger works. Like how to paint a wall.

Basically, find people who know stuff, and learn. That's the only cure for ignorance. And when you've finished learning, think about it, and see if you can come up with something new :)
posted by ysabet at 12:27 AM on April 15, 2008 [3 favorites]


She seemed pretty angry and referred to me as "A Brain" even though I'm not at all a genius or have any special technical knowledge...I was just curious once and read up on it.

That curiousity is what makes you A Brain. Anecdote is not data etc, but certainly the vast majority of people I know hold very little curiousity about the world around or how it works.
Curious about other people's relationships, including celebrities, yes, but nothing else. Many don't ever watch the news or read a newspaper, except for the sports and gossip pages.

This can be demonstrated by a mass email to the staff at work, explaing a particular system problem or upcoming outage and what the effects on them are. I've learned, through various comments/complaints on how best to draft these.

The first is a simple non-technical subject line with words of one syllable if possible. "Internet is broken" for example. That covers about 50% of the staff, who don't need to even open the email.

The first paragraph or two will repeat the subject, and try and explain the effects of the problem in a simple fashion, while slightly more technical (shorted for brevity). "Webpages won't work. Incoming new emails from outside won't come in yet, our email going out will be held, and delivered later when the connection is fixed. No email will be lost. We don't have a timeframe for it to be fixed yet."
This is still too complicated for a significant percentage of the staff.

Finally, there's the fan service for the 5% of staff or so who will inevitably seek me out later for the "why". Including this last section almost always garners a complaint or two from the usual suspects that my email is 'too technicial, it's all gibberish to me".

"For those interested, BT has a problem with the phone line* at the exchange again, and are working on it. We can't connect to the internet until it's fixed, but it is affecting a number of other customers in the area so it's a priority job for them."

*it's not a phone line, but it's close enough. Being in a very rural area does have iit's disavantages. I've also learned not to use the word outage, even in this section, as I was asked what it meant by three people who I know have dictionaries a few yards away from their desk.

As I've said - maybe 5% of people actually care about the cause of the fault. The rest, at most, just want to know when it will stop affecting them. There's a significant percentage that won't even read the email, and will just phone us - repeatedly - asking if its been fixed yet, rather than trying it for themselves, or waiting for my 'all clear' email. We'll also get phone calls for a few days after from people who have an entirely different problem with very different symptoms, but assume their problem was caused by the other problem, and are pissed it's been broken for days and we haven't magically fixed it yet.

I don't mind - after all, I'm the techie, not them, and I probably couldn't do their job. However, when something breaks that affects me, I always want to know the why, because it's interesting to me. That attitude is relatively rare, I think. If you finished reading this, you're probably in the 5%.
posted by ArkhanJG at 12:39 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


I am about 6 months away from completing a PhD, and have known what a "flagship university" is for about 30 seconds, since seeing the term here and looking it up on the internet. I agree with everyone here about 'gaps'. I even made up a term for it: 'ignorance horizon', or in more poetic moments: 'archipelago of ignorance'. What you know is the land. What you don't know is the water. The shoreline is your awareness of your ignorance. So if your knowledge is a tiny little shoal, you're not aware of your ignorance. If your knowledge is a continent, you're hugely aware of your ignorance. If your knowledge is an archipelago, i.e. bits and pieces of knowledge spread all over the place, you're supremely aware of your ignorance.
I had a conversation with my brother a few years ago and was shocked to learn that he didn't know how many fouls made someone out in baseball (and we both grew up in the USA). I'm a total geek whose sports career consisted of 2 days on the wrestling team, and even I knew that! But my brother can tell you how an engine works, and even though I've learned that as well it's just gone. Similarly, when I was a cabinetmaker I remember having a mutually amazed conversation with an electrician:
"How do you make those little dovetails? Man, that's amazing."
"Nah, it's pretty easy actually. How do you know where all those little wires go? How do you avoid getting zapped and killing yourself? Awesome."
"No, elementary, no problem."
You do have to wonder though, about someone who doesn't know what 'cream' is.
Spending a few hours (or days) in a good university library, just opening books at random, is a great way to get some inkling of one's own ignorance, and the importance of one's own writing/thinking/breathing in the grand scheme of things.
posted by arcadia at 12:58 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


Speaking of stupidity, I left out my main point, which is:

Ignorance and stupidity are two entirely different things. The first is simply lack of knowledge, the second is inability to apply critical thinking or to use one's mind in certain ways. Although, like intelligence, there are many different kinds of stupidity.
I've met a lot of smart, ignorant people in my life, people who have really good minds but just haven't had the opportunity and/or desire to develop them. I've also met, although they are somewhat more rare, numerous educated, stupid people.
People who've never spent time in academia would be shocked at how many PhDs are completely stymied by a malfunctioning slide projector.
posted by arcadia at 1:04 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


Note for those born after c. 1980: a 'slide projector' is an archaic device which projects light through a translucent image and projects the image onto a surface. Think Powerpoint for Neanderthals.
posted by arcadia at 1:05 AM on April 15, 2008


Comfort yourself with the reflection that even Sherlock Holmes didn't know that the earth went round the sun:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing .. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."

"To forget it!"

"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

"But the Solar System!" I protested.

"What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently: 'you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."

posted by verstegan at 1:36 AM on April 15, 2008 [2 favorites]


There is a difference between being uneducated and being stupid. You could have a university's worth of knowledge within you, and yet not know how to function in life (just look at the stories of Mock the Stupid on LJ).
posted by divabat at 3:38 AM on April 15, 2008


Some college kids think a woman will not get pregnant or an STD if he "pulls out".
Leaving the question of STD's aside, coitus interruptus will prevent pregnancy if properly performed. It has been suggested that semen can be introduced to the vagina by pre-ejaculate fluid but I am ignorant of any medical studies proving this. There do exist however, several small studies which failed to find any viable sperm in the fluid.
posted by Sitegeist at 3:48 AM on April 15, 2008


I made a conscious decision to become more ignorant a few months ago.

Well, at least more ignorant in a few particular areas, but those areas are ones which many people would consider important to be informed in. In a moment of self-reflection, I realized that following news and politics and current events served mainly to piss me off, and rarely if ever accomplished anything positive. And I didn't like being pissed off, even when my anger was wholly justified.

And it occurred to me how very very rarely anything I read in the news directly impacted me. (Or to be more precise, how very very rarely my knowledge of that thing directly impacted me. There's some things in the news that impact me, but typically they have the same effect whether I'm consciously aware of them or not.) So I all but eliminated the time I spend watching or reading news, politics, and current events.

And you know what? I'm a happier person for it, and that's what's important to me. Oh yes, I know I'm shirking my moral responsibility as a member of a free and democratic society. I'm OK with that. I couldn't tell you any of the stupid or (much less likely) brilliant things McCain or Obama or Clinton or Bush has said in the past month, and that doesn't bother me at all.

Now, I'm one of those people who loves to learn new (to me) things, and in my case, this has opened up time for me to learn things in other areas, but I'm learning things I like to think of as "timeless" knowledge rather than the ephemera of news and politics and current events.

My case may well be different from the people you decry as "ignorant," but I don't feel superior to them simply because I've made a conscious, deliberate choice to be ignorant of this sort of information, while they just do so without giving it much thought. If anything, I feel inferior that it took me decades to reach this point which comes so naturally to them.
posted by Gregor Samsa at 4:38 AM on April 15, 2008 [3 favorites]


I know several people who don't know how to ride a bike.

I know several people who don't know how to drive a car.

I've seen many people who can't figure out how to swipe a MetroCard.
posted by oaf at 5:14 AM on April 15, 2008


I am 25, have a BS and a BA, am currently getting my JD/MBA and I don't know how to ride a bike.
posted by banannafish at 6:01 AM on April 15, 2008


Smarty pantsers forget that ignorance is purely a relative thing. Remembering that will help put this into perspective.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:06 AM on April 15, 2008


Some of it is lack of opportunity, some of it is lack of curiosity. Curiosity may be natural, but sometimes is nurtured by your environment and the people who influence you.

True story - working in Louisiana once, I was with a bunch of guys who thought for all of 3 weeks I was from New England, not England, because I talked funny. This is just as telling about me, because I just assumed they would know the funny way I talked was an English accent (oh, how we laughed).

Once we got past that, they showed great curiosity about where I came from and shared things about Louisiana that I'd never known before. Sharing knowledge is a good thing.

Ignorance is not a crime, but wilful ignorance is a crime - we all can and should learn from each other.
posted by arcticseal at 7:13 AM on April 15, 2008


How could I look up something, that I never heard of?

Read more. Read everything. Knowledge-wise, I don't know very much in depth, but I can hold my own in conversations about most things, because I read almost anything that looks like it may be interesting. For me, it's a habit I picked up as a kid when I'd get bored, I'd read through all of my parents' magazines.

Then, if you don't know what someone is talking about, ask questions instead of trying to provide answers. Most people love explaining things they know about to people who don't understand it.
posted by drezdn at 7:14 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also, every family places different emphasis on what is important to learn.

My wife doesn't know how to swim. In my family though, we were required to take swim lessons when we were five. Some families make you learn to play a sport while others will make you take up a musical instrument as a kid. Some will make you do both.
posted by drezdn at 7:21 AM on April 15, 2008


There is an awful lot to know. We are bombarded with information, and it requires effort and intelligence to make sense of it, integrate it into our existing knowledge, and differentiate between the crap (Aliens Among Us!!!) and fact, and to differentiate between trivial(Britney cuts her hair!!) and significant information.

It feels like it's getting worse. Most Americans can read, and have lots of access to news and information, but prefer to read about celebrities, and prefer to base their views on religious preference or social conformity. There's a dearth of intelligent, calm discourse, and a plague of shrill, biased, uninformed ranting.

What you can do? Subscribe to smarter magazines; the Economist was praised here recently. Watch less teevee, and limit silly teevee. Same with the Internet. One of reasons I hang out here at *.MeFi is that there's intelligent discourse. not every post, but enough. Also, stop looking at what other people don't know, and find out what they do know. The most surprising people have amazed me with their knowledge.
posted by theora55 at 7:41 AM on April 15, 2008


If you couldn't point to your home country on a map, or knew who major figures in your government were, eg, the Vice President (which, apparently, apply to a decent fraction of Americans), that'd be a different story. -- TheSecretDecoderRing

I realized that following news and politics and current events served mainly to piss me off, and rarely if ever accomplished anything positive. -- Gregor Samsa


One thing we haven't discussed is the fact that there are common signifiers of intelligence. If you can discuss topics X and Y, people will generally consider you intelligent. There are things that smart people are "supposed" to know about.

Knowing about those things doesn't actually mean you're intelligent (unless you define intelligence as knowing about those things). Nor does it mean you're unintelligent. It means you participate in specific social rituals -- that you declare yourself a member of the "smart club" and that other people don't dispute your membership.

I'm sure X and Y vary from culture to culture. Where I live, they are politics first and pop culture second. Politics has a long history as a smart-signifier. Think of those Edwardian dinner parties, where the women would be sent off to gossip while the "more intelligent" men would sit around the table, smoke cigars, and talk politics. (Were ALL of those men smart?) I've been in many groups where, if you admitted disinterest in politics, you were instantly dubbed stupid -- regardless of any other knowledge or ability you might have.

(There was a time when a European education involved learning Greek and Latin. If you knew those languages, you were "smart." If you didn't, you weren't smart. Greek and Latin were the X and Y back then, which is why Ben Johnson could, without being ridiculed, accuse Shakespeare of being stupid, because Shakespeare "had small Latin and less Greek.")

Certainly, there are many good arguments as to why one should follow politics, but here we're just talking about stupidity. If you can't talk about politics, the only thing that says about you for sure -- in terms of intelligence -- is that you're ignorant about politics. It says nothing about your general aptitude or storehouse of knowledge. But many people will assume it does.

And there's some good reason for this: if you're a "smart" person (a.k.a. someone who wants to be thought of as smart), then surely you'll follow the smart-people rituals. Surely you'll want the company of other "smart" people. So if you don't follow the rituals (if you can't pass the club's hazing rites), then you're not "smart."

Pop culture ties into this in an interesting way. In most social groups I've been a part of, if you know tons of stuff about politics, literature, science, etc. -- but have no idea who Brittany Spears is, you're "too smart." Or you're a snob. Or you're faking snobbery. Or you're ridiculously out of touch. On the other hand, if you're deeply into pop culture (in a non-ironic way), then you're not smart enough. You should try to strike just the right balance. Know about pop culture. Be able to make intelligent remarks about it. (In many circles I've traveled in, making a smart, ironic statement about Cher will get you way more points than making a smart, ironic comment about literature.)

Everything I've discussed so far has more to do with social standing than actual intelligence. So a great decider of how much common knowledge you work to acquire depends on how much you want to belong. "Smart" extroverts thrive on common knowledge (and they'll especially thrive on the agreed-upon discussion points: politics and pop culture). "Smart" introverts (if they're content being introverted) won't care so much. They'll be more likely to hunt down whatever quirky knowledge happens to interest them. They're not trying to be part of "the great conversation."

Like Gregor Samsa, politics pisses me off. It deeply upsets me. I don't find it fun. I grew up in a politically-charged family where reading the paper was accompanied by yelling and angry lectures. I don't want that in my life. So I choose ignorance.

But I probably wouldn't chose it -- I'd probably grit my teeth and read the paper -- if I cared about being part of the "smart set." I don't. I'm an introvert with my own interests. I like talking with other people, but I'm content to seek out folks who are into what I'm into. (By the way, some of my interests include classic literature, classical music, jazz, neurology, physics, math, computer science, art, history... I may be ignorant about politics, but it would be weird to call me ignorant in general.)

I've known several people who read the paper every day and are generally considered smart. I tried to engage one of these "smart" guys in a discussion about modern novels, but he admitted to me that he doesn't have time to read fiction. He has a full-time job and kids, so he only has time to read while he's on the bus. And he feels compelled to spend that time reading the paper. (Because he's a very social person and wants to be able to have water-cooler discussions.)

I became interested in why people thought this guy was so smart. I think it's because he could easily steer most conversations towards politics or current events, and once they were steered there, he could rule the roost. He didn't even say anything terribly perceptive. He just aped what he'd read in the paper. But he had a good memory and he read closely. He'd also collected some basic knowledge about "the finer things in life," so he could drop nuggets into the conversation like what brand of wine he'd had with his dinner, etc. It didn't take much for him to SEEM intelligent.

By the way, there are deeply fascinating aspects of politics. Politics ties in with history and psychology (and many other subjects) in all sorts of fascinating ways. But I've discovered that if you discuss these aspects with "smart" people, they tend to get bored quickly. They'd rather discuss politics the way it's discussed on TV and in papers -- which is largely as a soap opera. Or a team sport. Or it's centered around "issues" that everyone's already made up their mind about.

Obama's much lauded speech (about race) actually penetrated the sand and reached my head. I was told it was amazing and important, so I watched it. And I thought it was a great speech. What interested me most about it was the construction -- the rhetoric. And the performance. Did I learn anything? No. He explained why people are racist. I already knew about that.

Yes, I know that there are people who "need to hear it." Yes, I know race is a deeply important issue for America. So I'm glad he made the speech. But it didn't inspire me. I was already inspired about that particular subject. In fact, I'm bored with it. Race bores me to tears. I know how I feel about it. I know how I want other people to feel about it. If you want to talk to me about HOW to make a change, I'll listen. But I don't need to hear that racism is bad. And I don't need to hear that racists aren't innately evil -- that they're people with understandable psychology. I KNOW all that.

But ... again... I would probably have been more into Obama's speech if I felt like a member of a club. I would have basked in the knowledge that all members of my club were hearing the same speech. But I'm one of those guys who likes seeing movies by himself (or with a small group of friends.) I don't get any special joy out of being part of a huge audience.

I fear that this post will anger people. I've angered people before by bringing this stuff up. Rest assured, I'm NOT claiming that people who are into politics are stupid (or smart). And I'm not claiming that introverts are superior to extroverts. If I could press a button, I'd make myself extroverted and into politics.

I'm claiming that people's differing social needs play a great role in what sorts of knowledge they seek out. There's nothing wrong or shameful about seeking knowledge that will help you socialized. Humans are social animals (some more than others). But taking an interest in agreed-upon subjects is not the same as being smart.
posted by grumblebee at 7:51 AM on April 15, 2008 [10 favorites]


I'm claiming that people's differing social needs play a great role in what sorts of knowledge they seek out. There's nothing wrong or shameful about seeking knowledge that will help you socialized. Humans are social animals (some more than others). But taking an interest in agreed-upon subjects is not the same as being smart.

Excellent point! I have consciously sought out pop-culture information just so that I could talk about something other than "heavy" stuff with my friends. I try and keep up with a few celebs (who I have absolutely NO interest in) just so that I can stay current in conversation. I wouldn't go so far to say that I do it to look smart, but I do gain social currency from knowing the the recent Brittany Spears antics. I follow sports for a similar reason. Largely, I fear sounding rude and dismissive when someone brings up sports or pop-culture, and all I have to say about it is "I don't follow that stuff." It's bad enough that I don't watch much TV - I sometimes have to cram in order to remain current.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:08 AM on April 15, 2008


/Slight derail /
I may be stupid, but surely, pregnancy is unlikely, if he "pulls out" in time.
posted by Chessbum at 1:57 AM


Not neccessarily stupid but certainly not informed Chessbum.
It happens, regularly, I can assure you. (bitter experience filter, which makes me the stupid one as at the time my partner could care less)
posted by Wilder at 12:23 PM on April 15, 2008


There's a difference between merely knowing who the VP is, and actually following politics. I'd think every American should be able to at least identify a picture of Dick Cheney, but I'd understand if one weren't able to follow that up with being able to rattle off his viewpoint on various issues, or what his previous governmental positions were, or what state he was from. It's like the OP's example about Africa. How can you make it into college and not know Africa is a continent? Not being able to name more than half the countries within it is one thing, but to think Africa actually is a country is kind of hard to defend. I don't know how one could shrug it off and say "I dunno... It's just something that I never came across before."
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:27 PM on April 15, 2008


Listen, the trick here is to know what you don't know, so that you can look it up somewhere. It's when you don't know what you don;t know that you're in trouble. That's ignorance, to some extent, whether willful (as in the case of the 55-year-old uncle) or not.

I know a lot, but there's plenty I don't know. For example, my inamorata accidentally bought a whole red snapper at the store yesterday and asked me to clean the thing. I've never cleaned a fish in my life! I'd probably kill myself and cause havoc for miles around if I tried. Meanwhile, I can play drums, gap sparkplugs, paint a house, build a bookcase, write a sonnet, program a computer... I just never happened to learn how to clean a fucking fish. Does that make me stupid? Maybe in the eyes of a fisherman it does, but what can I say? I didn't have to learn that along the line. And I can't see the point in doing it now. Maybe that makes me willfully ignorant, I dunno.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 1:33 PM on April 15, 2008


It seems that a lot of so-called common knowledge, or common sense, belongs to a large bundle of assumed knowledge which is acquired throughout life and which varies between groups of people. Think of going to another country, for example. Even if you speak the language perfectly there will be references you're not familiar with, wordplay you don't get, references to (meals, festivals, some cartoon everyone used to watch, whatever) which slip past you. But to people around you these are basic references which they assume everyone will understand.

Being unfamiliar with these particular concepts does not make you stupid, I don't think, just as the mere fact of being able to define "tenure", or ride a bicycle, does not actually make you smart (would that it were so...).

You learn some things because you need to know them to get through day to day life, and there are some fields of knowledge which are valued in a way which gives an incentive to learn about them (see grumblebee's comment above); other skills or pieces of information fall by the wayside. Some people (in this day and age!) may not have access to the internet.

I'm pretty sure I don't know enough about the topic to make it a good example, but it's interesting to see how basic computer skills have changed from being the stuff a few wizards in a tower knew, to being more or less assumed. It shows that what is or is not common knowledge changes over time, and that there are a whole bunch of reasons people don't learn things, even if this knowledge seems current somehow. A lack of computers in schools, computers not being affordable, or important in your workplace or to the people you know... But this is heading for derail territory, and I've written enough rubbish.
posted by eponymouse at 2:24 PM on April 15, 2008


How can you make it into college and not know Africa is a continent? Not being able to name more than half the countries within it is one thing, but to think Africa actually is a country is kind of hard to defend.

I'm not trying to defend anything (and I do know what Africa is), but I didn't need geography (or the ability to point out the VP) to get into college. To get into college, I needed to...

1. Get reasonable grades in required classes, which for me were math, science, English, and a foreign language of choice. (I chose Spanish, but we NEVER looked at maps and talked about the geography of Spain or Latin America.) I think I also had to take one semester of U.S History.

2. Get reasonable scores on the S.A.T., which didn't ask me about Africa or the VP.

3. Get some letters of recommendation.

Why should I know whether Africa is a country or a continent? I'm not seriously asking that question. I'm glad I know, and I mostly want to be around other people who know. But -- notice again that's a SOCIAL need. I want friends who know X, Y and Z.

I don't need to know anything about Africa to do my job. I don't need to know anything about Africa to get my day-to-day chores done. I don't need to know anything about Africa for my hobbies.

I'm a big fan of knowledge for knowledge's sake (and I also understand that knowing something about foreign counties might make one a better world citizen). I'm just pointing out that there's little impetus in normal, day-to-day life in America to know anything about Africa.

The only reasons I can think of are...

1. Desire not to appear stupid.

2. Love of pure knowledge.

3. Concern about the state of the world coupled with a believe that knowledge of geography might help.

These aren't bad reasons. I'm just wouldn't expect everyone to care about them.
posted by grumblebee at 2:26 PM on April 15, 2008 [2 favorites]


A similar question was posted to the blue a couple years back. (Warning: it takes a while to load)
posted by klarck at 2:46 PM on April 15, 2008


wow, this is a great thread, and i'm sorry i didn't check into it again earlier.

i know on the green a while back there was a question that was basically "what common-sense everyday stuff should i know, but didn't learn?". the answers were a lot of "life lessons" stuff like how to do your laundry, balance your checkbook, change your oil, etc. someone please correct me if i'm wrong, but it didn't include anything about knowing the difference between a continent and a country.

i think "ignorance" depends a lot upon social class.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 3:54 PM on April 15, 2008


Response by poster: Thanks for posting that klarck. It was hilarious. I didn't know what a portabello mushroom was until I got a job at TGI Fridays. I was 20-years-old. I hate mushrooms, and have no motivation to learn all of the different types.

I remember that question, misanthropicsarah, but I don't think it touched on how people learn or don't learn about common-sense stuff.
posted by sixcolors at 4:10 PM on April 15, 2008


I read that link to the blue thread klarck posted.

... and people say that the quality of comments on MeFi is getting worse? Wake up, folks! We live in MeFi's golden age!
posted by tomble at 12:12 AM on April 16, 2008


I think the bit in the original question about STAYING ignorant is a fairly key point. As we move through life we all find ourselves in new circumstances or life stages for which we do not have the requisite knowledge. What we do about that, whether intentionally or not is what I think is the disturbing thing.

A personal example: I grew up in a large city in the UK and worked in IT in a large corporate environment. Then 7 years ago I moved to rural Romania to work for a non-profit. When I arrived here people found it hilarious that I did not know how to light a fire (the only way of heating my home in -35C temperatures). I also didn't know how to chop wood, make french fries in oil or speak Romanian. I didn't take lessons in any of these things, but I can now do all of them competently. I think adaption in acquiring the knowledge necessary for your environment is what we expect people to do, and what disturbs us when they don't.
posted by alicegoldie at 2:20 PM on April 16, 2008


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