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The most important thing you know
June 19, 2008 11:53 AM   Subscribe

An old professor of mine used to ask graduating students, "What is the single most important true proposition or fact (not theory) that you learned in university?" This question has been aimed at many fields, and social scientists have long and famously struggled to find good answers, while scientists have had a large number of options, and those who study the humanities wonder if they can even answer similar questions. What is your most important (or interesting) fact?
posted by blahblahblah (98 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Good metafilter posts never end with a question mark.
posted by Dave Faris at 12:00 PM on June 19, 2008


I am
posted by caddis at 12:03 PM on June 19, 2008


Hmmm, let me think about this. All those friends I made, all those relationships I had, all that traveling I did, all those insights that helped form my worldview... I guess it could be summed up by this:

Fact: all the most important things I learned in university cannot be encompassed by an 'important fact.'
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 12:04 PM on June 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


Never say never.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:06 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


The humanities are bullshit? What an inane proposition. (Fish, third link.) Learning about myself and my fellow humans through literature and art and philosophy makes my life a thousand times more interesting than not doing so. This is no reflection on the beauty of and the usefulness of science and math and all the other things we humans do.

The most interesting fact I (re)learned in the dentist's waiting room is that some bamboo grows thirty-six inches in twenty-four hours. It made me wonder if I could see it grow. I think wonder is the most interesting function of human mind, gratitude the most wonderful.

Tomorrow I would have a different answer. I don't think Mr. Fish would.
posted by kozad at 12:06 PM on June 19, 2008


Dave Faris: I've had quite a few posts that did, and which were good. But the intent was not merely to be chatty, so just read the links instead, all of which (should be) interesting and on topic.
posted by blahblahblah at 12:10 PM on June 19, 2008


Good metafilter posts never end with a question mark.

Being a dick for no reason in the first post usually doesn't help.
posted by milarepa at 12:11 PM on June 19, 2008 [12 favorites]


FACT: using a single, ill-defined variable to measure the hodge-podge of information known as "facts" is kind of pointless

Also, while facts can bring down theories, theories (in the sense of "explanations" not in the sense of "hypotheses") are more important than facts.
posted by DU at 12:11 PM on June 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


The attributes of an object (mass, charge, spin, etc) can only be determined through interaction with another object. This fact has both scientific and philosophical significance.
posted by SPrintF at 12:11 PM on June 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


e = -1

I actually bring that up to illustrate a problem with this question: any succinct expression of a non-trivial, worthwhile proposition or fact apropos to the question is likely to be dense with meaning that's fully parseable only if you're familiar with the field. Real understanding of the single fact is likely to be dependent on initiation to a broad domain of facts.

On the other hand, maybe that's a good takeaway lesson, too.

And asking people to try to distill and communicate things is a worthwhile exercise that probably yields some useful stuff sometimes.
posted by weston at 12:13 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


I learned that there are no facts. Next question.
posted by Hildegarde at 12:17 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


My school was divided into North Campus (humanities) and South Campus (Engineering & Life Sciences). I made the mistake one time referring to South Campus majors as "real majors" to a roommate of a friend who was studying Ethnomusicology.

With a bit more perspective, I still think it makes sense to devote one's education towards developing bankable job skills, but in a more perfect world there would be less work-work-work and more life-long education.

The current quasi-capitalist life-work balance is so screwed up. It doesn't have to be this way for anyone, for this is an immensely productive society -- but we don't know any better.
posted by tachikaze at 12:17 PM on June 19, 2008


Real understanding of the single fact is likely to be dependent on initiation to a broad domain of facts.

If not a theory.

Also, what exactly separates fact from theory? Feynman would probably have answered with "Everything is made of atoms". Is that a fact or a theory?
posted by DU at 12:18 PM on June 19, 2008


Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts dont do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out
Facts are getting the best of them
Facts are nothing on the face of things
Facts dont stain the furniture
Facts go out and slam the door
Facts are written all over your face
Facts continue to change their shape
posted by sleepy pete at 12:19 PM on June 19, 2008 [6 favorites]


goddamn cut and paste.
posted by sleepy pete at 12:20 PM on June 19, 2008


Learning will never disappoint you.
posted by ozomatli at 12:21 PM on June 19, 2008


Some ancient Greeks had some astounding ideas and the 2500 years we've spent developing, investing, and amending them have been well worth the effort.
posted by oddman at 12:25 PM on June 19, 2008


God, is all this just a lead-in to something about Chuck Norris?
posted by Bromius at 12:27 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


But the intent was not merely to be chatty, so just read the links instead, all of which (should be) interesting and on topic.

They're not. One of them is just a discovery channel list, another is a repeat of the question you asked as the meat of your post, and the last is a barely relevant op ed from 6 months ago. I appreciate the effort, but this post is pretty thin and (in my opinion) violates the guidelines as far as chatfilter goes, regardless of your intention.
posted by shmegegge at 12:27 PM on June 19, 2008


Must important fact learned in college: One can never nap too much.
posted by Arbac at 12:28 PM on June 19, 2008 [4 favorites]


Shema Yisra'el, Jahve Elohenu, Jahve Ehad (Deut. 6:4) = Hear, O Israel, Beingness is our God, Beingness is One."
posted by No Robots at 12:29 PM on June 19, 2008


That while facts are all well and good, emotion should trump logic and life is most rewarding when it is least concrete.
posted by bunnytricks at 12:30 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


"What is the single most important true proposition or fact (not theory) that you learned in university?"

That one of my biology professors was a grad student of Alfred Hershey's and used to go get a cup of coffee while waiting for the centrifuges to run. Also that much of what I dislike about modern Christianity originated from one person.

Science has ideas, and the humanities have facts. Good chat.
posted by Tehanu at 12:34 PM on June 19, 2008


It was incidental to my education (mech. eng., class of '92), but I learned that the internet was going to change things. A lot.
posted by LordSludge at 12:36 PM on June 19, 2008


There are no such thing called fact.

on preview: Dammit, Hildegarde!
posted by suedehead at 12:36 PM on June 19, 2008


there *is*...
posted by suedehead at 12:37 PM on June 19, 2008


I learned that there are no facts.

Is that a fact?
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:38 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


As for my contribution, among the suggested propositions in the OrgTheory link, I really like the Class Size Paradox, which drives a large number of social phenomena, such as why some desegregation efforts of paradoxically resulted in more segregation. It basically says that your views on how big your group is, and your behavior as a result, has nothing to do with the actual size of your group, but rather its size relative to other groups.

To quote from a paper from Scott Feld and William Carter. (It seems convoluted, but it isn't too technical):
A common manifestation of a class size paradox explains “Why Your Friends Have More Friends than You Do” (Feld 1991). If people have varied numbers of friends, then those people who have many friends are part of the comparison for many others, but those with few friends are hardly a comparison for anyone else. Suppose there is one person who is the only friend of 10 others. Then, the one person has more friends than the average of her friends, but the other 10 have fewer friends than the average of their friends. While the specific configuration of friendships affects the specific overall relationship between the number of friends and the mean number of friends of friends for each person, it is always true that the mean number of friends is less than the overall mean number of friends of friends. The desegregation paradox can be considered in the same way.


Consider interracial contact from the perspective of blacks as the minority. Even though the total numbers of whites and blacks in the system are fixed, the average number of whites in schools with blacks and the average proportion of whites in schools with blacks change as blacks and whites are redistributed among the schools; and they change in different ways from one another. The average number of whites sharing a school with the black students is greater when more of the black students are in schools with more of the white students (in the larger schools). In contrast, the average proportion of whites sharing a school with black students is greatest when all of the schools have the same proportion of whites. The desegregation paradox arises from the different effects of reallocations on these different averages...
posted by blahblahblah at 12:41 PM on June 19, 2008


More of an approach to life than a fact: "Fail better."
posted by lubujackson at 12:43 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


1) Anti-semitism was, broadly speaking, in decline throughout the German Empire until WW1. That fact gives me pause whenever I consider that minorities are "safe" in 21st century America.

2) The original California Constitution was written in both English and Spanish, with the understanding that California would be a bilingual state. Also, ethnic Mexicans were promised an automatic number of seats in the new California Assembly. I grew up in California, but had to wait until I took a History of California class to learn that. They don't teach you that little fact in 5th grade, for some reason.
posted by Avenger at 12:44 PM on June 19, 2008 [4 favorites]


The most important fact I learned in university: People believe strange things, regardless of their level of education.

Also, bureaucracies exist to make work for themselves
posted by moonbiter at 12:44 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Hardware will eventually fail. Software will eventually work.
posted by Clave at 12:45 PM on June 19, 2008 [11 favorites]


I studied philosophy, before going into a career in business. What fact did I learn? That the perfect is the enemy of the good. Or parsed another way, some questions don't have single answers, but a domain of answers. Each answer addresses a particular aspect of the problem, but compromises other aspects. What one should do when looking for an answer to a question, or a solution to a problem, is assess what they are willing to lose for what it is they are trying to get.

Ok, not really a fact, but a mindset that has helped me along since leaving the happy warm world of academics.
posted by elwoodwiles at 12:54 PM on June 19, 2008


You take the good, you take the bad,
you take them both and there you have
The facts of Life, the facts of Life.

There's a time you got to go and show
You're growin' now you know about
The facts of Life, the facts of Life.

That and E=(n+1)(h-bar)v
posted by peppito at 12:57 PM on June 19, 2008


The way to hell is paved with good intentions.
posted by SteveFlamingo at 12:58 PM on June 19, 2008


That thing on Donald Trump's head has already paid for Harry Letterman's college education, and he's what--four and a half?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:59 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Donald Trump is eleven or twelve, easy.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 1:04 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


when i was back in seminary school....
posted by stubby phillips at 1:07 PM on June 19, 2008


God, is all this just a lead-in to something about Chuck Norris?

No, actually it'll be something about DaShiv.
posted by Caduceus at 1:12 PM on June 19, 2008


When Gene Siskel used to interview people he would always close with the question, "What do you know to be true?" Kind of a similar premise.

The thing I know to be true is that great things are only achievable when an individual focuses his/her attention on something outside of themselves. That is to say, self-absorption won't get you very far.
posted by wabbittwax at 1:12 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


(mind you, masturbation is the ultimate act of self-absorption and it can still be a lot of fun)
posted by wabbittwax at 1:13 PM on June 19, 2008


Force = Mass x Acceleration
posted by BrianBoyko at 1:13 PM on June 19, 2008


I learned that there are no facts.
Is that a fact?
No; it's a theory.
posted by goethean at 1:14 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Everything is made of mollycules except what ain't.
posted by Mister_A at 1:21 PM on June 19, 2008


(mind you, masturbation is the ultimate act of self-absorption and it can still be a lot of fun)

Really? I usually just stick to tissues.
posted by shmegegge at 1:22 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


What is your most important (or interesting) fact?

In AskMe, just answer the damn question, that's it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:22 PM on June 19, 2008


I think you mean the tissues stick to you...
posted by stubby phillips at 1:27 PM on June 19, 2008


What I got most out of my time as an undergrad was learning how to learn (especially knowledge skills). I now know how to take a topic I know very little about, to go realizing that there's actually something to learn, to discovering what are the fundamentals I need to learn to understand that topic, to learning the fundamentals, by research, by reading, by instruction, and by practice, and from there how to focus on the advanced topics that I will learn of during my schooling.

The internet has made some of those tasks much easier, especially for the geekier bodies of knowledge. However it is no panacea, and the same skills that I honed at school are very much in demand. I don't doubt you can learn to learn outside of college, and I've seen plenty people who got a degree who obviously are still poor learners, but I think getting a degree is still one of the best ways to learn how to learn.
posted by aspo at 1:28 PM on June 19, 2008


"Fact: I learned more in the two months I spent with Mr. Henry and his crew than I learned in 15 years of academic study. Fact: I can guarantee you after Mr. Henry sees us pull this job, he's going to take a personal interest in our future. Fact: Mr. Henry drives a jaguar...

Fact: Dignan, the picture's not doing it for me right now.

Well does the fact that I'm trying to do it do it for you?"
posted by mattbucher at 1:28 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


In Soviet Union, tissues stick to you.
posted by Mister_A at 1:28 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh and it drives me crazy when people complain that they didn't learn anything important in college. I've heard this far too often from computer programmers, normally the mediocre ones who way overestimate their skills. Do they really think getting a CS degree was supposed to be the end of their education? Skills change, learning doesn't.
posted by aspo at 1:31 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


That website that car dealers would prefer that you don't know about is in fact one of those websites that car dealers would prefer you to prefer to believe car dealers prefer that you don't know about. This is given away by the words "car dealers" at the beginning.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:33 PM on June 19, 2008


When faced with the daily choice between beer and dormitory cafeteria food, it is best to choose libation.
posted by netbros at 1:35 PM on June 19, 2008


The way to hell is paved by politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists with good intentions.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:43 PM on June 19, 2008


I learned there certainly ARE such things as facts.

And I learned most people can't tell the difference between a fact and a supposition if the fact dropped from the blue sky at 9.8 meters per second squared and hit them on their naturally selected hominid craniums.

After graduation I also learned those same people will a problem in later life.
posted by tkchrist at 1:55 PM on June 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


I learned that people and relationships are important to living, and the rest of what I learned was barely adequate to make a living.
posted by francesca too at 1:55 PM on June 19, 2008


The panda is a giant raccoon.
posted by kyrademon at 1:55 PM on June 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


The panda is a giant raccoon.

I think that's only the red panda, isn't it?
posted by Evangeline at 2:01 PM on June 19, 2008


After graduation I also learned those same people will a problem in later life.
posted by tkchrist


And even after they are dead.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:04 PM on June 19, 2008


I'm glad I majored in something technical. Now I can (and do) read all the great books I want to in my spare time. And I don't even need to pay to do it. Yaaay!
posted by Afroblanco at 2:04 PM on June 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


That the classical Chinese annals contain a wealth of insight and some fantastic anecdotes.
posted by Abiezer at 2:05 PM on June 19, 2008


The most important fact that I learned while at college was actually something I discovered when working in the university's radio station.

Because it's unassailable and implicitly correct, it holds true to this day, and I still revel at my joy in it's discovery:

Rage Against the Machine kicks ass.
posted by quin at 2:05 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


I agree strongly with DU. Facts are, in and of themselves, moderately interesting but not especially important. Theories, the things that link facts together, are the important part.
posted by sotonohito at 2:07 PM on June 19, 2008


You learn "facts" in almanacs and in email forwards. University isn't about learning "facts" any more than it's about learning the alphabet.

Sociology, which I teach, is largely concerned with getting students to unlearn the "facts" they've imported into class with them. They all walk in as experts in, say, juvenile delinquency and they leave, if I've done my job, not "knowing" a fucking thing.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 2:09 PM on June 19, 2008 [4 favorites]


Oh and it drives me crazy when people complain that they didn't learn anything important in college. I've heard this far too often from computer programmers

Ignoring all the non-CS things they learned (hopefully!) which makes them better-rounded people, I think the other aspect to this is the 2 kinds of CS education. One, like what I had, emphasizes theory, algorithms, and general principles. The other emphasizes learning a language and coding in it. Now, some of the second is necessary to get a grip on what the first taught you, but the practical stuff you will learn on the job either way. The more abstract stuff you will almost certainly not learn on the job (at best, you can study it in your spare time), and it's often the element that helps distinguish the mediocre from the great.
posted by wildcrdj at 2:35 PM on June 19, 2008


1) It's complicated.

2) It depends.
posted by talitha_kumi at 2:35 PM on June 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


Good metafilter posts never end with a question mark.

The most important thing I ever learned is that no matter where you go, there's always one person who's a fucking expert on what everyone else wants.
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:43 PM on June 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


I learned (and try to teach my students) that facts are meaningless and useless in and of themselves.

I do like the *idea* of the question, which I may try on the students in my women's studies class at the end of the semester. Of course, I may get, "I learned nothing, this class is dumb, there's no such thing as discrimination anymore!"
posted by Saxon Kane at 2:46 PM on June 19, 2008


The premise of this book.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 2:51 PM on June 19, 2008


Never underestimate the wrath of chatty people on metafilter over a glib comment.
posted by Dave Faris at 3:00 PM on June 19, 2008


All categories (such as the ones we use in our thinking, language, science, philosophy, literature, etc etc. etc.) have fuzzy boundaries to a greater or lesser degree. This fact has both scientific and philosophical significance.

An example relevant to this particular thread: the concepts of "fact" and "theory".
posted by flug at 3:05 PM on June 19, 2008


The most important fact I learned is that Aristotle, the most brilliant and knowledgeable man of his time, was wrong about just about everything he posited as "fact."

His theories, however (on the arts and humanities) still have unending value.

But I'm sure we've got the facts straight by now.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:33 PM on June 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


don't shit where you eat, my friend.
posted by boo_radley at 3:51 PM on June 19, 2008


Pigs have penises that spiral, and can ejaculate for two hours.
posted by djgh at 4:01 PM on June 19, 2008


e = -1

I prefer to include the additive and multiplicative identities: eπi+1=0.
posted by ryanrs at 4:03 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Not all relevant features of human existence and experience can be answered with science.
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:14 PM on June 19, 2008


Easy.

Education, n.: That which discloses the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.

- Ambrose Bierce
posted by raider at 4:21 PM on June 19, 2008


I think Ambrose meant "discloses TO the wise"...
posted by raider at 4:22 PM on June 19, 2008


whimsicalnymph: That is my favorite book EVER!
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:29 PM on June 19, 2008


The whole of my foundation of knowledge is based on this video.
posted by Brak at 4:32 PM on June 19, 2008


That is my favorite book EVER!

Yeah, but just try getting hold of a copy.
posted by everichon at 5:55 PM on June 19, 2008


The single most important true proposition or fact (not theory) that I learned in university is that university is not about learning facts.

It's about learning how to research new topics quickly, analyse the information & present it in a meaningful & intelligible way, usually within a tight timeframe, with competing demands, and - as often as not - while completely wasted or hung over.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:41 PM on June 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


The modular automorphism group of the von Neumann algebra of the universe is time.

Next question.
posted by number9dream at 6:52 PM on June 19, 2008


I've learned that shit rolls downhill.
posted by Ritchie at 8:19 PM on June 19, 2008


Fact: George Bush is a murdering Butthorn
posted by jcworth at 9:26 PM on June 19, 2008


From sociology- that peer groups tend to be internally homogeneous and externally heterogeneous. That is, your social group has backgrounds extremely similar to your own, but as a whole the group will have really novel, strange backgrounds. It's not that I never realized that other people had different backgrounds, or that these backgrounds changed the way they thought- I just had never really understood why some people and their motivations seemed completely alien to me until then.
posted by 235w103 at 9:58 PM on June 19, 2008


The key fact I learned at University:

Success generally does require discipline and hard work, despite my preference for trying to substitute cleverness and beer.
posted by darkstar at 10:18 PM on June 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


yes I also learned that there are no true propositions or facts
posted by mary8nne at 11:36 PM on June 19, 2008


1) Although we can make a useful distinction between certainty and uncertainty, the nature of certainty is itself uncertain.

2) Despite 1) we can go ahead and reason from provisional fixed points. A good one is reciprocity, a moral principle expressed by all 7 major religions... "do on to others as you would have them do to you".

3) People in positions of power tend not to give a shit about 1) and 2).
posted by verisimilitude at 4:11 AM on June 20, 2008


I know that you can throw together a half-arsed essay at the last minute and get at least a Credit, maybe even a Distinction. I know that you can do this for a friend who is taking a subject you know nothing about. I know that you can obtain postgrad qualifications with little or no effort. I know that most of the university graduates who come to work for me lack basic analytical skills, that everything they write looks like a half-arsed essay and that they don't understand why that's not good enough anymore. I know that nothing at university prepared me for the real world as well as my high school Citizenship Education class. I know that many people enter universities with irrational prejudices and biases, and leave with them stronger than ever. I know that many people who went to university think that university is very important and that they're somehow better than people who didn't go, but they can't quite explain why without getting defensive.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:33 AM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


The most important fact I learned at university was that stroking your professor's ego would always improve your final mark.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:35 AM on June 20, 2008


Never make any promises while drunk that you can't keep when sober.
posted by bDiddy at 9:51 AM on June 20, 2008


All measurement is analogy. Thus all measurement is ambiguous.

Ergo, there are no facts.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:57 AM on June 20, 2008


believe it or not, i've actually gotten a lot of inner peace from the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the entropy (read: chaos, disorder) of any closed system is always increasing. (this is because disordered states vastly outnumber ordered states...imagine a picture puzzle, theres only one ordered state (the assembled puzzle), but every time you shake the box of pieces, you generate a new disordered state. (also, eventually some of the pieces get lost))
so...
-housework will never just go away, just do it
-enjoy what you have now because eventually it will fall apart
-however you think the world 'should' be, if it were to be that way, soon enough it wouldn't be
-the only constant is change...deal with it
-and keep your eyes peeled, because sometimes things fall apart in the most beautiful, beautiful way
posted by sexyrobot at 2:03 PM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


The only genuinely useful thing I was told at college was "Peanut butter is a relatively inexpensive source of protein".
posted by Grangousier at 2:16 PM on June 20, 2008


That I don't know how it is that anything at all exists, rather than nothing.
posted by psyche7 at 3:48 PM on June 20, 2008


The most important fact I learned at university was that stroking your professor's ego would always improve your final mark.

You mean I only had to stroke his ego?!?!
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:15 AM on June 21, 2008


Correlation does not equal causation.
posted by FormlessOne at 6:23 PM on June 21, 2008


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