Are polymathy and general knowledge in decline?
September 28, 2009 9:20 PM   Subscribe

Two articles from The Economist's Intelligent Life magazine about changes in knowledge production and acquisition, The Last Days of the Polymath by Edward Carr and Is Google Killing General Knowledge? by Brian Cathcart. The first deals with the implications of increasing specialization in all field of human activity and the second with whether people are not committing facts to memory because they are so easy to look up on the internet.
posted by Kattullus (62 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Stephen Fry features in both articles but I believe that every article written in the British Isles must mention either him or Michael Palin.
posted by Kattullus at 9:22 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is Google Killing General Knowledge?

No, it's just changing it. And now I will read the article.
posted by philip-random at 9:26 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

I took part in the "Is Google Killing General Knowledge" study as an undergraduate. The researcher commented to me that their research arose over beers discussing divorce.

Someone noted that divorce is stressful because couples have been proven to divide knowledge between them. He remembers the birthdays, she remembers the phone numbers, etc. But when the couple splits, he has to learn phone numbers and she has to learn birthdays!

Another student suggested that perhaps Google was beginning to have the same effect as marriages. If people adapt so well to letting someone else remember trivial information, could Google take that role over from a spouse? A psych study was born!

I can't for the life of me remember the study, but I think overall it was something like two sets of people were each given questions, but one set was told they would have recourse to Google. Which set remembered what they read better?

A "Question for Further Study" listed at the bottom of my little take home sheet was, "What happens if you try to divorce Google?"
posted by jefficator at 9:28 PM on September 28, 2009 [16 favorites]

"Back in the day" when I had many jobs, acquaintances, organised two sporting teams, just for a lark I wrote down 70+ phone numbers I knew off by heart.

Then when the family got one of dem new fangled phones with a memory [we we're always late adopters] I was aghast at how bad my memory for phone numbers became. And quickly. If I wasn't at that particular handset and I wanted to ring someone then I was rooted.

But jeez. It takes some discipline to not use something so simple and accessible just to exercise your brain. Google is awesome.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 9:42 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

My brain seems to be a magnet for useless trivia and bits of nonsense. I know just enough about many topics to survive a shallow conversation, or to get myself into trouble when one gets too deep.

In the olden days, my friends would phone me at all hours because they needed to know some esoteric info to settle a bar bet or explain some film/book reference or whatever. I had a decent batting average, enough to be their go-to person for useless info.

Now, I guess they all use Google.

I'm so ronery.
posted by rokusan at 9:46 PM on September 28, 2009 [9 favorites]

My brain seems to be a magnet for useless trivia and bits of nonsense.

Mine is, too.

When will Google destroy memorizing Monty Python scenes?
posted by jefficator at 9:54 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Knowledge is less important than thought. Cue the "calculators in school: yea or nay?" discussion.

What you know is not as important as how you came to that knowledge. It is more important to know how knowledge is organized and accessed. Which is why one day the librarians will rule us all (overtly).

Since the invention of the most rudimentary language, humanity has been a computational superorganism with distributed memory. Heinlein may have said, "specialization is for insects," but all of our greatest achievements have been collaborative efforts, usually between folks with very specialized knowledge. You can know a lot about a little, or a little about a lot, but not both. Every system has limits.

Imagine a world where not knowing is not wrong. Not thinking would be the real crime. And, sort of like MLK, Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech, one will be judged by the content of their mental processes, not by the skin of knowledge that sits on top of thought.
posted by Eideteker at 9:57 PM on September 28, 2009 [17 favorites]

"When will Google destroy memorizing Monty Python scenes?"

I was going to favorite your comment, but I'll just google it when I want to refer to it later.
posted by Eideteker at 9:59 PM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

Is writing things down destroying memory?
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:08 PM on September 28, 2009 [10 favorites]

If anything the conversations I have with friends are more densely packed with general knowledge than they were 10 years ago. Search engines are the starting points for things I want to know, not the repository.

I also don't store many bookmarks of general knowledge that I've found. Some reasons:
1) Links are often broken within a year or two
2) The collections are often done better in some other format or medium
3) If a link is of great interest I'll want to expand on it; the useful bits will be put in a larger local file.
This I think has kept me from relying too much on search engines as an offline brain.

General knowledge is different from the minutiae of daily life; by its nature knowledge is applied and not just memorized. Having a huge database at your fingertips means little to your level of general knowledge if you can't provide the right context for what you've just looked up. Besides, it's the application of knowledge that makes having it fun.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 10:10 PM on September 28, 2009

When will Google destroy memorizing Monty Python scenes?

Can they start loading the Google Labs: Pop Culture Parrot with lines from Desperate Housewives, and winners of American Idol, so that my coworkers will no longer feel the need to talk about it? 'Cause frankly, I'd rather hear a million Monty Python or even Fletch quotes.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:11 PM on September 28, 2009

Is Google Killing General Knowledge

I feel for people who grew up in an era when rote memorization passed for education, but my answer to this is "I sure hope so." The sooner we can start teaching thinking, and stop using knowledge of trivia as a prerequisite to earn a degree, or a job, or anything at all, the better.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:17 PM on September 28, 2009 [16 favorites]

Here is another story. A former winner of the BBC quiz show “Mastermind” recently took part in a pub quiz which came down to a tiebreaker between his team and a group of young people who were relying on BlackBerrys. Anyone familiar with quizzes these days knows that this can happen, whether it is under the table or outside in the smokers’ zone; the combination of wireless internet access and Google searching is simply too powerful for some to resist and for others to prevent. In this case, happily, virtue triumphed and the team led by the Mastermind champion won. Then afterwards a young woman from the losing side came over and asked in baffled tones: “How did you get that?” So attuned was she to the idea that answering quiz questions was a task to be outsourced to the internet that she seemed not to understand the idea of general knowledge that was kept in the head.
This has the ring, not of truth, but of the sort of story a former winner of "Mastermind" might tell in order to demonstrate how amazing he is and that, really, he's done other things than simply win a TV quiz. Other things a pub quiz. And against young people. Young people who were cheating. With the internet! Wouldn't like like to come up for a drink and I'll tell you all about it!
posted by dersins at 10:20 PM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

my friends would phone me at all hours because they needed to know some esoteric info to settle a bar bet

I got a text from my sister at the pub the other day asking "What band sang that song that was about [blah]", from her iphone... and I thought to myself "can I have your iphone, because you're totally doing it wrong".
posted by pompomtom at 10:22 PM on September 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

I think there are still a few places of refuge for polymaths. I know one reason why I chose to study comparative literature (and, later, to write professionally) was that literature is a field which is by its nature polymathic. In fact, pretty much every modern polymath mentioned in the article lays claim to being a writer (conspicuous absence: Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, nobel-prize winning author and anthropologist).
posted by Kattullus at 10:22 PM on September 28, 2009

I tend to remember things after I've looked them up. Also, google often leads to wikipedia which leads to me suddenly knowing a lot of useless facts about things like abysmal sea life that I have absolutely no need for.

I am one datum.

(Also, pelican eels have jaws so massive that the hinge actually protudes through the skin! You can see the bones and everything. )
posted by Jilder at 10:25 PM on September 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

I can still read an atlas, so no.
posted by Ron Thanagar at 11:16 PM on September 28, 2009

I am one datum.

And in multiples, you're a fact. Wait, what?
posted by ryoshu at 11:16 PM on September 28, 2009

Is Google Killing General Knowledge?

Erm... maybe?

But define 'general knowledge'. As an apprentice tech 25 years ago, the most important thing that was hammered into our heads in the first week was "you don't need to know everything - just where to find it and how to use it when you do".

To this day, I can't tell you how, given a bunch of X-Y points, how you go about deriving a function that fits all the points. But know which book it's in, approximately what page it's on, how to do it from those instructions, and that the answer is also out there in Google, Wolfram Alpha, and Mathematica.

Or: in the last couple of days I've been asked why "octopus" (greek: octωpous = 8 feet), what "misericordiae" (in the context of church stalls) meant ("mercy" or "compassion"; little brackets under the folding stall seats that were 'compassionate' to the old folk who could lean/sit on them while standing), and how the hell I knew those things (a smattering of greek and latin in a self-taught classical upbringing, plus years of aimless curious searching / yahooing / altavistaing / googling ;-).

Given all that, I fail to see how "just Google it!" isn't an expression of general knowledge in and of itself ;-)

pompomtom: I get emails like that from my sister, and she knows how to search. The last three times the answer has been "The Reels", "The Violent Femmes", and "The Kinks" - and not one of those times was the correct answer in the first 5 pages of a Google search.

Just don't ask me what the questions actually were (except that the first was the answer to a description of a music video I haven't seen in 20 years). I don't remember details like that - just the answers ;-)
posted by Pinback at 11:33 PM on September 28, 2009

I feel for people who grew up in an era when rote memorization passed for education

You're still going to need it if you want to speak another language.
posted by Wolof at 11:35 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

On the other hand, I just remembered I've done a few field trips with people who couldn't find north using a compass - but could find it with a GPS. Go figure...
posted by Pinback at 11:39 PM on September 28, 2009

Am I the only one who thinks that the complaint "now that society knows a whole bunch, its harder for me to be a know it all" is just kind of selfish and missing the point? Yeah, it was easier to master a whole bunch of fields when medicine basically consisted of memorizing the names of the four humors and philosophy was Plato rambling about how philosophers (ie people like Plato) should be placed in charge of everything... but I'm really quite fine with knowing its harder for me to make a real impression on history or in any field of academic merit given that I'm going to live twice as long, in a world with far fewer slaves, in a world with airplanes and air conditioning, where people can use birth control to prevent an egg from joining with a sperm instead of leaving a newborn infant on a mountainside to die.

I just have a hard time believing that people who complain about the lack of polymaths are sincere in their respect for mastery of knowledge, given that we undoubtedly know more about the workings of our world than ever before, and the only way to go back to having some people being able to master it all would be to head back into a cave of ignorance. Our modern world is more humbling, it's true, but also in many ways more magnificent, and its better for society to be stronger, even if it comes at the cost of individual glory.
posted by Kiablokirk at 11:43 PM on September 28, 2009 [8 favorites]

Libraries are killing general knowledge. Why do I have to know anything if I can just look it up in a book?
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:52 PM on September 28, 2009

Ever since Cain decided to grow the wheat and Able decided to herd the sheep it's been downhill. Goddamn specialization of knowledge.
posted by bardic at 12:36 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure that I like the idea of the sidewiki. Framing websites has been done before, and none of it was good. In "The Dangers Of Google Sidewiki: Complete Brand Invasion" they lay out many of my concerns. On a similar idea note, Seth Godin had to back down on his Brands in Public idea.
posted by Mr.Roundtree at 2:06 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have a feeling it's less about Google and more about the fact that there have always been two kinds of people: Those who like to learn new things and those who just want to get by. To those who like to learn, this talk of the death of polymaths seems absurd. But for most people - certainly not those on MeFi - who just want to get by Google is a double-edged sword.

The problem is that, until relatively recently in history, the amount of information needed to get by was actually quite a lot. And, to boot, not a lot of that information was readily available. It was contained in a book somewhere, or in someone else's head. This forced a person to either take the initiative to seek out the information or obtain it through the use of social skills.

As I see it, Google and the Internet effectively eliminate these two hurdles to getting information. This, I believe, is the cause of the lack of interest in knowledge mentioned in the articles. People no longer have to work hard to obtain for information that 30 years ago would have required hours or even days of research. Getting something for nothing means it's worth exactly that -- nothing.
posted by DCCooper at 2:23 AM on September 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

SOCRATES I have something to say heard from men of former times; they themselves know the truth. And if we by ourselves should find it, would we then any longer have any care for human conjectural opinions?
PHAEDRUS What you asked is ridiculous. But say what you assert you've heard.
SOC Well now, I heard how there was, near Naucratis in Egypt, a certain one of the old gods there, whose sacred bird is the one they call Ibis. And the name of this spirit is Theuth. Now, this one first found number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, and further, draughts and games of dice, and then, indeed, written letters. Now furthermore, at that time the king of all Egypt was Thamos, in the upper region's great city, which the Greeks call Egyptian Thebes; and they call the god Ammon. Coming to him, Theuth displpayed his arts and said they must be given out to the other Egyptians. He asked what benefit each art had, and as the other went through them, he expressed blame on the one hand, praise on the other, for what in his opinion the other spoke beautifully or not beautifully. Many things, then about each art in both senses, it is said, did Thamos reveal to Theuth, to go through which would make a long speech. And when it came to written letters, "This knowledge, king," said Theuth, "will make the Egyptians wiser and provide them with better memory; for it has been found as a drug for memory and wisdom." And the other said, "Most artful Theuth, one person is able to bring forth the things of art, another to judge what allotment of harm and of benefit they have for those who are going to use them. And now you, being the father of written letters, have on account of goodwill said the opposite of what they can do. For this will provide forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it, through neglect of memory, seeing that, through trust in writing, they recollect from outside with alien markings, not reminding themselves from inside, by themselves. You have therefore found a drug not for memory, but for reminding. You are supplying the opinion of wisdom to the students, not truth. For you'll see that, having become hearers of much without teaching, they will seem to be sensible judges in much, while being for the most part senseless, and hard to be with, since they've become wise in their own opinion instead of wise.
PHAE Socrates, you easily make Egyptian speeches - and speeches from whatever country you wish.
SOC Well, my friend, people in the sacred temple of Zeus at Dodona asserted that the first prophetic speeches came into being from an oak tree. Now, for the men of that time, seeing that they were not wise like you young men, it sufficed, because of their siimplemindedness, to hear from an oak and a rock, if only they should say true things; for you, however, perhaps it makes a difference who the speaker is and frm what country. For you do not look at only that thing: whether it is so or otherwise.
PHAE You have given a correct rebuke, and in my opinion the situation as regards written letters is as the Theban says.
SOC So then, he who supposes that he has left behind an art in writings, and he in turn who receives it with the thought that there will be something distinct and solid from writings, would be full of much simplemindedness and would fail to understand Ammon's prophecy, supposing written speeches to be something more than reminding one who knows about the things that the writings are about.
PHAE Most correct.
SOC Indeed writing, Phaedrus, doubtless has this feature that is terribly clever, and truly resembles painting. For the offspring of that art stand there as living beings, but if you ask them about something, they altogether keep a solem silence. And likewise speeches do the same. For you would think that they speak with some understanding, but if you ask something about the things said, wishing to learn, it indicates some one thing only, and always the same. And when it's been once written, every speech rolls around everywhere, alike by those who understand as in the same way by those for whom it is in no way fitting, and it does not know to whom it ought to speak and to whom not. And when it suffers offense and is reviled without justice it always needs its father's assistance. For by itself it cannot defend or assist itself.
PHAE These things you've said are also most correct.
SOC What then? Do we see another speech, the brother of this one, and genuine—do we see both in what manner it comes into being and how much better and more powerful it naturally is than this one?
PHAE What is this one and how do you say it comes into being?
SOC The one that is written with knowledge in the soul of him who understands, with power to defend itself, and knowing to speak and to keep silence toward those it ought.
PHAE You are speaking of the speech of him who knows, a speech living and endowed with soul, of which the written speech might justly be said to be a certain image.
SOC Just so, absolutely...
–Plato, Phaedrus 274c - 276b [circa 400 BC]

posted by koeselitz at 3:08 AM on September 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

I just remembered I've done a few field trips with people who couldn't find north using a compass - but could find it with a GPS. Go figure...

I've always loved this revealing example of ignorance.

You see a compass points to Magnetic North. Which is not True North. Which is not Grid North.
posted by srboisvert at 3:30 AM on September 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

If anything I'm carrying about far more wide ranging knowledge in my head than I did five years ago, so I don't believe that either Google or the internet are destroying general knowledge. But we are seeing a sharp decline in critical reasoning and overall research skills and that's troublesome for lots of reasons.

Far too many people are wiling to accept single sources of information as definitive; in other words, if you find it on a web site or if some authority figure says it, then its gotta be true.

In many circles there seems to be a general acceptance of "opinion as fact", without the desire to drive deeper and understand thought processes behind a conclusion. This is disturbing, as even when folks do cross check facts and confirm sources, we see far too many author's today almost mindlessly citing other author's work, again without consideration for the reasoning process. This is especially problematic among bloggers, where entries placed on a single web site spread out across the 'Net like wildfire, sometimes even getting picked up and reported (as facts even!) by mainstream media.

While this has been going on long before Google (e.g., Usenet groups), we've been noticing it creeping into academic work as well. And that's really disturbing.

Since 2003 I've been supervising Masters level students on their dissertations at an upper quartile UK university. I tend to focus in three specific niche areas of finance that I've done primary research in (Credit Derivatives, Risk Management and Asset Bubbles), generally working with about a dozen students per term.

The past two years or so we've had tremendous problems in two areas - citations and critical reasoning.

The problems with citations arise when students note a source, but don't look any deeper. Many times we see students citing a single, perhaps contemporary source but not attempting to find the thought leader or definitive source. This is problematic as, like in most fields, schools of economic thought evolve over time. If you only cite a contemporary source you risk ignoring and thus omitting from your work the richness of the topic. This detracts from the depth of the work. You also risk citing an outlying or "rogue" element from a specific topic. Since you haven't researched too far you have no idea if your source is representative of the topic at hand.

Another closely related problem is a pronounced lack of research skills. Students (and internet folks and sometimes even reporters!) don't seem willing or able to follow a web of sources; again, this willingness to accept at face value single sources negatively impact both academic work and logical arguments.

Because folks aren't looking deeply at problems or considering the debates that define a field, they can't adequately consider alternative positions or opinions.

But there are even more profound considerations beyond academia; the lack of critical thinking skills does indeed seem to be manifesting an especially pernicious form of group think. Just to tie this back to what I perceive as "the bigger picture", look how obscenely mislead citizens are sometimes by their own governments. We don't have to name specific examples, they cut across administrations, even decades and, unfortunately, are legion.

I used to joke with my friends about "the dumbing down of America".

Sadly, that's something The United States has successively exported to far too many nations.
posted by Mutant at 3:40 AM on September 29, 2009 [15 favorites]

Eideteker: What you know is not as important as how you came to that knowledge. It is more important to know how knowledge is organized and accessed. Which is why one day the librarians will rule us all (overtly).

What you're calling 'knowledge' and what people generally mean by the word knowledge are two different things. You're speaking as though there's no appreciable difference between Faraday doing his researches over a span of years and developing a theory of electricity on the one hand and myself spending a few months in college reading his book and then memorizing his results and the mathematical formulae that they yielded on the other hand. What I'm indicating is this: to read a thing, to look up on Google and cross-reference Wikipedia and even to check up on the references and make sure that they're sound, is not really to know a thing; it's rather to know the accepted opinion about a thing. Nietzsche once wrote (where, I can't recall - ironically) that it would be quite nice if I could discover truth by hiring a team of specialized researchers to track it down for me and hand me the result, but it just isn't like that; unfortunately, we have to be all those researchers to really know that we can trust the result, and we can't just assume that every bit of research was done properly.

In fact, it stands to reason that the further we get from the research, the more likely a mistake will be made. This is why I believe it's so essential that students go through and do experiments in school; it's easy to lose the point of what we've learned and how if you never actually put your hands on it and experience it for yourself.

This may seem like a trivial semantic point; I know that you might well mean something less than knowing-knowledge, something more like 'awareness of the facts.' In fact, Eideteker, you could argue that my point only supports your argument that this knowledge that you're talking about is only a veneer on true thoughtfulness, which is much more important.

However, my point is generally that true knowing is a good deal more elusive than awareness of facts, though it's related in its essence to such memorization and mental gymnastics. When I say this I'm trying to say that what you call knowledge and what you call thought are inextricably linked, and that you can't have either without the other. Part of the quotation from Plato that I gave above is an example of something Socrates seems to have brought up constantly: his apparent notion that the process of recollection and remembering is at the heart of learning and knowing. At the very least, I think it's clear that the simple skill for remembering facts and figures can be an essential part of learning; this is not to say that they are proportional, that the person who's memorized the most facts and figures has learned the most, but only to say that the habit of remembering is necessary for learning. And it also is reasonable to conjecture that anything which dramatically impairs that habit, that skill, is likely to impair learning as well.

Since the invention of the most rudimentary language, humanity has been a computational superorganism with distributed memory. Heinlein may have said, "specialization is for insects," but all of our greatest achievements have been collaborative efforts, usually between folks with very specialized knowledge. You can know a lot about a little, or a little about a lot, but not both. Every system has limits.

This strikes me as extraordinarily untrue. Moreover, it's completely unscientific—and since you seem to be thinking of scientific achievements when you say this, I'll focus on that: the number of scientists in the world has always been vanishingly small, and the number of people who couldn't be arsed to compute themselves out of a hole in the ground has always been legion. That doesn't necessarily imply that those many human beings who are unscientific are evil or wrong or anything like that; but if humanity really is a 'computational superorganism,' then that means that most people simply are not humans. That strikes me as an unlikely proposition.

In fact, I would argue that this idea of 'distributed scientific achievement' is one of the biggest misconceptions of the modern age, a misconception which serves us well (in that it soothes us by tellng us that our age is the best age because all knowledge is suddenly available to us) but which is nonetheless false. What are the great achievements that you speak of? All of them were made by individuals who took hints from others, did all the research themselves, and then pushed on ahead. Watson and Crick didn't first outline the proper shape of the DNA helix just because they took as granted the conclusions of Miescher and Levene; they did the experiments themselves, determining what was false and what was true. It was certainly a case of people working together, but a specialized, distributed brain they were not.

People don't seem to realize that it was and is possible to go through the experimentation necessary to examine every step of humanity's scientific progress up to this moment. It takes some years of study and some work, but it is possible - and it's what every one of the great scientists did. No great thing was ever accomplished by assuming that the people that came before must have gotten it right. Heinlein was right, if only because he was voicing the scientific perspective: learning comes through experimentation and observation, not through reading the right book and checking the citations.
posted by koeselitz at 4:07 AM on September 29, 2009 [7 favorites]

To put it another way: the internet improves the ability to do research - but research skills are not thoughtfulness, and often indicate the opposite.
posted by koeselitz at 4:09 AM on September 29, 2009

And - I have a feeling we can't really answer any questions about Google's impact on thoughtfulness before we answer the looming question which has been on the horizon for at least thirty years now: how much damage has television done?
posted by koeselitz at 4:12 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is Google Killing General Knowledge?

Yes if you don't like learning, no if you do.
posted by vapidave at 4:40 AM on September 29, 2009

koeslitz: Wow! You must have spent ages memorising all that! ;-)

Seriously, the cognitive skills needed to live seem to have changed pretty rapidly, and that's 100% okay. My ability to do mental arithmetic is redundant, except in extremely specialised situations, and, while I can memorise 11-digit phone numbers on first hearing, I consciously choose not to: I have a phone for that. As for my (pretty excellent) spelling - when I misspell a common word or spell an obscure one correctly, Firefox helpfully underlines it in red. Would my time have been better invested learning how to type?

In the meantime, we have new skills to learn (and teach!) - information literacy: the skill which allows you to solve a given problem given either google, or a database, or a library, and evaluate the source by finding corroboration or contradiction. Like literacy, this is a skill that most people on Metafilter have in spades and many other people lack in buckets, which leads to this "she's doin it wrong" phenomenon with the iPhone and the texting and stuff. Everyone here has it, which leads to a lack of sympathy for those that don't. Far more worrying than students that google everything are students that don't know how to google effectively.

One thing though: what is the minimum that someone should (a) know and (b) be able to do when they leave school and university? What is general knowledge? I found that comment about designing a curriculum for people who are going to leave school in 2024 pretty terrifying, and I now have a lot more sympathy for the people that designed my curriculum (Hi, retired Scottish teachers - the computing was rubbish, but the computer itself was a godsend).

I reckon they should know the structure of: animals, plants, common machines, the Earth, the Solar System, Society (historically, locally, and globally), an essay, a second language, and matter. (in no particular order)
And they should be able to read, write, count, create and understand statistics, locate, evaluate and use information, solve equations, construct electrical and mechanical things, apply and understand basic physical laws, understand the advantages and disadvantages of the scientific method.

I reckon that covers everything an intelligent person needs to know and be able to do in order to go on to do anything, with nothing which will become obsolete. If you know all of that, you can never be called ignorant. No offence to Kattullus, but knowledge of specific ancient Romans can be left to specialists and hobbyists.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 4:44 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

if you enter "the answer to life the universe and everything" into Google, its calculator function will return 42, but it doesn't explain how I am to understand this result.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:25 AM on September 29, 2009

No offence to Kattullus, but knowledge of specific ancient Romans can be left to specialists and hobbyists.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 12:44 PM

At least they should know something about George Santayana, no?
posted by vacapinta at 5:46 AM on September 29, 2009

This death of the polymath seems to be at odds with what seems like a trend towards interdiscipliniarity which is definitely occurring in UK academia and I suspect elsewhere. This sometimes lies with creating centres with potentially complementary disciplines but in other cases aims to create discipline spanning academics at the PhD level or to encourage expansion of interests at more advanced levels.

This is seen as a fundamental response to dealing with complex problems, notably including the different elements of climate change.

Obviously there can be lesser or greater degrees of interdiscipliniarity, depending on the gulf between the disciplines involved.
posted by biffa at 6:15 AM on September 29, 2009

"In the meetings of our subgroup the Jesuit priest was always talking about "the fragmentation of knowledge." He would say, "The real problem in the ethics of equality in education is the fragmentation of knowledge." This Jesuit was looking back into the thirteenth century when the Catholic Church was in charge of all education, and the whole world was simple. There was God, and everything came from God; it was all organized. But today, it's not so easy to understand everything. So knowledge has become fragmented. I felt that "the fragmentation of knowledge" had nothing to do with "it," but "it" had never been defined, so there was no way for me to prove that."

-Richard Feynman

I totally had to google that quote.
posted by Telf at 6:18 AM on September 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

if you enter "the answer to life the universe and everything" into Google, its calculator function will return 42, but it doesn't explain how I am to understand this result.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:25 AM on September 29 [+] [!]
Google is building another Google to solve this problem.
posted by MysteriousMan at 6:22 AM on September 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

I wish all these nice people would stop telling me what I can't think and how I can't think it.
posted by Panjandrum at 6:29 AM on September 29, 2009

That's funny, I came here to post one of my favorite Richard Feynman stories (googled, of course):

After that I went around to the biology table at dinner time. I had always had some interest in biology, and the guys talked about very interesting things. Some of them invited me to come to a course they were going to have in cell physiology. I knew something about biology, but this was a graduate course. "Do you think I can handle it? Will the professor let me in?" I asked.

They asked the instructor, E. Newton Harvey, who had done a lot of research on light-producing bacteria. Harvey said I could join this special, advanced course provided one thing - that I would do all the work, and report on papers just like everybody else.


I had to report on papers along with everyone else, and the first one I was assigned was on the effect of pressure on cells - Harvey chose that topic for me because it had something that had to do with physics. Although I understood what I was doing, I mispronounced everything when I read my paper, and the class was always laughing hysterically when I'd talk about "blastospheres" instead of "blastomeres," or some other such thing.

The next paper selected for me was by Adrian and Bronk. They demonstrated that nerve impulses were sharp, single-pulse phenomena. They had done experiments with cats in which they had measured voltages on nerves.

I began to read the paper. It kept talking about extensors and flexors, the gastrocnemius muscle, and so on. This and that muscle were named, but I hadn't the foggiest idea of where they were located in relation to the nerves or to the cat. So I went to the librarian in the biology section and asked her if she could find me a map of the cat.

"A map of the cat, sir?" she asked, horrified. "You mean a zoological chart!" From then on there were rumors about some dumb biology graduate student who was looking for a "map of the cat."

When it came time for me to give my talk on the subject, I started off by drawing an outline of the cat and began to name the various muscles.

The other students in the class interrupt me: "We know all that!"

"Oh," I say, "you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you've had four years of biology." They had wasted all their time memorizing stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.

posted by milestogo at 6:33 AM on September 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

“They just don’t need to learn off the capital cities of the world,” he says. “The capital of France, yes, but not the capital of Colombia. They will be much better off learning to use atlases as a skill.”

What, they can't do both?

He assumes also that when this knowledge is needed, the needer will be in a position to haul out an atlas and rummage for an answer.

Extrapolate at will. But the end result is the person in the Vital Business Meeting who says "Let me get back to you with that" and the person who does not. Guess who gets the bonus? (Or these days, keeps his job?)

Facts are a good thing to shove into single digit minds. They can deal with facts. They can memorize them with some ease. It's the reason the Child Jones gets times tables questions at dinner every night. It's the reason she can tell you all the state capitals and most of the world capitals without benefit of the atlas (NB she loves an atlas as well). Time enough later on in life to sort out the facts and make them work, but for now- do what comes naturally.

(Can we really blame this all on America? Were none of the outside America dumbing downs homegrown? And even if America goes to play in traffic, does that really force the other kids to follow suit? I find it hard to believe that the French, as an example, would follow us bureaucratically in much of anything. So what's their story?)
posted by IndigoJones at 6:41 AM on September 29, 2009

Although access to Google is universal among people with Internet connections, it extends no further than that. Google itself is, in effect, a centralized repository belonging to the world's elite.

Centralization of resources & specialization of knowledge are, overall, poor strategies for operating in the actual world. In this case, when batteries die, power fails, servers go down, or communication satellites plummet, we revert to being ill-informed & less capable than those others who carry knowledge with them.

Google is a human institution. Human institutions tend to attempt to acquire power & to spread their influence & their areas of control at the ultimate expense of the human populations they ostensibly serve. Dependence on centralized institutions weakens & reduces human ability & diversity, narrowing & making shallow thought, opinion, facts, imagination & actions in order to fit those channels which serve & are approved of by the institution.

To suspend your human mind by a single slender & vulnerable FireWire cable is a mistake.
posted by Forrest Greene at 6:43 AM on September 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Will A Scare Headline About Something You Use Every Day Catch Your Attention?
posted by Joe Beese at 6:59 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh great, I have been called a polymath twice in print. I figured if it happened a third time, it would be true. Now, I am endangered before I have even arrived! Life is so unfair....
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:04 AM on September 29, 2009

I'm jealous of school kids today. There were so many times in college I had to wait to ask the professor a question I had about something we read the next day because it was not in our text or getting the information that would make it possible for me to really absorb the idea was maybe at the campus library, but maybe not. Google, the internet and searh engines have really made me actually get involved in learning, rather than trying to fake understanding something because I had a few questions that didn't get answered so I had to work with whatever scant knowledge was available.
posted by anniecat at 7:12 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

If a polymath is someone whose learning and brilliance covers any number of fields, what do you call someone whose ignorance and stupidity covers any number of fields? A polytard? A member of the Republican base?
posted by rhymer at 7:24 AM on September 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

Richard Feynman (quoted by Telf): "In the meetings of our subgroup the Jesuit priest was always talking about "the fragmentation of knowledge." He would say, "The real problem in the ethics of equality in education is the fragmentation of knowledge." This Jesuit was looking back into the thirteenth century when the Catholic Church was in charge of all education, and the whole world was simple. There was God, and everything came from God; it was all organized. But today, it's not so easy to understand everything. So knowledge has become fragmented. I felt that "the fragmentation of knowledge" had nothing to do with "it," but "it" had never been defined, so there was no way for me to prove that."

But the Catholic Church wasn't 'in charge of all education' in the 13th century. And the world wasn't 'simple.' Nothing was simple at all; no vast and unifying theories, no easy answers: it was a time of the sudden and rapid expansion of learning, when Islamic and Judaic philosophies were spreading into Europe, bringing with them the old Greek philosophies, many of which had been unknown to the early medieval west: the openmindedness of many of the scholars of the west was frankly astounding, and while explicators of Islamic, Judaic and Greek philosophies met with some resistance, it didn't really threaten them. And it's clear who won: who's heard of Thomas Aquinas, advocate of the pagans and reader of various and sundry Jewish and Muslim philosophers? Okay, and who's heard of Etienne Tempier?

What's more, having known my fair share of Jesuits, it seems likely that Mr Feynman (with all respect to him, and I love his books) was painting with a pretty broad brush: most to the Jesuits I know hate the Catholic church (in their own very Catholic way) and bristle at the idea of the Church being 'in charge of education.' We are talking here about a sect that has actually been suppressed by the Church on numerous occasions, remember. Whereas Feynman doesn't even mention the problem - or lack thereof - or give an argument for why it really shouldn't be an object of our concern.

By the way, if anyone would like to read a very, very good book about the rise of the particular set of unquestioned assumptions behind science and the change it's engendered - a book which just happens to have been written by one of the most intelligent Jesuits I know of - I highly recommend Yves R. Simon's book The Great Dialogue of Nature and Space. It's not always easy reading, but it's extremely rewarding - and it points out very successfully the limitations of the new Cartesianism when compared with the Aristotelian view of the world.
posted by koeselitz at 7:39 AM on September 29, 2009 [10 favorites]

koeselitz, we don't disagree. I place a greater value on empirical knowledge. I was talking more about rote memorization. Our schools tend to teach kids to memorize, rather than to think.
posted by Eideteker at 7:44 AM on September 29, 2009

Eideteker: koeselitz, we don't disagree. I place a greater value on empirical knowledge. I was talking more about rote memorization. Our schools tend to teach kids to memorize, rather than to think.

Yes, I was thinking that reading back over what you'd said.

It's interesting, because younger students would often rather be actually learning; learning is something that usually requires doing or talking, both of which are almost always more pleasurable than reading and memorizing. And frankly if I'd been allowed to do a few of the awesome experiments we did in college when I was in high school I would've learned about a billion times faster, and it would've been a hell of a lot more fun.
posted by koeselitz at 7:50 AM on September 29, 2009

The problem of when to know something and when to look it up has been dealt with theoretically in computer science. When a program is running, the data it needs can be in all sorts of places, each with an associated cost. Best would be already loaded in the machine registers where the calculation would take place. Second best would be in slower, but less expensive memory from which it can be fetched. Worse would be out on disk because RAM was needed for something more important. Etc. The relative cost versus speed of retrieval of data changes continually as hardware advances figure out to improve one or another type of memory.

Google, has, in effect, changed the price of secondary memory retrieval, which frees up brain cells for more immediate data. So, what will the freed up brain be used for? Tweeting, perhaps? Or maybe future brain hardware could be built smaller. That is, the freed up memory can be discarded and humans can devolve. Isn't there a Vonnegut novel where the large human brain turned out to be an evolutionary disadvantage?
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:44 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

1963: Parnelli Jones
1964: AJ Foyt
1965: Jim Clark
1966: Graham Hill
1967: AJ Foyt
1968: Bobby Unser
1969: Mario Andretti
1970: Al Unser
1971: Al Unser
1972: Mark Donohue

Ten years worth of Indy 500 winners, plucked randomly from memory. Couldn't go any earlier or later with any real authority but that particular decade just leaps right on out.

Sorry, what were we talking about?
posted by philip-random at 9:18 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Galapagos is that novel, which is one of the few Vonnegut books I haven't read. Every year or so I think "I should read Galapagos" but then I forget when I'm deciding on what book to read next.
posted by Kattullus at 9:22 AM on September 29, 2009

the less facts i memorize and can look up on google instead means there's more room in my brain to remember where i put my car keys

hmmm - why the hell can't i google that?
posted by pyramid termite at 9:37 AM on September 29, 2009

To suspend your human mind by a single slender & vulnerable FireWire cable is a mistake.

My mind is suspended by multiple and redundent inexpensive cat5e cables and not the Apple branded IEEE 1394 interface. (I Googled that to ensure my FireWire reference was accurate.)
posted by haveanicesummer at 12:05 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Related: people who have PS3s and Playstation Network accounts can get trophies for doing well in games. Some sites such as this one are dedicated to trophy hunting--they rank PS3 games according to how hard it is to acquire all possible trophies for a given game.

According to this ranking, the result of polling among forum members, the third-easiest game to win a platinum trophy for is Trivial Pursuit. Here's why, according to a poster who voted on that poll: This is very easy since you can pause the game and use google to find the answer, 0/10 isn't available so i'll give it a 1.

Interestingly, almost no one in the thread points out that the point of Trivial Pursuit is to know facts (esoteric as they might be) without computer assistance. Perhaps that's a game that will ultimately lose its meaning in a new cultural context.
posted by Prospero at 12:35 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do'h! I commented in the wrong thread.
posted by Mr.Roundtree at 1:56 PM on September 29, 2009

Kattullus: it's lesser Vonnegut.
posted by leotrotsky at 4:58 PM on September 29, 2009

Kattullus: it's fine Vonnegut, indeed.
posted by Philby at 6:13 PM on September 29, 2009

As someone who is both a polymath (credentials: previous girlfriend (to me): "What's it like to be a polymath?"; Terry Gilliam (to me): "You know too many things.") and just quit as a Google engineer today after almost six years - bring it on!

You must understand that the reason we know all this information is that we love all this information and Google and the rest of the Internet are mainline, hardcore, massive pumping streams of information goodness.

When I discover, as I did last week, that the same actor Kenny Baker played both R2-D2 and Fidget in Time Bandits, my heart sings within me.

And I still get calls from people - though nearly always they're un-Googleable things.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 6:53 PM on September 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

The desire for more knowlege has overtaken more of my time than I care to admit. The internet has replaced hours in libraries and seemingly endless nights talking for hours with those who know more than I. Some dear friends have been made by asking "why is this so?".
Some of my finest memories often included a drink or two and asking questions of Veterans, business owners, teachers and yes even kids.
I guess that's what brought me to MeFi. Some obscure reference or link can open up into hours of note taking and cross referencing ideas and historical facts.
But it is also fraught with danger as we all know that "I read it on the web, it must be true" is seldom the case.
MeFi, Wiki, Google, it's a wicked, dangerous loop that can become all consuming. Hopefully I can add to the mix from time to time.
It's 1:40 in the morning for crying out loud, don't you people ever sleep?
posted by 5X88 at 11:44 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Google and the rest of the Internet are mainline, hardcore, massive pumping streams of information goodness.

And badness. It still jars me to see URLs as footnotes in scholarly writing.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:32 PM on October 7, 2009

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