Knowing how to look something up isn’t comparable to knowing it

There’s a voguish argument that in an era of easy information availability there is less cause to have any substantial body of knowledge memorized. I have seen articles arguing that the crucial cognitive skills for young people today are the ability to find what they are looking for, given access to the internet.

I think there is a huge and obvious shortcoming with this perspective. Knowing that I can look up the Wikipedia article on the Lutheran Revolution, for example, is just a one way mental link that stops there. If you know nothing about the history of Catholicism, or of religious conflict in Europe, or of the precepts of Christianity then knowing where to find someone else’s writing about the Reformation doesn’t give you any meaningful understanding of what it was or why it mattered. Someone asked a narrow question about the event will be able to find it through an online search, but without internalized knowledge they won’t be able to see the implications and connections to other phenomena. Knowing that you can look up thermodynamics or Carnot efficiency doesn’t give you the ability to apply those concepts when thinking about an application like heating or cooling or the efficiency of an engine.

The ongoing COVID pandemic is demonstrating the extent of scientific and medical ignorance even within rich industrialized societies. That manifests in people falsely believing that they can make health choices for themselves with no consideration of others, and of course in the enormous amount of nonsense that is circulating about vaccines. It’s strange to observe how society has become technological to an unprecedented degree — with technology literally making life as humanity is experiencing it possible — and yet culturally an interest in and knowledge about science is treated as an optional personal curiosity, like fly fishing or following a soccer team. Broadly speaking, I hold the view that to understand anything well requires knowing at least the basics about many other issues (nobody can sensibly evaluate public health policy without knowing the rudiments of medicine, statistics, and epidemiology for example). That concept of knowledge as an interconnected web demonstrates how the ability to pluck out a narrow fact with the help of technology may not translate into much real understanding.

It’s oversimplistic to apply a ‘deficit model’ to what people know about an issue like COVID or climate change, assuming that there is an empty void where knowledge ought to be and that filling it is the solution. For issues tied up in politics, and thus in questions about what people will be free to do, the desire to undertake particular behaviours can create the motivation to believe what’s necessary to keep doing them. Just as someone operating under motivated reasoning can never be swayed by facts or arguments, more education alone won’t combat the problem of people choosing to believe factually what supports their behaviours or ideological positions.

100 years ago, someone could have been appropriately laughed at for saying they know about Pitt the Elder or the Peloponnesian War because they know they can go to a library and find books about them. The instant availability of information online doesn’t really change that.

2 thoughts on “Knowing how to look something up isn’t comparable to knowing it”

  1. I find that the masses of information available everywhere makes me feel that I know less. When I study a piece of literature carefully, I learn about human nature and human problems and issues. The experience allows me to think, agree or disagree and observe cultural or historical differences. Although being able to Google an answer is tempting, it often shows you all the things yo do not know.

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