On the always interesting Poddelusion podcast, I heard a description of an incident in an interactive science demonstration in Bristol. A volunteer member invited a passing spectator to look at kidney cells through a microscope. She did so, then responded "why does a Kidney need cells"?
This is a fairly typical area of "unknown unknowns", i.e. in some cases we don't know what we don't know. In the days before the internet, despite what people think, we were just as capable of looking up information in a miscellaneous way; but in general we are more likely to learn information in a familiar tree like manner - expanding the tree branch by branch. We would probably learn roughly what a cell was, and then that body organs are made of cells.
Not only can we very easily jump to branches that are not connected to our trunk of knowledge today, we are actively encouraged to do so. It's as if our tree of knowledge can be temporarily extended by the internet. But of course, it cannot. Despite the increase in information access, the human brain has not made any great leaps in the past 50 years and we are all subject to the same short comings and biases.
This has nothing to do with increased general intelligence, as opposed to increased ability to access wikipedia. When reporting news events, most of the exterior branches of a story are left in, because the average audience member is quite capable of making the pruning decision themselves. That does not imply they know what to do with the information, or more critically, that they know what they don't know.
In recent events, two details have been repeated many times: "Boston Marathon" and "pressure cooker bombs". Both of these things were integral part of the outrage, but neither are central to supposed Islamic ire - which we have been urged to assume this was the cause. Boston is a city on the United States' Eastern Seaboard like New York, but has no other particular significance to terrorism. A Marathon is a race notionally based on the Greek original, but again has no significance to terrorism. I'd seriously wonder whether pressure cookers are a commonly recognised form of cooking anymore. I know my mum used one but I haven't seen any recently. I don't think there has been much Islamic meditation on pressure cookers. It's good for bombs, but so is any metal pot.
Yet the terms now have unpleasant associations added to their previous meanings. Indeed, these associations may well eclipse any previous meanings. From now on public events in Boston may always be considered a risk, and pressure cookers gain a worse reputation than they already had.
With large amounts of narrative information competing for our attention, we are largely forced to choose an arbitrary point to start understanding from, however much we can take in. That "arbitrary point" is, of course, normally defined by others.
There is no battle between deep and shallow knowledge; cell biology is not a topic many people need to know in depth though we seek to know the basics. We know what we need to know. But there may be an increasing problem with rootless knowledge. It's hard to examine something that appears to have no clear predecessor in your mind.
Take Guantanamo Bay. Is it a prison? Why is it situated in Cuba? Is it military or civilian? Do you have to be proven guilty to be there? We know it is a real place, but what else is it similar to? Why does anyone want to shut it down? Why can't it be shut down? This is an example of an object that appeared as fully formed but has challenged reporters and legislators alike to actually describe what it is. That does not stop it appearing regularly in media, as if it was a fairly standard thing.
Unfortunately, it is usually only after disasters that people give long consideration to the things they thought they understood, but evidently didn't.
Good news for Afghani translators - Remember how I blogged about the Afgahni men and women who have acted as translators for British forces should be allowed asylum in the UK? The Government ...
3 hours ago