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Is It Still Important To “Know” Things?


The defiant drinking bird toy

A parenthetical addition to the title of this piece could have been “Was it ever important to know things?” which we might disagree on. I’m going to say that yes, it was important, but that whether it is still important is debatable.

I don’t want this to be an epistemological debate that starts with “Well how can we actually know anything?” I remember being on a drive during my I-am-really-annoying philosophy major days and actually saying “Yes, but how can we really know that anything exists over this next hill? We can’t see it!”

If I could go back to visit younger Josh in that moment, I would kick him out of the car and laugh as he rolled over and over into the sagebrush.

For today, let’s provisionally accept knowing as being able to call up facts if needed. For instance, you are asked which year the American Civil War began in? If you can give the answer of 1861, let’s say that you know that fact. In terms of knowledge, we are talking particular facts that are not open to human interpretation or dependent on human thought for their existence.

I can’t see Lake Erie right now, but it’s out there, far, far north and east of where I’m sitting. That is just how it is. There’s no debate to be had. But…is it useful for me to know that Lake Erie touches Ohio and a small bit of Pennsylvania with its borders? Is there any point in knowing that when I know how to find the answer?

I double-checked my answer by going to Google maps, by the way.

Sherlock Holmes and Useful Knowledge

In several of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Watson suggests that Holmes didn’t want or care to know anything that wasn’t useful to him. Politics? No. Literature? Nope. How well were those things going to serve him in his capacity as a crime consultant?

Not well enough for him to care about them. If you’ve read the stories it is hard to argue that his scant grasp of these subjects hindered his ability to do what he wanted and excel at his craft.

A question: if you did not read any news or read any books for the next two months, would you be greatly impaired in any significant way? Could it improve you in any way?

The drinking bird

When I attended Seth Godin’s event in Salt Lake, he told a story about two children. I believe they were related to him, but it doesn’t matter. He gave them one of those drinking birds filled with liquid; they’re usually wearing straw hats. Once you tip them forward, they bob and “drink,” then they stand upright, then they dip again when they’re thirsty, and so on.

Seth was trying to get these kids to guess why it worked the way it did. They wouldn’t do it. They weren’t interested in guessing or figuring. They wanted him to tell them how it worked, or they wanted to go look it up.

Is this a bad thing? They could certainly go searching online and find the right answer. Is that in any way inferior to just knowing why it works?

The Collector

Much of my job involves finding facts for people. I love to answer questions because I get to learn the answers as well. Whenever I can, I try to commit the answer to memory so that I’ll have them later.


I’ve never given this much thought beyond: because it is fun for me. It is satisfying. It is how I was raised. I like to know things and have them at my disposal. I always have.

Is this useful?

Is there a reason for me to file the currency of Ghana away in my memory banks, or the rules governing the Fibonacci Sequence? Other than being interesting to me, how useful is it to be able to recall that Nikolai Gogol died because he voluntarily quit eating? Or knowing that Stephen King’s next book is going to be about someone traveling back in time to thwart the JFK assassination, or the definition of deliquescent?

I could look all of those things up and have them at my disposal. Is that better or worse than having them at my command?

In the case of word definitions, I want to know as many as possible. Part of my job as a speaker and a writer and a personal trainer and a librarian is to choose the most effective words in order to communicate most effectively with a specific audience. I doubt I’ll ever have to dazzle anyone with deliquescent, but there are cases where it would be the most appropriate word.

Should you learn its definition? Would it be useful to you at all? Would you enjoy learning it? Would you try and commit it to memory?

Only you can decide.

If I don’t have to go look a word up, I don’t want to.

As I’ve studied for the MCAT I’ve run into many pieces of information that medical professionals need to know, and they need to be able to recall them quickly, possibly under great duress with no time to go consult their smartphone.

But does anyone else really need to know how chemical A reacts with Chemical B when placed in a body suffering from Condition Suck?

Maybe not. Maybe so, if they’re going to be ingesting the chemicals.

I’m not going to stop asking, learning, and filing these thing away, but in many ways it makes me feel like a collector, rather than feeling that I have an inquisitive mind. Part of the fun in being a collector is that you collect something that not everyone has.

Psst…want to see my thought collection? I know things! Let me tell you all about it!

To which you might legitimately respond, “Get the hell away from me, you pedantic weenie. If I need something, I’ll go find it. I’m freeing up my RAM for more important things.”

In inquisitiveness still a virtue? Was it ever?


I see the human conversation and experience as a debate.  I want to be in the debate as an informed participant or I’m not going to be very helpful, to myself or others. I don’t want to just be another loud voice attached to a brain that can’t create analytical chains of thought. I don’t want to be dependent on the opinions of others simply because I can no longer articulate my own.

Critical thinking is a skill. If we don’t use it, it might not be there for us when we decide we want to go back to figuring things out for ourselves.

I have every reason to believe that the more time I spend thinking and reasoning, the better my brain works. I feel more creative and I am better able to solve problems.

The more facts I learn, the less chore-ish thinking and reasoning feel. The more information I have close at hand–close as in in my head, not in the cloud–the more connections I feel like I am able to make. Even if the result is the same, I feel better when I solve a problem in my head.

This is just me. I’ve heard many, people say that they no longer read entire books, that they prefer scanning, that the fragmented nature of the web makes them feel smarter.

I have no interest in returning to life before the Internet. I also have no interest in becoming incapable of guessing or wondering, simply because I know the answers are only a couple of clicks away.

So then: is it still important to know things? Is it useful to you? What works for you? Any Luddites reading this?


And know this: subscribe to the RSS feed and your IQ will probably go up by one order of magnitude.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Amy June 22, 2011, 2:56 pm

    I am all for knowing things. It helps me have better conversations with others when I know a little about whatever it is they’re talking about and can add in or have a better idea of what questions to ask. If I know absolutely nothing about a topic I often find my mind wandering and I space out.

    I also like to try to figure things out for myself. I don’t mind looking something up if I don’t know it or can’t figure it out myself. I commit what I can to my memory to use later, but then again I’m a hoarder of knowledge. When I was a child I would read encyclopedias and dictionaries for fun because the books were my friends. I was an odd child I am aware of that.

    I keep the physical clutter to a minimum but my mind if it were an actual filing system it would be so freaking scary.

  • Patrick Tracy June 22, 2011, 3:15 pm

    +1 for knowing things.

    In this day and age, it may be more important to be able to find information than to retain it, but having lots of data on hand still allows us to come to sophisticated conclusions and create relational understandings that would be impossible for the web-connected cypher.

  • Heather June 22, 2011, 7:22 pm

    +1 more for knowing things. Condition Suck. . . . that’s GREAT! I like knowing things. You never know when you’ll need that information. It’s just handy.

  • Steve M June 22, 2011, 8:11 pm

    Can’t deny that it’s important to know things, i.e. facts. But in order to engage in the conversation, the debate, or to be able to think critically, don’t we need to “know” or have in place paradigms, the framework on which we can hang the various facts that we know and thus be able to make sense of all those bits of information, to evaluate them and relate them to other facts?

  • Eric | Eden Journal June 23, 2011, 5:54 am

    First, let me say that I have to agree with Mr. Holmes on politics. It provides me no benefit whatsoever to learn about, and then almost by requirement, debate politics.

    Second, there are no facts… http://www.edenjournal.com/662/there-are-no-facts-only-interpretations/
    Remind me to lock the car door should I ever be riding with you.


    • Josh Hanagarne June 23, 2011, 9:18 am

      I challenge you to a debate on Libya. You go first.

      • Eric | Eden Journal June 23, 2011, 11:54 am

        I am firmly against their nationalists ever since the attempted murder of Doc Brown. (It’s a good thing he read Marty’s note.)

        • Amy June 23, 2011, 11:58 am

          RUN FOR IT MARTY!

          My oldest boy, almost 11, will yell out Run for it Marty it’s the Libyans at church, in crowded stores…where ever and it cracks me up. Much better than some of the other things he’s yelled out in church though.

        • Josh Hanagarne June 24, 2011, 9:00 am

          You win. Let’s debate the merits of various sandwiches.

  • George C June 23, 2011, 11:59 am

    I also wonder if having an iPhone glued to one’s hand actually causes a sort of atrophy in our ability to learn and remember facts.

    The thing that really worries me though, is most peoples’ inability to think critically, which make the plethora of information poising as facts useless at best, dangerous at worst.

  • Sarah June 24, 2011, 2:09 pm

    I also vote for knowing. What if one day you need to know one simple thing to save your life, but the power is out and you can’t look it up…

    Kind of morbid, but it gets the point across.

  • DeAnne June 24, 2011, 9:32 pm

    One of the good things about being a reference librarian is that almost any fact or subject you learn can be useful. Many years ago, I was reading a mystery in which the culprit turned out to be the mother, who was suffering from Munchausen By Proxy Syndrome (http://kidshealth.org/parent/general/sick/munchausen.html), which I had never heard of before. A few days later, a patron asked for information on “this condition,” and went on to describe MBPS. I was able to say “Ah, you mean Munchausen Syndrome” and look it up easily (this was in the days we used actual reference BOOKS to answer questions).

    Yes, I’m a “collector” too, but my storage space seems to be getting full!

  • David Cain June 26, 2011, 8:06 pm

    I definitely enjoy people a lot more who know things, and care to know things. I’m not a “two types of people” kind of guys, but I reckon there are people who are interested, and there are people who are uninteresting.