It was Alexander Pope who said “A little learning is a dangerous thing”, which has since been misquoted as “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”.
While I’m not one to quibble over the exactitude of an 18th century phrase, I do wonder what Pope, pictured below, would have made of today’s information avalanche.
In 1709, in An Essay on Criticism, Pope contended that a small amount of knowledge can lead people into thinking they’re more expert than they really are.
Back in his day, he believed that knowing just a little about a subject could “intoxicate the brain”, whereas a greater depth of knowledge “largely sobers us again”.
Nowadays, with news, facts and opinion flooding the airwaves and swamping cyberspace, it’s become all too easy for most of us to harvest small amounts of information and fool ourselves into believing we have a vast silo of knowledge that lets us think we know everything we need to know about anything.
Thus, armed with a few small pellets of understanding, we let loose a fusillade of ill-informed verbiage that – more often than not – makes us look like someone drunk, not on knowledge, but on self-regard.
Nowhere is this more self-evident than in the unmediated, cacophonous worlds of Twitter and Facebook, neither of which I patronise but both of which I cannot avoid.
Clearly, Pope had a good point; one that was echoed, in part, by Abraham Lincoln, left, or – some contend – Mark Twain, one or another of whom said: “It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.”
Whoever said what, all three men held fast to a shared idea: that knowledge is a precious commodity, and that it ill behoves us to treat it lightly.
Babbling like Bedlam
I’ve been drawn to this line of thinking by the sheer volume of nonsense I read in the press and see on my screen.
As a keen cyclist and ardent follower of the world’s road racing news, I was astonished by some of the bigoted, prejudiced – even hate-filled – opinion voiced in the weeks and months following Lance Armstrong’s appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show.
True, I added my own tuppence worth.
But I like to think that – just as I did when I sounded off following Lady Thatcher’s death – I did so after some consideration of what I know, and some thought on how best to present my points of view.
Again, as a supporter of Chelsea Football Club, I follow their progress via the press and the web and – once more – I’m sometimes aghast at what I read.
Jealousy, derision and fatuous empty-headedness once again hold sway.
The pictures painted in these and so many other cases are of a world that resembles Bedlam; a place teeming with desperate souls all vying to be heard; crazed people who – because they are making so much noise – will never get the eye of those whose attention they seek or the ear of others they’re trying to impress.
Knowledge is power
I’m tempted to say, at this juncture: “Can’t we all shut up?” But that would be fruitless.
The fact is, we all need knowledge to both sustain and enrich our lives. We need it to communicate with others. And, most importantly, we need it to underpin the veracity of what we say.
When we speak from a position of little knowledge we are, indeed, the empty vessels that make most noise.
When we – as we like to say – “know what we’re talking about”, we’re more likely to be believed.
As it is, living as we are through snow storms of whirling facts and howling opinion, and mind-numbing blizzards of information, we too often like to think we know what we’re talking about when, in truth, we only know as much of anything that has managed to stick to our memory banks. And that’s frequently precious little.
Clearly, the answer to my original question – “Do we know too much today?” – is both “yes” and “no”.
Yes, we know – or think we know – who should play for our national soccer team. Yes, we know the colour of Gwyneth Paltrow’s most recent party frock, the length of Kim Kardashian’s hair and who her siblings are dating this week. And yes, we’re led to believe we know what Justin Bieber was up to last night. We also know gazillions of other trivial facts and titbits of information relating to people whose lives never really touch on our own.
But we don’t know enough about the things that really matter.
We don’t, for example, know who’s really in charge of the country – of any country, come to that – who truly controls the world’s security systems, or who’s behind the forces that constantly try to disrupt the even tenor of the world as we know it, or would like it to be known.
Let’s think on’t
Perhaps the real answer to the question is: “Not enough about the right things.”
And – recognising that – perhaps we ought to think more carefully before taking to our keyboards or tablets with the aim of adding yet more to the ceaseless clamour that currently risks deafening itself, and – as a result – causes us to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to most of it.
Let us all think more carefully before opening our minds to the scrutiny of others. Let us try to avoid looking foolish.
That way, we may all get to know a little more that’s truly valuable.