My favorite series of children’s books when I was growing up was, far and away, the Freddy the Pig books by Walter R. Brooks. To give one example of the influence they had on my life, I never spent the night on a farm until a couple of years ago, and remain mostly ignorant about farm life, even though my daughter lives on one. And so, when I conjure a vision of farm life in my mind, I return to those Freddy books, which took place on the Bean Farm. Understand, the Bean Farm was populated by talking animals … Freddy was a pig who walked on two legs (I can’t remember how many of the other animals did the same) … that I base my understanding of farms on those books is a sign of my sheltered life.
In one of the books … I want to say it was my all-time favorite, Freddy and the Baseball Team from Mars, but I really don’t know … Mr. Hercules, the circus strongman who has big muscles and a big heart but who isn’t the brightest fellow, decides he is going to figure out what he doesn’t know. This effort twists his mind as if he were trying to follow a Moebius strip, trapped within circular logic. If he can name something he doesn’t know, then he must know it. If he doesn’t know it, he won’t be able to think of it so he can add it to his list of what he doesn’t know.
Jonathan Bernstein has an interesting post today on his blog, “Outside the Political Junkie Bubble.” He cites a poll stating that “22% of all Americans believe that Obama health care law has already been repealed, and another 26% aren't sure whether it's been repealed or not.” He then notes that anyone reading his blog is likely a political junkie, and that “odds are good that you're at least in the top 10% of all Americans in political knowledge.” He says this not because political junkie are necessarily smarter than everyone else, but only to point out that we tend to know more about our obsessions than the average person.
He then offers a way to get a feeling for how most people see a particular item (in this case, politics). Most people are not obsessed with politics, for instance, which is one reason why most Americans are ill-informed about the health care law. They aren’t dumb, they just have other obsessions. And so:
[T]o get a sense of what politics is like for many Americans, I suggest thinking of something that you do encounter in some way all the time, but that you just have zero interest in. Perhaps it's current pop music, or HBO shows, or celebrities. Me? NASCAR, the NBA, and any games made since Missile Command and Stargate Defender. The idea is that I actually do encounter and, in a way, retain a fair amount of information about those things in the nature of headlines that I see but skip the stories, or references made in other things I do read or watch, or conversations I've had that veer off in that direction. It's not as if I know absolutely nothing. It's just that the stuff I've heard is not organized at all, and I'm sure I've picked up misinformation along the way, since I don't scrutinize any of it.
What don’t I know. If you are like me, you know what you know, and you often slip up and think you know what you don’t know. Making this assumption, you decide that anyone who is clueless about things you know is dumb. But they just have different obsessions. We need the humility to accept what we don’t know. And yes, that might be the first time in the 8+ years of this blog that I’ve made the case for being humble.