In the course of reviewing a popular-science book by Frank Swain called How To Make a Zombie — which (spoiler alert!) doesn’t actually tell you how to make a zombie — the estimable Adam Roberts pauses to think about what this kind of book does. Here is the key paragraph:
The success of books designed to popularise science (‘Main Title Namechecking Famous Scientific Thingummy: Subtitle Framed As A Question?’) is a contemporary cultural phenomenon of great interest. Hundreds of titles have been published, and a good number have gone on to become bestsellers. This has brought a degree of understanding of science and nature to a wide audience, and that can only be a good thing. The question, I suppose, is whether such books fall foul of Pope’s Law (a little learning being a dangerous thing). Another way of putting this might be to see all such books, up to and including Swain’s, as examples of the QI-ification of contemporary knowledge. It feels heavy-handed of me to explain my reference, but for the benefit of those who don’t know: QI is a popular BBC2 TV panel show, hosted by Stephen Fry, where contestants strive to answer alphabet-themed questions in a manner that is quite interesting. The show, in other words, trades on a general appetite for trivia, leaning heavily on the patrician, schoolmasterish charm of its host. But a love of nuggets of trivia is not the same thing as a love of learning more generally conceived. A single datum of trivia — a trivium — gives its possessor the satisfaction of knowing specialised, non-obvious things without requiring her to invest the labour and time in actual learning. It can be traded, in a cultural context: at a dinner party, say, or down the pub with friends, a trivium can be swapped for a small increase in the esteem of one’s companions and a lightening of the collective mood. In this respect, a trivium is akin to a joke, or a piece of gossip. And that’s fine and dandy — I like jokes, and value gossip. But trivia, gossip and anecdotes do not add up to Knowledge, because Knowledge requires the effort of systematic and engaged effort. Knowing a whole bunch of anecdotal trivia will tend to make us feel cleverer, or at least better informed, than we really are. The problem with a general QI-ification of contemporary knowledge is that it dissipates knowledge as such, and corrodes the more effortful disciplines of science. Humans are grievously prone to generalise dangerously on the basis of anecdotes and decontextualized trivia; adding more decontextualized trivia isn’t the way to address this.
I’m reminded here of something that A. O. Scott wrote many years ago about Tom Stoppard’s plays:
Some writers demand erudition of their audiences. Stoppard supplies it. I am surely not the only person who walked into the Vivian Beaumont Theater to see Arcadia a few years back knowing next to nothing about English landscape gardening or chaos theory; by the time the play was over I felt as though I did. And while many theatergoers will arrive at Stoppard’s most recent play, The Invention of Love, with some notion of Oscar Wilde’s glorious career and tragic end (especially if they have already seen Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency or read Pat Barker’s novel The Eye in the Door), few will be familiar with the life and work of the Oxford classicist and poet A.E. Housman, and fewer still will have any prior knowledge of the differences between English editions of the ancient Roman love poet Propertius. But playgoers will leave the theater flush with the thrill of having learned something about these arcane matters, even if an hour later they will be hard pressed to say just what they’ve learned. Stoppard’s genius lies in his ability to excite our intellectual curiosity and, in a stroke, to satisfy it.
I don’t think Scott is quite fair to Stoppard — I know from my students’ responses to his work over the years how often he inspires people to learn more, to study further, and then to come back to his plays ready to enjoy them more fully — but both he and Roberts are pointing to a genuine problem: the natural tendency to want to feel knowledgable rather than to achieve genuine knowledge. And the particular value of Roberts’s piece is to indicate just why that is so problematic: “Humans are grievously prone to generalise dangerously on the basis of anecdotes and decontextualized trivia; adding more decontextualized trivia isn’t the way to address this.” No kidding.