The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

Someone gave me this book, but I don’t remember when. It’s been sitting in the smallest room in the house for quite a while, because it’s the kind of book that’s best to dip into. It consists of more than 200 questions that you might think you know the answer to, but probably don’t.

So the first question is: “What’s the name of the tallest mountain in the world?” Mount Everest, you say? Well, actually, according to the current convention, the “tallest” mountain in the world is Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. It boasts the greatest distance between its top and bottom (33,465 feet). It just so happens that its bottom is in the ocean. Mount Everest, on the other hand, is the “highest” mountain, measured from sea level up to its summit (at 29,029 feet).

It’s that kind of book.

One more:

“What shape did medieval people think the earth was?” The authors don’t actually say. What they do say is that hardly anyone thought it was flat. The idea that Columbus was trying to prove the earth was round most likely originated in a book by Washington Irving written in 1828. Ten years later, an Englishman seriously tried to prove it was round. The subtitle of his book was “A Description of Several Experiments Which Prove That the Surface of the Sea is a Perfect Plane and That the Earth Is Not a Globe”. Columbus thought it was pear-shaped and about a quarter of its actual size. (Back around 200 B.C., a very smart man named Eratosthenes of Cyrene got within 10% of the actual circumference.)

Ok, just one more: “What is the loudest thing in the ocean?” This one I found hard to believe. The blue whale produces the loudest noise of any individual animal in the ocean or on land, but the loudest natural noise of all is made by shrimp. So-called “snapping shrimp” live in tropical and subtropical waters. Trillions of them will get together and snap their single over-sized claw all at once. The sound they make has been measured at 246 decibels (the equivalent of 160 decibels in the air, or louder than a jet plane taking off). The sound of this “shrimp layer” can damage a submarine’s sonar and make dents in a ship’s propeller. Really?

Yes, it’s that kind of book.


How Did This Happen Anyway?

Understanding how you got into a bad situation can be helpful. Michael Tomasky offers assistance in an article called “President Trump Is What Happens After Republicans Spend Decades Rebranding Knowledge as Elitism and Ignorance as Bliss”:

There’s no doubt that it’s a liberal reflex to sometimes make fun of conservatives for not knowing things. And yeah, some liberals do that in a superior and supercilious tone.

But what’s happened in this country over the last, oh, 40 years or so is that in our political discourse, it has become far, far worse to make fun of someone for not knowing some basic historical fact than it is to not know the fact. And that is absurd.

I’m sorry. By which I mean, I’m not remotely sorry: It is worse—plainly and unambiguously worse—to be ignorant of basic history than it is to know that history and be a little insufferable about knowing it. A civilization that has concluded that the latter is worse is a civilization that is valuing attitude and posture over fact, and that is precisely the corkscrewed value system gave us a cretin like Trump in the first place.

When the conservative counter-offensive really kicked in, back in the 1970s, conservatives who wanted to dramatically remake and reorder American society knew they had a big job in front of them. All kinds of presumptions about how life and society worked were lodged deep in people’s minds. Many—most, indeed perhaps nearly all—of those assumptions were kind of liberal. The Republicans caused the Depression. Roosevelt saved the country. Unions helped us prosper in the postwar era. Science was noble, and experts were to be venerated. Religion was to remain private. The generals got us into an unwinnable war in Vietnam. And so on.

These were all things that the broad majority of Americans believed. They were also, well, you know, true. Republicans did wreck the country in 1929, FDR did save it, experts had expertise that was of value. Conservatives had to get Americans to un-believe all that—to hate unions and mistrust experts, to agree that liberals lost the Vietnam War.

That effort involved two prongs. The first and more obvious was inventing their own set of “facts” whereby, say, Roosevelt prolonged the Depression. The second prong was the discrediting of those who continued to trumpet the old liberal version of reality, and the sharpest knife in that drawer was by far the charge of elitism.

Once Republicans figured that out, the discrediting got simple. All you had to do to puncture someone’s argument was call that person an elitist. It often didn’t matter whether that someone was factually correct. In fact, being factually correct was all the more damning! Knowing the difference, say, between the Lippmann and Dewey points of view was evidence itself that one was too dependent on exterior knowledge, had no internal instincts on which to operate and base decisions.

Well, 40 years later, here we are. We finally have a president of the United States who is all gut, no knowledge. There are consequences to this. Our allies don’t like us. We’re starting trade wars with them that are ahistorical and ungrounded in fact. Trump’s going to Canada today for a G-7 meeting he has no desire to attend and where not much of anyone wants to see him. On the apparently upcoming North Korea meeting, Trump said Thursday, “I don’t think I have to prepare very much”….

So laugh when Trump blurts out some historical whopper. God knows we all need to laugh. But remember too—the fact that a man that ignorant is our president is the culmination (I hope, anyway) of a long attack on truth set in motion four decades ago that persuaded millions of Americans that knowledge is slavery and ignorance is indeed bliss.

I’d change that last sentence to say millions of Americans think knowledge is unnecessary, expertise is suspect and ignorance is comfortable, but that’s a mere quibble in the current crisis.