The Age of Know-Nothing Know-It-Alls

What will History think of us?  How will the times we live in now be viewed in 20, 50, or 100 years?  With everything going on right now, all of the political and social and economic issues that seem important in our lives today, what will last and what will disappear?

Ooo, yeah, that’s deep for a Fun Friday post!  But as the election ended and the celebrations and hand-wringing began across our nation this week, I caught myself wondering how much it will really matter.

To put it into perspective, I was a History major in college.  Twice.  I have two bachelor’s degrees in History.  And if there’s one thing you learn while studying history, it’s how to look at the big picture.  History isn’t studied year-by-year, day-by-day, it’s studied in terms of eras, ages, periods, and trends.  Everything is always changing.  Good or bad, eras don’t last.  Regardless of how change happens, people go on waking up in the morning, going to work, and interacting with other people.

So!  Since we’re not going to be remembered for the exact, specific things going on right now that the media dissects in detail, what are we going to be remembered for?

Ah, research!
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Well, first of all, I think we can pretty much all agree that we entered another era of history on September 11th, 2001.  So very many things changed around that time that I’m reasonably certain the era we’re living in right now will be recorded as having started that day.  But it goes far beyond the attacks in NYC.  I think this era will also be known for the economic downturn.  But more than anything else, maybe even more than 9/11, I think right now will forever be known as the Internet Age.  Maybe more than that.  Maybe it will be the Age of Social Media.

Now I love social media.  It has opened the world up like nothing ever has before.  I have daily conversations with people in Australia, New Zealand, and England, not to mention occasional discussions with folks in India and other non-English-as-a-first-language countries.  How awesome is that?  Communication is easier and freer than it’s ever been.  Sit back and watch the ideas flow!

Except that there’s one glaring problem with this way of communicating.  The way we get our information has changed, and not for the better.

Once upon a time, many years ago, when I was a young and impressionable girl who liked to know about things, I had an intimate relationship with the card catalog at my local college library.  Let me tell you, I knew how to find stuff out!  It wasn’t just the card catalog and the books housed at the library either.  We had this set of books called The Guide to Periodic Literature.  Basically it was a bound catalog of every magazine article that had been written about every subject.  I would look stuff up and order copies of serious academic and scientific journals sent to me through Interlibrary Loan.

NERD!

Nowadays if people want to know those same sorts of things that I would look up what do they do?

I’m pretty sure you just answered “They look it up on Wikipedia or online”.

Yes, information is at our fingertips.  We can find answers to things with a click of a mouse.  But what exactly are we finding?

Granted, this is not news.  We all know that the validity of information found on the internet has to be carefully scrutinized for quality before we can believe it.  The thing is, people are lazy.  They don’t verify things.  It’s there online so we cut corners and assume it’s right, end of story.

I smacked hard into the wall of this kind of thinking last weekend, and it wasn’t pretty.  I had posted a blog about The True Story of King Richard and King John at the website for my online RWA chapter.  And I got slammed for the facts I presented.  Boy did people argue with me!  All because I was stating an alternative view to the commonly held image of Richard as a good king and John as a bad one.  Granted, I know that this is a subject of fierce scholarly debate.  There is evidence to support both interpretations of the facts.  That’s what history is.  It’s a constant debate.  Facts are mutable and people spend their entire careers trying to make sense of them and argue for their theories.

Yeah.  I was getting impatient with the arguments against my viewpoints.  Especially since I said repeatedly in comments that renowned medievalists of sterling reputation have and continue to make cases on both sides of the argument and that it is just that, a debate.  But no.  I had a couple of people out for blood, intent on making me retract everything I said in favor of their viewpoint.

Let’s not go there, people!
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But the moment of crowning glory came when one of these commenters included a link to the source of their opinion, their “definitive argument”.  It was an article from About.com.  Said article was written by some freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in History from the University of Texas, Austin (which we all know is a hotbed of medievalism … in Texas).  Meanwhile, I had my actual hardcover paper books written by world-class medievalists (like Rhodes Scholar, Princeton PhD, professor at Columbia University Norman F. Cantor) open across my table as I fact-checked myself and my commenters.

Well, after that I gave up.  I closed the books and the argument.  (And I was cranky and ungracious about it too)  I’m sorry, but I am not arguing academics with someone who uses About.com (or Wikipedia or anything online) as their primary source.  Call me a snob, but my Rhodes Scholar outranks your U of T undergrad.

Okay, so I digressed a bit telling that story.  The point is this.  At the title of this post implies, I think this current era of readily-available “information” and communication will ensure that we are remembered as the age of Know-Nothing Know-It-Alls.  Because really.  We all think we know everything because we think we can click our way to online content that is written in a persuasive style.

Granted, I still think it’s a great thing that information is in the hands of the masses now and not the hands of a privileged elite.  But at the same time, let’s face it, the masses haven’t learned to discern the quality of the information coming at them.  There is no respect for scholarship and research anymore.  It’s all about the McInfo.  And that makes the giant nerd in me who used to order academic journals through Interlibrary Loan really sad.

So there you have it.  We think we know everything because so many things that sound persuasive are just a click away, but because no one stops to verify any sources or do the hard work of real research, we actually know nothing.  And that’s what we will be remembered for.

Do you think I’m on to something here?  What do you think our current age will be remembered for?

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15 thoughts on “The Age of Know-Nothing Know-It-Alls

  1. This will merely be the brief age of fossil fuel use and massive pollution, Merry. And as another traditionally trained historian: I agree with you. However, since Wikipedia more people can play Trivial Pursuits! Lol
    This attitude is the fault of schools and academics who have failed to instill in students the value of finding and checking the available facts and authoritative points of view.
    I’d like to point out that periodicals rarely purport to contain anything more than the points of view of scholars.
    What we need now is access to the resourses that scholars have drawn their conclusions from: so we maw draw our own.

    • I seem to remember my high school (which was a private girls school) really stressing academic research and primary source material. But like I said, that was a private school with a strong academic reputation. You don’t see the same thing in the world today. I almost think that I would be comfortable living in an era of intellectual elites (as hypocritical as that makes me on some levels). I have a healthy respect for people with higher degrees who have really delved into these subjects.

  2. I’ve said the same thing recently. I tell my kids to fact check everything, never take someone’s word for it. When they Google to find out something for school I make them read several different articles. I pressed this issue during the election because of commercials that chop up sentences to say what they want. More than ever people need to remember we still have books, magazines and accredited people to look to for answers.

    • Yeah, I was trying to steer clear of the hot-button issue of the election, but that’s also what I was thinking about. All those political ads spewing all their rhetoric, and you can’t really trust any of it. But that seems to be the way people get information now. It’s kind of awful when you think too much about it.

  3. Very well written and well said, in my humble opinion. I studied biology with excessive classes in genetics. What I see people saying about biology/genetics because they Googled? I facepalm at least three times a day.

    Because of this, I don’t allow my daughter to use the internet to look things up…I take her to the library, show her how research is done. Despite her whining LOL

    • Thanks, TJ! I think that’s the key right there: teaching kids how to discern information. Kudos to you for taking your daughter to the library for research!

  4. Merry, this is a scary statement “because no one stops to verify any sources or do the hard work of real research, we actually know nothing.” Makes you stop and think. I believe perhaps this will drive people to find a new way to get the facts and dig deeper for the truth – I hope. The downside with social media is that is has created a new ADHD path of communication. We want it all and want it now and from different sources! I think we’ll need to re-learn by re-focusing on one thing and slowing down but I dont know how we can retrain our brains to do so as our society spins faster and faster on info – we may just cycle into one giant explosion of nothing. Perhaps there will be a revolution by those who dont want this – and a reverting back to simple ways that drew richness from seeking information with care and in doing so will find the real truths again.

    • That’s what worries me. People choose easy over accurate in just about any area of life. But I have hope to a certain degree that the proliferation of misinformation can only go so far before people can’t get away with it and have to look to solid science and research for answers. You can’t earn a higher degree (and you shouldn’t be able to earn any degree at all) by citing internet only sources in your school work. To me it’s all the more reason to support education in all areas of life!

  5. Hi Merry, great post! I enjoyed that post that stirred up the fuss. It is annoying when people accept something at face value without checking it out to make sure there isn’t another side or two to the story. Some people do not want to hear anything different than the truth they know, and they are the ones who will fight endlessly.

    • Thanks Gerri! Yep, you have no idea how frustrated I was with that post. Frustration was what led me to get all cranky in my comments by the end. :P I don’t know if you read all those comments, but I kept trying to point out that the Richard/John thing is an ongoing debate with arguments on both sides by a variety of scholars. The debatability of history is what makes it so fascinating. But one or two of the commenters just wanted to prove they were right. And that’s when scholarship dies. :P

  6. Hi Merry. We will be remembered as stated in the title of your post. Perhaps, it is the beginning to the return to the dark ages, providing the irony present in life.

    • How ironic! I was just thinking that same thing about the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages are called dark not because there was a lack of knowledge or scholarship. It was all there in the monasteries. There are volumes upon volumes written during that time … but they were unaccessible to the public at large. Nowadays we have the same problem with lack of quality information. It’s like once again the true scholarship is locked away in unattainable havens of academia (thanks to the rising cost of tuition) and what the rest of the people of the world get is a watered-down, biased version of the truth. Makes me want to go back into academia, actually! I already have one masters degree (in Theater), so why not another in History? ;)

      • Many biased version. I say why not get another–in history! :) I’m finishing up my second in English. History is not only fascinating, it is important. I am certain you understand why.

  7. Pingback: Medieval Monday – Light in the Dark Ages | Merry Farmer

  8. I believe the causality is human predilection to confirmation bias – not so much the times or current era. It’s ingrained to humans and must have served some evolutionary benefit. Probably in the flight or fight area allowing for more decisive action when threatened.

    I agree with your stasis and remedy, and love the title especially but not unique to our era. The concept of blood libel, for example, is a Middle Ages version of this, merely substituting google “facts” for a neighbors gossip to justify a preconceived extreme bias. Tragically “facts” in support of blood libel, heresay, and witchcraft (“she turned me into a newt”) were all very detailed and “logical” giving appearance of credence, allowing prompt cloture in order to get to the “fair trials” and summary executions. Still happens today with, as you experienced, Internet trolls in our culture or worse yet stonings, honor killings or mutilations in others.

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