Knowing a lot about a little versus knowing a little about a lot
December 2008 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
It's fairly easy to appear knowledgeable by showing off tidbits of superficial knowledge. However, such faux-sophistication can be exposed even by simple questions that any 5-year-old can ask. To gain true expertise, there is no substitute for long-term, deeply-engaged learning. Such deep learning is still best done through studying books and not by perusing online articles.
Knowing a lot about a little versus knowing a little about a lot
I know a lot about very few topics, and I know a little about lots of topics. The topics that I know a lot about—mostly related to the study of Computer Science and computer programming—I've learned through years of academic studies, work experience, hobby projects, book reading, and intellectually stimulating and fun discussions with people who are experts in the field. The topics that I know very little about—e.g., the 80/20 rule, the Whorfian hypothesis, the Bystander Effect—I've learned through reading online news articles, blogs, Wikipedia, watching YouTube videos, and making small-talk with friends and acquaintances at parties and dinners.
I've learned that it's fairly easy to appear knowledgeable by knowing a little about lots of topics, but to actually be knowledgeable, one must, well, know a lot about something (duh). So why is it easier to appear knowledgeable by sharing superficial sound bites and buzzwords that you read online rather than by discussing select topics in-depth? Two reasons: First, most people with whom you casually interact don't know much about your area of expertise, so they have neither the ability to comprehend nor the interest in learning about topics that you know in-depth. There is a far greater chance that your audience (e.g., family members, friends, acquaintances you meet at a dinner party) will understand a one-sentence summary of index funds than your grimy experiences dealing with different models of inheritance in the implementation of Smalltalk vs. C++. Second, memes (another buzzword!) that have proliferated through the popular media (newspapers, magazines, blogs) have done so precisely because they are somewhat interesting, easy to comprehend, and (most importantly) easy to remember and pass along to others.
I suspect that most reasonably-educated people are like me in that they know a lot about very few topics and know a little about lots of topics. The difference between people lies in how eager they are to share their tidbits of superficial knowledge: Some jump on every opportunity to relate the conversation at hand to the latest newsworthy buzz they just learned from the Internet (ohhh you ordered the fish, did you know that USA Today had a recent article about how eating fish is bad for your sperm count?). Others refrain from making as many "did you know?" interjections and only open their mouths when they understand the topic at slightly more depth. The former group might appear to be more knowledgeable, since they seem to have something decently-interesting to say about lots of topics, while the latter group might appear less knowledgeable since they simply don't speak up as much. However, it might be the case that people in the former ('loud-mouthed') group simply have a lower threshold for speaking up, while people in the latter group don't feel as comfortable talking unless they can back up their statements with more evidence.
The 5-year-old test
One simple way to assess how much a person actually knows about a topic is to give him the 5-year-old test (that's a buzzword I just invented): When someone presents you with a sound bite or fun fact in the hopes of impressing you with his worldly knowledge, respond earnestly with questions that a curious 5-year-old would ask, such as Why?, How?, or Okay, so what? How many rounds of 5-year-old questions can your subject withstand? That's an indication of how much he actually knows about a topic. Of course, you'll probably have to be more tactful than a 5-year-old so as not to appear like an ass, but the basic idea remains the same—to force the other person to provide a follow-up to his initial assertion.
I suspect that most people cannot even survive one round of the 5-year-old test for most cool concepts or fun facts that they casually drop at parties. I know that I certainly can't! For example: Hey, I saw on a YouTube video that chickens have a remarkable ability to keep their heads still in one place! If a 5-year-old had asked me, Really, how?, I would've responded, Uhhhh, I dunno, maybe they have some internal gyroscope? Some science stuff probably. Whatever, it's cool, though.
It's astonishingly easy to appear smart and knowledgeable by repeating popular memes and sound bites, simply because most people don't ask the questions that a 5-year-old wouldn't hesitate to ask! I'm not trying to discourage people from engaging in lively discussions and sharing knowledge with one another, nor am I imposing some unbearably high elitist standard for the intellectual quality of conversations; I just want to call out those who aren't actually that knowledgeable but try hard to appear so. In my experience, some of the smartest people I know are those who appear quiet and shy in casual conversations but open up with radiant enthusiasm when truly engaged in deep dialogue: They're not quiet because they don't follow what's going on; they're quiet because they have high standards for presenting their own knowledge.
Books versus online articles
With the proliferation of broadband Internet, it's now easier than ever to learn a little about a lot of topics, without expending much mental effort. Curious teens can look up information about taboo topics that they dare not ask their parents about, making them far more empowered and knowledgeable than the previous generation. Consumers can look up online reviews of competing products to decide which one is the best for their needs and budgets. Employees procrastinating at the office can plow through thought-provoking articles and then forward them to their co-workers via email.
The Web is an amazing tool for spreading a wealth of information (putting it literally at people's fingertips), but it is mostly only good for learning a little about lots of topics, not for learning a lot about any particular topic. There are numerous benefits to being able to learn a little about a lot of topics, but it is impossible to ever develop expertise solely by engaging in 'information snacking'. Deep learning requires intense concentrated mental effort sustained over long periods of time.
I love reading online articles, blog posts, Wikipedia entries, and watching YouTube just as much as my peers do. These online resources have taught me many little tidbits about all sorts of random topics (great for making small-talk), but I realize that these are not tools for deep learning. Online articles (like the one you're currently reading), blog posts, news stories, and video clips all have one property in common: they are short. In contrast, reputable non-fiction books are often orders of magnitude longer and contain much more in-depth information than anything you could find on the Web. Books are also much more thoroughly researched, edited, vetted, and criticized, especially those written by authors with reputations to uphold. Call me old-fashioned, but I'm going to claim that it's impossible to truly be knowledgeable about a topic without having read several reputable books about it.
Although the Web isn't by itself conducive to deep learning, it's great for providing advertisements and sneak previews of intellectually deep works—it's sort of a gateway drug to knowledge. I often buy books after watching an interview with the author on YouTube, reading an online magazine article that references his/her work, or receiving an email recommendation from a friend. However, such online summaries can never hope to replace the original works themselves. You might be able to repeat the one-sentence summary of the Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel after watching a YouTube interview with its author, Jared Diamond, but actually methodically working your way through the 480 pages of the book is a far different and vastly more enriching experience.
Some dangers of easy access to online information
I have no problems with yuppies spreading memes and dropping small nuggets of knowledge at parties to make for lively conversation (hey, did you know that drinking red wine at dinner is good for your heart?), but what is troubling is when some start to feel like they are quasi-experts just because they've learned a lot of superficial facts and snippets about a subject.
Some pundits say that the Internet has bolstered the democratization of information (yes, I read that online somewhere), allowing the everyman—Joe Stickyfingers—to become knowledgeable about, well, anything he can Google. No longer do we have to let those elitists talk down to us from their Ivory Towers! I, too, can become an expert on subprime mortgages.
I think it's wonderful that the Joe Stickyfingers of today can learn far more than the Joseph Stickyfingers of fifty years ago, but I also feel that there is a danger of deluding oneself into thinking too highly of one's knowledge and putting less trust in the real experts.
For example, many patients come into hospitals prepared with printouts of website articles and blog postings about possible diagnoses for their symptoms to help out the doctors. I commend them for their sincerity, initiative, and willingness to learn, but no amount of reading Wikipedia or online medical forums can replace medical school training followed by many more years of intense residency and medical practice experience. Of course doctors don't always have the right answers, but they have a helluva better shot at making a reasonable educated guess than someone who researched their symptoms online.
Another danger of the over-proliferation of superficial information on the Internet is that it makes people more skeptical of science. People read numerous news clippings about the latest scandalous scientific discoveries (especially relating to psychology and physical health) and tend to notice lots of inconsistencies and conflicting studies. What? A new study shows that cell phones cause testicular cancer? Oh shit, time to buy some lead underwear. What? That's been dis-proven now? Oh shit, time to cancel that lead underwear order. Eggplants are good for the heart? What, eggplants are bad for the heart? Whom should I trust? Refinements and refutations of existing theories are hallmarks of experimental science, so those with scientific training understand that conflicting studies are often no cause for alarm. However, I can see how reasonable people who don't understand the history and nature of experimental science might develop a mistrust of science due to the conflicting information they see on the news.
Take-home bullet points
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Last modified: 2009-03-01