What do "We" Know?

Skepticism is about demystifying things. In fact, during the Enlightenment, demystifying how things worked was one of the primary goals of the movement. For far too long, knowledge had been contained and controlled by various people to the extent that knowing something outside your role could be considered a sinister thing to do.

I suppose you could even think of guilds in this regard. Trade secrets were closely guarded and dissenters were severely punished.

A lot of different factors caused knowledge to be more available. Everything from the proliferation of newspapers and printing presses to coffee shops and industrialization. What the end result turned out to be was a world far less mysterious. Another thing that’s important to remember, it wasn’t seen as a character flaw to be curious. And that’s a very big change.

Anyway, if you want to learn more about how this kind of thinking changed the West forever, I suggest you get a book. I want to talk about today however.

Let me ask you, do you know how your computer works? I mean really works. Maybe you can install windows or take out the hard drive, but do you know how it does what it does? How does Windows tell your computer to display a webpage? How does the hard drive store information?

What’s my point? Well I’m pointing out something a lot of other people have pointed out before me, we (society) have seen a dramatic drop in the number of people who actually know how the technology we use everyday works.

When I say “works” I don’t mean the easy definition you learn about in computer science class. I mean, if you had to, could you build a computer from scratch? And I don’t just mean you have the individual components and put them together, do you know how a microchip works? I know, I know, computers are tricky. Funny thing is a lot of my friends could answer yes to that question though. And I’m sure there are a lot of people reading this blog right now who could easily assemble a computer in their sleep. And obviously building a microchip in our garage is a little silly.

But when you go out to buy a computer, well maybe not you, but when your mother goes out to buy a computer and salesman delivers a bunch of techno babble to make mom think she’s buying the best computer; wouldn’t it help if she had a basic understanding of how a computer works so she doesn’t get ripped off.

Let’s talk about the toaster for a bit. People always make fun of the toaster; if something’s really obsolete we say it’s a toaster. Or if you drive a boring car, people say it’s a toaster on wheels. But let me ask you, could you build yourself a toaster? Do you even know how it works?

Honestly, I have a vague idea how a toaster works. Could I build one? Assuming I had the tools, well I might be able to get something kind of serviceable. But what about the electricity? Would you know how to build a plug and control for how many volts go in your toaster?

What about the fridge? It’s easy to forget just how much refrigeration has changed our civilization. Could you build one? If yours breaks, do you even dare try to fix it? Or do you call a repair person right away?

So okay, I’ve made my point. Many of us don’t have a working understanding of how basic technology that we use every day works. I know some of you will argue with me on that. And maybe that doesn’t apply to you, if you do indeed know how your fridge works and could fix your carburettor in your sleep then good for you. But I suspect you’re in the minority.

What does it all mean? Is it even worth noting? I think it is and I’ll tell you why. Go check your refrigerator manual/warranty. Would you void it by attempting to fix it yourself? Am I suggesting there is some conspiracy of refrigerator repairmen to keep us ignorant of our fridges? No. I think we are conspiring against ourselves (I know, grand claim…) but there’s something a little too easy about calling up the repair guy every time something breaks.

Not only do we lack the basic knowledge of how our stuff works but we convince ourselves we don’t need to have basic knowledge of how our stuff works! We think, if I go out and buy a brand new computer I’m entitled to have it work 100% and if it doesn’t I’m entitled to free customer support and they better not just be a call centre in India, they better have some computer nerd come to my house and fix it for me.

Carl Sagan was known to lament the general lack of scientific literacy among the general population. The idea being that if people don’t understand nuclear power they’re more likely to get convinced by special interest groups that nuclear power is a good thing or a bad thing based on scare mongering or faulty arguments. Then, they go and vote for a politician who propagates that ignorance.

Meanwhile back in the home people sell us non-chemical based cleaners so we don’t flood our home with dangerous chemicals and poison our babies. Wouldn’t it be helpful if before we go and throw out our dish soap we knew how “dangerous” chemicals in the soap actually find their way inside our bodies? What about if we figured out how our body deals with chemicals? Do they sit in our gut and turn us into mutants or do we filter them out?

I don’t want to sound alarmist or that I’m suggesting we all be computer whizzes, but I do think there is something odd about a culture that basically implies its ok be totally ignorant about how things work. And it goes further than that. We discourage ourselves from learning or attempting to fix things ourselves.

It would seem that the state of knowledge has come full circle.

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  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.