Popular Knowledge

Popular Knowledge

by Imran Musaji

People often “know things”. They could know these things because they have actually experienced them, measured them, or empirically determined them. All of us, for example, have spent enough time playing with objects and numbers to actually KNOW that two plus two is four. This is empirical knowledge.

Then there are the things we “know” because we have been taught to know it. Perhaps your parents always told you if you swim after eating, you will get a cramp. Perhaps you learned that camels humps let them store water to survive better in the desert. Perhaps you know that humans only use 10% of their brain.  This is received knowledge, and often (as in all three of these examples) it is wrong.

Sometimes it is a little wrong—camels store food in the form of fat in their humps, while they store water in their blood.  Sometimes it is medium-wrong—it is theoretically possible that eating could divert blood leaving you exhausted during a particularly strenuous swim, resulting in your untimely death. But it is not going to happen.
And then there are some things that are just wrong. They are divorced from reality, without rights to custody of the children. Take the 10% myth, for example. It is a complete fabrication: people never use their brains.

These are examples of received knowledge. We receive knowledge from books, the internet, movies, schools, teachers, parents, friends. The knowledge we receive is often several decades old, and has been passed through our grandparents and parents and numerous mediums and several stratigraphical levels of culture and society. It is ground as it tumbles around our communal minds, so eventually it is smoothed and rounded. Perhaps millions of people brush against it, polishing it with their fleeting contact on youtube or a podcast, and it begins to gleam attractively. Perhaps someone with a particular interest picks it up and carves out the flaws, enhances the shape, and eventually we get a gem of knowledge—a truism, a fact, a well-known established thing that is, more often then not, fossilized bull-s….

How do you determine between empirical knowledge and received knowledge? Don’t trust anyone or anything you haven’t checked several times, review things you learned more than a few years ago to see if things have changed, and fact-check anything you plan to repeat to others (using more than one source, and not all from the internet). If you consider yourself to be a fan or specialist on something, form your own opinions on the topic, don’t simply gather up other peoples’ ideas to stick inside your head. Who knows where those have been!

The need for critical thinking applies to education, politics, religion, finance, and any other facet of human life; critical thinking is the thing that defines our species (“sapiens”—the ones that think)!

It is not easy. We all have our sacred-cows, our beloved trivia. We take comfort in our stories, and we draw confidence from our certainties. But repeating this stuff does cause real, genuine harm.

Most importantly, if you simply don’t have the time to critically check yourself, be willing to admit you don’t know. If someone tells you are wrong, recognize that maybe that five minute blurb on Channel 97 might not have been the final word on life, the universe, and everything. 

All of this applies to me as well. That’s right, me! Shape up, or else! 


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