June 14th, 2013

Trivium and equationophobia: the QI-ification of contemporary knowledge.

I'm not much for zombies as an trope--in the same way I'm not much for vampires--but I did really appreciate this part of Adam Roberts' review of Frank Swain's How to Make a Zombie:
The success of books designed to popularise science (‘Main Title Namechecking Famous Scientific Thingummy: Subtitle Framed As A Question?’) is a contemporary cultural phenomenon of great interest. Hundreds of titles have been published, and a good number have gone on to become bestsellers. This has brought a degree of understanding of science and nature to a wide audience, and that can only be a good thing. The question, I suppose, is whether such books fall foul of Pope’s Law (a little learning being a dangerous thing). Another way of putting this might be to see all such books, up to and including Swain’s, as examples of the QI-ification of contemporary knowledge. It feels heavy-handed of me to explain my reference, but for the benefit of those who don’t know: QI is a popular BBC2 TV panel show, hosted by Stephen Fry, where contestants strive to answer alphabet-themed questions in a manner that is quite interesting. The show, in other words, trades on a general appetite for trivia, leaning heavily on the patrician, schoolmasterish charm of its host. But a love of nuggets of trivia is not the same thing as a love of learning more generally conceived. A single datum of trivia—a trivium—gives its possessor the satisfaction of knowing specialised, non-obvious things without requiring her to invest the labour and time in actual learning. It can be traded, in a cultural context: at a dinner party, say, or down the pub with friends, a trivium can be swapped for a small increase in the esteem of one’s companions and a lightening of the collective mood. In this respect, a trivium is akin to a joke, or a piece of gossip. And that’s fine and dandy—I like jokes, and value gossip. But trivia, gossip and anecdotes do not add up to Knowledge, because Knowledge requires the effort of systematic and engaged effort. Knowing a whole bunch of anecdotal trivia will tend to make us feel cleverer, or at least better informed, than we really are. The problem with a general QI-ification of contemporary knowledge is that it dissipates knowledge as such, and corrodes the more effortful disciplines of science. Humans are grievously prone to generalise dangerously on the basis of anecdotes and decontextualized trivia; adding more decontextualized trivia isn’t the way to address this.
I'm as prone to dangerous generalizations and fond of decontextualized trivia as anyone else, which is why I liked this paragraph's drawing a distinction.

Roberts goes on to say this about equations:
A couple of assumptions underpin the writing of Swain’s book, assumptions he (or his publishers) share with the producers of most Pop-Sci books. One is that There Must Be No Equations. Equations scare the regular reader; the regular reader is a raging Equationophobe.
Sadly, if the publishers are right, the market for a book of Randall Monroe's hilarious what if? series will be limited, as he's no equationophobe.