Sunday, 26 February 2012

How we know what we know

On a recent visit to my mum's for a couple of days, amongst other things we did some crosswords and some online and offline quizzes.

It occurred to me while we were doing one of them that there is some random crap contained in my brain. Now I've asked myself many times why it is that I can remember all the words to Bohemian Rhapsody but can't remember something useful like when I need to pay my credit card or when it's time to worm the cat. I've stopped trying to answer that though.

However, I did start to wonder how/where I learnt some of the actual random facts that I do know. Yes, some of it was at school so that's fair enough, but a lot of it is from reading, TV quiz shows, Trivial Pursuit, overheard conversations and some other ways that I probably can't quite put my finger on.

As far as reading's concerned, for example, I read anything and everything by Stephen King for many years. Thanks to those books (and only those books) I learnt about Hefty sacks, U-Haul, Twinkies, Schwinn bikes, the American meaning of carnival (or carny) and many other things.

QI has taught me a lot - many of them the exact opposite of things that I thought I knew. Like the fact that it's completely untrue that water spins the opposite way in the two hemispheres. No, it always goes down the drain clockwise unless it's caught in an unnatural weather phenomenon that covers a vast area - like a hurricane.

I learnt from an overheard conversation on a bus that a calorie is the amount of energy that it takes to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Centigrade. I kind of knew it was something to do with heating something but could never remember quite what!

On a side note, I'd like to correct the very common misconception that Hitler was a vegetarian. This load of old bollocks is trotted out regularly as evidence that "not all vegetarians are nice, fluffy, lovely people". Now, I don't pretend that they (we?) are all lovely but equally, I don't see why there has to be any more proof that veggies can be evil any more than the fact that the rest of the population can. But to return to the point - Hitler wasn't vegetarian. There is plenty of written evidence that he ate meat regularly - there's a disputed "fact" that he had rabbit for his last meal.

These days of course, most of us learn stuff from posts made by our friends (and total strangers) on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Reddit and many other online sites. We could go to a library and open an encyclopaedia at a random page or we can just go to Wikipedia and ask it for a random fact.

The BBC news website regularly has a page of snippets of interesting information. There are sites which post lists such as "10 Things We Didn't Know" - most of the time they will contain 10 Things you didn't know either.

We're bombarded with new information all the time these days and I'm not pretending that it's possible to remember all of it. Nor is it all completely reliable of course. But in the great scheme of things, it's a lot easier to stumble across useful and interesting information these days than it used to be. Whether the sheer amount of information makes it easier or more difficult to actually learn stuff, I really don't know.


  1. I suspect we are less likely to actually learn stuff now as we can always "google" anything we want to know whenever we need it. I am like you when it comes to random stuff. I read too much as a child and still do. I currently read three newspapers a day - i, Metro and Evening Standard - and they all have snippets of info that I soak up. I also use this stuff for teaching. Like today, I have a pic of the smallest man in the world already to use for a lesson or two. Last week it was the breakdown of people by religion in the UK which my mainly Muslim students found very interesting. Yes I like random stuff and so does my brain!

  2. I'm amazed at what my brain remembers (mostly trivial but extensive) and what I forget.