Clear thinking

Knowledge May Be Free, But It’s Not Worthless

I know!

A commentary by Bret Stephens in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal got me thinking about the importance of “rote knowledge” in today’s world. In his article, he laments the fact that graduates are coming out of college with vast knowledge gaps, because of the trendy idea in education that learning how to think is more important than cramming your head with facts.

Of course, this idea has been around a long time, but it’s even more deeply embedded in the popular imagination since we have ubiquitous access to the world’s information. We have Google if we need to look something up, and Siri can answer practically any question we have. The implication is that since knowledge is free, it is worthless.

The problem with that line of thinking is that it’s a false tradeoff: knowledge and effective thinking are not only not mutually exclusive, but critical thinking is impossible without knowledge. In other words, cramming your head with facts does not make you a worse thinker. In fact, “rote knowledge” can make you a better thinker, in so many ways. Here are just a few:

Better critical thinking: Although critical thinking is partly about evaluating the logic of someone’s argument, it’s also about being able to compare their view of reality to yours, and being able to generate alternative points or explanations. Facts fit into our brains in patterns, and those patterns help us to filter incoming information. Something rings true or false depending on how it interacts with the existing patterns in our minds. Richer patterns make for more reliable critical filters.

If you don’t have a deep well of knowledge at your command, anytime you hear or read something you have to take it at face value until you have a chance to look it up, and that takes time which you will not always have.

Learn faster: In this world of rapid and accelerating change, the capacity to learn is a crucial asset. But the rate of learning is dependent on how much you already know. It’s virtually impossible to learn anything “new” without connecting it to something you already know. It’s a snowball effect: the more you know, the faster you learn, and the faster you earn, and so on.

More innovative: Innovation doesn’t spring from ignorance. Knowledge is the raw material of innovation. It proceeds from adding to existing knowledge or making new connections between disparate ideas. More knowledge exponentially increases the possible connections.

Improve focus and attention: The discipline of studying and learning something in depth, of memorizing and of testing your knowledge strengthens your powers of attention and focus. This is something I’m personally experiencing, as I am embarked on a project to learn as much French as possible before my trip to Paris at the end of June.

Intuition and decision making: Even intuition benefits from knowledge. Indeed, expert intuition may be no more than rapid pattern recognition that goes on underneath our slower logical thinking processes. Chess masters don’t think any more steps ahead than mediocre players, according to those who have studied the source of their expertise. They also don’t run through huge numbers of possible moves like a supercomputer. Their minds don’t have to run through an endless series of bad moves in order to find a few good ones to choose from. Rather, they have deep stored databases of patterns and moves that they recognize; they can “see” where those patterns will lead and the top two or three alternatives come into their minds. They win through superior knowledge, not any superhuman skill at decision making.

Logical thinking: Knowledge even makes pure logic easier. In a well-known demonstration, psychologists like to test our logical thinking by showing four cards, with either a letter or a number showing, and ask you which cards you would have to turn over to prove or disprove the statement: “If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other side.” Most people get the answer wrong, and this is supposed to show our deficiencies in logic. Yet, when the same problem is posed in terms of a familiar real-life scenario, such as deciding whose ID to check to guard against underage drinking, almost everyone gets it right. In other words, existing knowledge makes it easier to follow the logic.

So there you have it, six ways I can think of, off the top of my head, how knowledge adds to good thinking. I’m sure I could have found more, if I wanted to look them up.

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