The Limit of Our Knowledge- Or, Why Reading A Book Doesn’t Make Anyone An Expert

jeromeFirst, I’d like to apologize if you arrived at this entry assuming you were going to learn anything about SEO or marketing. If that’s the case, best click away to something else so you won’t feel the urge to complain about my bit of self-indulgence.

I had dinner with a very intelligent man and his equally intelligent wife this evening and the discussion ranged from politics, to religion, to evolution to global warming. All volatile subjects to be sure, often divisive even among the restrained.

While no violent arguments broke out at the table, on two separate occasions I voiced my difference of opinion on two separate subjects and was promptly told that, “I simply must read the book’. One of those books was An Inconvenient Truth and the other was The Development of Darwin’s Theory by Dov Ospovat.

I told him I had read the first but not the latter and was astonished when I was told, ‘Well then, you must not have understood it’. My rejoinder was that I certainly understood what the author meant for me to believe, but that I lacked the scholarship necessary to make determinations about the truth of what the author was saying.

Again, to my astonishment, I was told that, ‘They are scientists, at some point you have to trust someone’. At which point I promptly pissed him off because I replied, ‘Indeed I do, but that point, for me, requires more than reading a single book on the subject’.

He wasn’t angry enough to walk out on his drink and his crab legs but he was angry enough to begin an interrogation on the other subject, evolution. Not satisfied with my replies, he simply asked if I was a Creationist. When I said no he looked surprised and asked if I was just being difficult. I told him that I preferred Abrupt Appearance over evolution and creationism. He had no idea what that meant, so I supplied the essence of Abrupt Appearance with a single sentence.

The fossil record shows that separate and distinct species appear in their entirety, enjoy a period of stasis, and then vanish.

This served to confuse and anger him, and he nearly shouted,

‘What about those damn lizards that have lived in caves so long that they’ve gone blind’?

When I told him that he was now confusing adaptation with evolution the vein in his forehead began to throb and he excused himself and wife rather abruptly.

He didn’t stay around long enough to learn that I don’t disagree that global warming is occurring, just that I don’t believe scientists are as sure about the cause as they would have us believe, and that some of the ‘solutions’ to global warming simply don’t seem feasible.

He didn’t stay long enough to learn that even Darwin had some difficulty with parts of his theory, the ‘evolution’ of the eye being particularly difficult and symbiosis quite troubling.

He didn’t stay long enough to learn that I have an open mind on both subjects, but that I feel my knowledge is incomplete so I typically have more questions than answers.

He didn’t stay, because he read a couple of books and felt secure in his knowledge. Not to say that I don’t feel that you can’t learn from a book, but if you’ve run out of questions, you haven’t read enough of them.

I always have to question the mental integrity, not the acuity, of someone that is swayed by reading a single book. If an opinion is that easily swayed it must have been loosely held and what does that say about the value of the original opinion? It is so easy for our reach to exceed our grasp that we sometimes forget how much we don’t know.

About half an hour after I arrived home, he called to apologize about his abrupt disappearance, told me he had a trying day and that he was ordering some material on Abrupt Appearance. I promised to read The Development of Darwin’s Theory …

Gunning-Fog 12.2 What’s this? Just an experiment, move along now…


  1. Whats this Dean – you don’t want to be pigeonholed into a single word definition such as ‘leftie’ or ‘rightie’? Pish! :)

    I personally believe in both creationism and evolution. My own higher education in science makes it impossible for me to believe that randomly 1. Life came to be 2. Life survived and 3. Live reproduced. Every single layer that we dissect in the human body has ‘life’ coursing through it. From the insane adenosine diphosphate ‘energy gradient’ to the structured mannerisms of cells, it is simply … stunning :) At the same time, once created, I think things went the way they want (evolution/adaptation). Things change, and I do have enough belief in science to trust carbon-dating and the like.

    In the end, I get called a loonie from ‘both’ sides :)

    Then again, a libertarian that tilts socialist isn’t a common occurrence.

  2. DG

    >>‘leftie’ or ‘rightie’

    Nope, I’m ambidextrous. ;) And I fervently cling to the right to admit that sometimes, I simply don’t know the answers. And I’ll be damned if I make any up just to avoid admitting that I don’t know.

  3. Or you could do what I sometimes do – If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance baffle them with bullshit.

    Alternatively you can always assume a position of critical analysis and say “Hmmmm” at frequent intervals ;)

    (Expect the latter next time we speak)

  4. reesh

    Somtimes you come across a piece of literature or a film that is so well made that you can’t help but be moved or captivated by that piece. Such was the case for me when I first watched An Inconvenient Truth. The day after watching the movie, armed with virtue and a moral imperative to do the right thing, I went out and bought several long-lasting flourescent light bulbs and planned to buy extra copies of the movie as gifts to friends. Several days later I had a chance to start doing some of my own research on the subject of global warming, and found quite a bit of contradictory evidence (at least with regard to anthropogenic global warming). I’m still using the low carbon footprint lightbulbs in certain places, but I’m now squarely in the “I don’t know for sure” camp. I must admit that had I sat in your dinner conversation, I would have sided quite plainly with your friend, and thought you a short-sighted fool.

    It happens sometimes that someone’s passion rubs off on us, intoxicating us for a while. It’s good that your friend was able to sober up a bit and offer an apology, and it’s good that you accepted with grace. I’m glad I took it upon myself to do some research of my own as well, or else I might have ended up having to apologize to someone…

    Gunning-Fogg: I’m sorry, I couldn’t simply move along. Thanks for making me look this up, and learn about readability algorithms. It’s why I love this blog.

  5. All right since you brought it up and I’ve never actually thought about it with any level detail, do you think reading levels play any role in SE algos.

  6. OK…Lets try to reverse engineer the experiment…

    1. Check the reader’s inclination to do things when he was advised not to (appeared twice) (failed twice).

    2. Check the effect of a post’s writing level on the comments level. Maybe as a way to increase the chances of response from a certain audience.

    3. Making us crazy

  7. DG

    Reesh, glad you like the blog, sometimes I struggle deciding topics interest readers, but in the end, I end up writing about what interests me and try to make it interesting for everyone else.

    >>someone’s passion rubs off on us, intoxicating us for a while

    Agreed, that’s our nature. As long as people aren’t committing to life-changing decisions on the basis of reading a single book, there’s no harm in it. When that passion inspires us to learn more, it’s fantastic.

    Michael, I believe that reading levels only play a part in any algorithm to the extent that convoluted writing styles might obscure the meaning of the page.

    Yoav, no experiment protocols are currently in effect, I just want to do some tracking and see what information, if any, can be gleaned by tracking the score. I scored a bunch of private papers and noticed that they average 17.6 while my public writing hovers right around that 12 mark. Just a note, if you plan on any experiments of your own, don’t try to write to a score. Just write, and score it later.

  8. I remember when a close friend first insisted that I go and watch An Inconvenient Truth immediately (insinuating I may go to hell if I didn’t). Hearing their rant and absolute belief in the movie’s message, I was caught in the same feeling I get when I hear people talk about their religious beliefs or Michael Moore. To me, it’s all really creepy and, honestly, it makes me loose respect for people (even if they are close friends) when I see opinions change at the drop of a hat and wild insistence accompany this new idea/thought/perspective.

    In any sector of life (business, science, art, blah) there needs to be a degree of agnosticism to all our statements and perspectives. Which isn’t to say that “right” and “wrong” don’t exist; it just means that the definition of what is correct/incorrect MAY be temporal – continued questioning, based on newly developed understanding, of even established ideas (In business, science, art, blah) is ultimately necessary for human development.

    Anyway, great post – sorry about the rambling comment but your post was relevant to conversions I have had lately.

  9. Kirby

    Why the apology? The lesson taught in this post is very relevant to SEO.

  10. DG

    I thought it had some relevance Kirby, but I didn’t want to come off like one of those Wachovia commercials. ; )

  11. i like this post a lot. ill be coming laterfor future readsthanks.

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