The Urge to Know
Saturday, 28 February 2015
Okay, you can watch the video if you want ... but wait until the end and it'll all make more sense.
It's been a difficult week so this shedpost may get a bit ranty.
You've been warned.
A friend was involved in a car accident, my own car was declared officially dead and I failed to get to an event in Oxford that I'd been very much looking forward to (more on that in a mo). Plus, I admit it, I had a bit of an enthusiasm crash (no car pun intended) about the book. It had been stuck on 59% for more than a fortnight and the projections based on the rate at which it's being funded suggested another year at least before the book appears. Then I read some comments in other authors' sheds in which subscribers were sounding quite annoyed about waiting times. And then several Unbound books that were launched much later than mine reached their 100% goals. In somewhat of a 'blue funk' I did start to seriously consider whether it was worth plodding on.
Thankfully you lot rallied round and lifted my spirits and, from somewhere, an additional 2% appeared. It may not be a lot but it was a HUGE boost for me and I'm back to my normal levels of optimism. Nearly.
This week also saw me thinking about the nature of learning things. Or wanting to learn things. As you know, I'm currently involved - with all of the other 'elves' - in researching and writing the new 'M' series of QI, which we'll record in May/June and show on TV around Sept/Oct time. Although QI is basically a comedy panel show, we like the fact that people learn things from watching it; that we embody Lord Reith's famous vision for television - to educate, inform and entertain.
I'd been reading lots of stuff about mediaeval times - the middle ages - and turning up some delicious little nuggets when I suddenly remembered a childhood TV favourite of mine: Catweazle. Now, for those of you under 45 or who grew up abroad, let me explain. Catweazle was a children's TV show that ran for two series in 1970 and 1971 (created by Richard Carpenter who later give us the hugely successful Robin of Sherwood, The Ghosts of Motely Hall and many other iconic TV series). It starred the wonderful character actor Geoffrey Bayldon (who, incidentally, turned down the role of both the first and second Doctor Who) as an 11th century wizard who, while being pursued by Norman soldiers, evokes what he believes to be a flying spell and is somehow transported forward in time to the present (1970) day. Much of the subsequent humour in the show is derived from him trying to make sense of the modern world with its magical devices like the 'telling-bone' and things powered by 'electrickery' etc.
Caught up in a sudden wave of nostalgia, I ran to YouTube to see if there were any clips and, to my delight, found a number of full episodes. So I watched the pilot and loved it all over again. Bayldon's performance is fantastic. But what immediately struck me was a complete lack of dumbing down; there was no concession made whatsoever for the children who would have watched it. It assumes that the audience would know about the Norman conquests, about the Battle of Hastings, about the language the Norman soldiers use to talk to each other. There's also a degree of historical accuracy - the pool into which Catweazle jumps when reciting his flying spell is in the middle of dense woodland but when he surfaces, nearly 1000 years later, it's a pond in a farmer's field. England at the time Catweazle is set was covered mostly with woodland which has since been cleared for agricultural land, towns and cities. Although essentially a fantasy TV series, there are educational elements all the way through. Catweazle did what QI does - it educated, informed and entertained us 1970s kids.
The following day proved to be a very different experience for me. To begin with, there was 'the dress'. If you missed the whole debacle (lucky you), here's what happened. Someone posted a photo online and asked 'What colour is this dress?'
Some see white and gold, others blue and black and others something else. And the internet went doolally over it. Within just a few hours, tens of millions of people had shared their opinion online, generating one of the biggest social media conversations in recent memory; so big in fact that it knocked the sad news of Leonard 'Mr Spock' Nimoy's death off the top of the trending lists.
And yet, a little bit of research would have explained the science behind it in minutes (a good example is here at Wired or here at the New York Times or here at Mind Hacks - there's plenty out there to find.). It's very easy to understand and, having read it, I felt no need whatsoever to get involved with the debate. So why didn't everyone else go and find out? This was a non-event surely?
Then, to round off my day, I watched a little TV and almost wish I hadn't. I found myself absolutely gobsmacked by the lack of knowledge displayed by the otherwise entertaining and likeable people on Channel 4's Gogglebox. Firstly, one of the younger Goggleboxers revealed that she didn't know who Horatio Nelson was (and her parents didn't seem to know much more). Then two other people didn't know the difference between Ant and Dec (even though the Geordie japesters always appear with Ant on the left and Dec on the right) and absolutely no one seemed to know what a placenta is and what it does. I was genuinely shocked. Now, I realise that I'm probably more bookish and knowledge-obsessed than some - that's kind of how you get to work on a show like QI - but really? Is the basic level of general knowledge now so low that British people don't know how humans get born? Would any of them actually understand an episode of Catweazle without subtitles and a guide book?
As I said, it's been a bad week.
But even though I'm now feeling decidedly more chipper today I still find myself surprised and, I'll admit, slightly irritated at the lack of knowledge possessed by people who have been through the British school system. When I went to school in the 60s and 70s it equipped me with a foundation of general knowledge. I didn't pass many exams - I wasn't a good student I'm afraid - but I left school knowing things like how many planets there were in the solar system and their order from the sun. I knew about the components of light and other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. I had a good idea of how the human body works. I had a basic understanding of the more important events in British and world history and I knew who most of the major players were. That doesn't make me a Brainbox or some kind of Boffin; I'm not smart or focused enough to have become a scientist or historian or doctor. I don't even have a degree. What I left school with is what I'd call a basic general knowledge and enough curiosity to ask questions to find out more. So what's changed? The arrival of the internet has given us all unparalleled access to almost the entirety of human knoweldge. So how can anyone not know which one is Ant and which one is Dec?
And then it clicked - it's research. Some people simply don't bother to do any research. Or maybe have never learned how to. No, that's an excuse - almost anyone can Google.
If I find that I don't know something, I make an effort to go and plug that gap. But I'm not the norm it seems. Several million people apparently couldn't be bothered to find out why a dress can look a different colour to different people - they were content to simply form into camps and argue with each other on social media. I don't know why Gogglebox's Scarlet didn't know who Nelson was. But I do wonder whether she (or her parents) later made an effort to find out. Why did none of them simply look him up on their phones, tablets or computers? All I know is that I would have. Why haven't Sandy and Sandra googled Ant and Dec to see which is which? I am not a particular fan of the lads - pleasant and professional as they might be - and I don't watch their shows but even I know which is Mr McPartlin and which is Mr Donnelly. Look, I even know their surnames.
I want to know things. It was that urge that drove me to find more sustainable solutions to the real problems of crime and disorder that people lived with; that's what this book - Why Did The Policeman Cross The Road? - is all about: research, analysis, action. But am I unusual? Or am I part of a quiet majority? Do people want to know things any more?
Isn't the acquisition of knowledge - trivial or otherwise - the thing that drives forward science and innovation? Doesn't knowing things enrich and inform your life? Are we dumbing down as a society, like in that movie Idiocracy? Or is it simply that television loves to hold uninformed people up for ridicule like some knowledge-based freak show?
Knowledge means that we vaccinate our kids - the fact that some are no longer doing so because of unsubstantiated rumour and pseudo-scientific drivel means that there's a grrowing measles epidemic when no one should be getting measles any more. It's knowledge that shows us that science and religion can happily co-exist - some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs were made by very devout people - but those who wilfully ignore the evidence use fear and ignorance to justify violence, horror and murder. Knowledge is power. Knowledge leads to wisdom. Why would anyone not want to know things?
Anyway, enough ranting. As I said, baaaaad week.
But how lovely to have climbed up your rope ladder of support and off the 59% plateau! You guys are amazing! Smiley face.
One last thing - I'd just like to wish every success to the new online TV channel WAWOW that launched this week and who kindly interviewed me for their first show. Their launch party in Oxford on Thursday was the event that I couldn't get to because of my damned car. Good luck guys!
Less vitriol will follow, I promise!
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