Essential Knowledge: Part I

A while back, someone suggested I do a post on the books I think are important. This was within the context of a back and forth on books related to a specific topic. The first thought was the traditional list with some commentary, but that would end up being either a ridiculously long list that no one would read or a short list that simply revealed my selection bias. Plus, listicles are the lowest form of writing, somewhere below grocery lists and ransom notes.

Instead, I decided to do a series of posts on the topics a modern, educated person should have in his inventory of knowledge. Along the way I’ll recommend books, articles and podcasts I think are useful in learning about the subject. Podcasts are what led me to expand the idea from a simple book list. We live in an age where you can download lectures from experts in any field. I have in my rotation lectures from Yale on Ancient Greece, for example. In other words, books are not the sole storehouse of knowledge.

The thing is, you don’t have to be an expert on everything. Simply knowing the basics and the relevance is enough in many cases. You have the entirety of human knowledge at your fingertips so knowing how to look things up is more important than memorization. Einstein allegedly said he had no reason to memorize how many feet were in a mile because he could find in any book. Today, you can find the details off your phone or laptop in seconds. What you need is an understanding of how to find it.

That’s the first thing a modern person needs to know. How to look things up on-line is an essential skill in the modern age. Working with young interns years ago, I was surprised to discover that none of them knew how to be curious. I had to teach them how to find things on-line. They had no idea how to discover the world by inference. What I ended up telling them is always ask what a thing is, not where a thing is. What is its nature, what does it do. Who thinks it is important. Enter those things in a search engine and you will get close to what you seek.

This is probably obvious to most reading this, but there is a reason browsers have bookmarks and there are services that let you synchronize your bookmarks on all of your devices. Most people store knowledge and then remember where they left it. That has its place, but when searching for things on-line, you may, whether you realize it or not, be looking for unknown unknowns. By thinking about what a thing or event is, you will find things like it or related to it that you never considered or simply did not know existed.

This will no doubt strike some as pedantic, but in the modern age, the ability to quickly acquire necessary information is probably the most valuable skill and therefore, the most essential of knowledge. All of us have at our fingertips the totality of human understanding. Knowing how to quickly dig through it to find what it is you need is vastly more useful and important than the ability to remember how many feet are in a mile or where the book you learned it is on your book shelf.

The other bit of basic, ground floor knowledge a modern person should have is a grasp of math. I don’t mean a working knowledge of linear algebra or even the ability to factor polynomials. These are fine skills if you have a need for them or you simply enjoy math. No, the math one needs is much more general and conceptual. Modern discussions of the oldest of issues now contain references to basic mathematical and statistical concepts. Understanding these concepts and their limits is critical to following along with the discussion.

The first bit of math to grasp is the size and importance of numbers. Most people struggle understanding a billion. A billion dollars for a stadium no longer strikes people as a lot of money, because the word billion gets tossed around so much. Similarly, statistics have become the bane of modern debate mostly because people struggle to understand the basics. Ten people in a room may have an average height of 5’8″, but no one in the room may actually be that height. Of course, probability gets confused with causality all the time.

A good book to read for non-math people is The Universal History of Numbers. It is a history of numbers, written for those that like history, but maybe not math. From One to Zero: A Universal History of Numbers, written by the same guy, is also a useful book. As far as basic statistics, you are spoiled for choice, but if you just want to become familiar with the general concepts, Naked Statistics is a good book to read. It is short and aimed at people who don’t like math. At the minimum, you will understand the general concepts that turn up in modern public debate.

Put the two together and you arrive at the most fundamental of essential skills in the modern world – skepticism. Since you have the totality of human knowledge at your fingertips, you can verify the accuracy of what is presented to you. Having a general grasp of the math, and a way to understand the numbers tossed around in public, let’s you see past the sophistry that is the bulk of public discourse. To be a modern intellectual, you cannot be too skeptical.

I will post the next item in this series next Friday. It’s unclear how long this will go on, but the plan is to do one a week until the subject is exhausted.

92 thoughts on “Essential Knowledge: Part I

  1. One of the things I took away from my 1st stat class, lo these many years, was “figures don’t lie but liars can figure.: Then there’s, “correlation does not imply causality”.

  2. “Working with young interns years ago, I was surprised to discover that none of them knew how to be curious.”

    This is crucial – in an even more basic sense than you cover here. I have a step daughter who thinks I am incredibly intelligent – “big brain” – as she puts it.

    I have explained to her that I know a lot of things about a lot of things – not because I’m smart – but because I’m curious. I have no idea what it is to be bored for more than a few minutes, because there is always something interesting to think about. Given access to a computer or smart phone, I will look up dozens of things every day.

    But I notice she is not alone. The young seem to lack curiosity. Everything comes to them in tiny doses and buzzwords and if it doesn’t come spoon-fed, they seem unwilling to seek it out.

    One thing I will disagree on is that it’s not important to memorize things when they can be looked up. Familiarity to the point of memorization gives one building blocks that can be assembled and moved about. It is the basis of deeper analysis and thought. The good news is, if one is truly interested in a topic, that which is read will likely be retained, at least in significant part.

  3. Some people in the room will be 5ft 8in tall if you are using the mode as ‘average’. Perhaps you should distinguish between the three types of average- mean, median, mode.

  4. Here’s something that everyone should know. “STRUCTURES OR WHY THINGS DON’T FALL DOWN” by J. E. GORDON. A tremendous book of why material science, buildings and other simple stuff. Easy to read. It’s really good and overloaded with math. He also has a book called “The New Science of Strong Materials or Why You Don’t Fall through the Floor”. It’s most excellent also and covers some of the same material in the first book. Doing a little searching a found a copy of the first book online. Two links I think are the same or similar.

    I can’t recommend these enough. Not dry and full of interesting examples of why certain materials are used where.

  5. Some great stuff in here so I will throw in my two cents. Two quotes I am too lazy to find with a smartphone:, ‘correlation is not causation’ and the difference between measuring and counting ‘he who begins to measure begins to err’. Also I remember ‘all models are wrong [incomplete]. One book that is great that I wish I had in high school-How to read and do proofs. I was so lost in the higher order math classes because I couldn’t do a proof. There are a number of books on how to do fast arithmetic. Like the rule of multiplying things by nine, or how to multiply two digit numbers together in your head.

    100% the problem is a lack of curiosity, but also the lack of awareness of how to take the initiative

  6. May I suggest the most important thing to learn? To read. Not just practical stuff at work or directions for constructing or programming something, but to read for ideas and style. Without that ability, you cannot think. You may perform tasks, even very skillfully, but creativity and aesthetic appreciation will largely be missing from your life.

    To be able to read in the true sense — that is, more than just to glean information, but to partake of the human race’s long history of many cultures and events — it’s necessary to understand how grammar works. That used to be taught in schools, where kids diagrammed sentences … boring, but when mastered, gave a clear understanding of how parts of a sentence related to one another. With that so often missing now, I constantly run across examples of sentences that don’t hang together logically, and confusion between homonyms (e.g., “there’s/theirs”).

    As recently as the 19th century, it was assumed that the main purpose of education was to give young people the tools to think with: as much as anything, how to use words to perceive and communicate meaning. Armed with that, a person could absorb new information and ideas, with the possibility of using them creatively. You are quite right that it is more important to know how to find knowledge than just to know a lot of facts (or opinions); but it is equally important to be able to work with that knowledge for insight and wisdom once it’s been chased down.

  7. As someone who still has to do subtraction on her fingers, I greatly appreciate these suggestions!

  8. Interesting article and comments. I am of the opinion that it is not the inability of individuals to find information, but the lack of desire to find information that typifies many today.

    • Hey Claymore! It also seems to me that even with a tool like G**gle available, people don’t know or care about how it can really be used. Most seem to only care about Faceplant, Twatter or some other social media stupidity that they glue their eyes to. So sad because there is a treasure trove of good stuff out their to learn from instead of wasting your time away.

  9. I highly recommend “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” by Edward Tufte.
    Lots of examples of charts and graphs and how they can be made to propagandize.

    The classic book on statistical graphics, charts, tables. Theory and practice in the design of data graphics, 250 illustrations of the best (and a few of the worst) statistical graphics, with detailed analysis of how to display data for precise, effective, quick analysis. Design of the high-resolution displays, small multiples. Editing and improving graphics. The data-ink ratio. Time-series, relational graphics, data maps, multivariate designs. Detection of graphical deception: design variation vs. data variation. Sources of deception. Aesthetics and data graphical displays.

    This is the second edition of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Recently published, this new edition provides excellent color reproductions of the many graphics of William Playfair, adds color to other images, and includes all the changes and corrections accumulated during 17 printings of the first edition.

  10. One of my favorite quotes and approaches to solving problems is a quote by Einstein: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and then five minutes solving it.” I observe that many people are incapable of simply defining a problem. Or of solving them.

    One of my pet peeves, which I am sure you have all had, is going to the store and having clerks/cashiers who can’t do simple math without using a calculator. I have the answer in my head and tell them the answer but they are fiddling with the calculator and “trust” the result the device gives them without having the slightest clue as to whether the answer makes sense or not. “The machine has to be correct” not even being aware of the GIGO effect.

    A lot of you are talking about the relevance of “second order” math knowledge and application but it is my opinion that a big reason so many people (the 40%) buy into the Left/Progressive agenda is because they have no “math” foundation in their lives, even a simple understanding of what used to be taught in “Rithmatic”. Without that foundation, everything is fairy dust. And undisciplined minds that are untethered to reality are simply blowing in the wind and susceptible to any strong current that captures their imagination.

    Zman is correct that knowing how to find information is the first big step in gaining knowledge. Then comes the sifting and sorting through the mountains of good and bad to determine what you are willing to “buy into,” to what fits our narrative of truth. Because of course, the source of the information needs to be considered and no one is immune to having an angle/bias/agenda in writing their version of something.

  11. pictures are often best used to grasp the “relationship” of large numbers (thousand million) to small numbers (hundreds). I have saved powerful graphic images depicting fleets of trucks with a million dollars piled on the back of each. then, when asked about a trillion…

  12. An educated person is a person with a good mind. A good mind needs two things: an intellect and computational ability.

    As to intellect, my own definition of it which I have used for years is: “The accumulated knowledge and mental habits of a mind widely exposed to the literary, artistic, and philosophical traditions of a civilized culture that has been critiqued through the use of deductive reasoning and is distinct from expertise and intelligence.” A well developed intellect allows a person to find logical consistencies or inconsistencies in the world of abstract ideas. To be good at this requires considerable memory work. Einstein, while good at his specialty, was not broadly educated. In short, he was intellectually lazy.

    Computational fluency is the key quick and accurate calculating. It is not math that one needs, it is simple arithmetic. Adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing. The ability to do this quickly and accurately produces results. To be good at this you must practice, practice, practice. It’s like shooting hoops.

    Why do this? Of course, it begs the question: Why do anything? Getting good at something brings its own pleasures. But on the practical side, it develops good instincts.

    Success in any field: it begins with good judgment and good judgment come from practice. To be a good thinker you must be thinking all the time.

  13. Excellent post.
    About ten years ago, our local council set about to change the local sales tax from 7.0% to 7.9% and it was advertised as “less than a one percent increase”. My explanation to friends that the change would amount to a 13% increase in the tax they would pay invariably fell on deaf ears.

  14. Z Man;

    Don’t forget a classic in statistics: “How to Lie With Statistics”. I remember it from my undergrad days and it is still highly useful for the non-math major. Has a practical humorous bent that is dryly amazing to this day. Plus a retro classic set of illustrations.

    I just checked and you can ask for it by name on Amazon: $12 in paperback.

    • I just pulled that book off my shelf so that I could get the title/author correct. It’s a lovely little book from the mid-1950s. By Darrell Huff.

  15. For what it’s worth–and I actually have no idea what it’s worth–I am personally close to two people who are quite intelligent but who are also almost entirely mathematically absent, and not by choice. Having tutored one of them I discovered that there is no place in that brain for fractions, percentages, or anything but addition and subtraction. It is some form of mathematical dyslexia. He memorized the formulas and aced tests after one year, but understood it like a man memorizing a speech in Hungarian without ever understanding a single word. Both individuals have good analytical skills. It occurs to me also that there are many who are skilled in math who are also only more skilled in misunderstanding things.

    • Mr Wilson: Sir, I am on frequency with your example. All math classes upward from 7th grade algebra through college dynamics were beyond comprehension to me, and became a ‘cram for exam results’, which only sucked me deeper into a rut which I despised. Finally quit taking any math related classes and my education outlook brightened ten fold. If and when I ever need that crap, there are instructional texts to hum by. But I avoid any advanced science any more and focus whether the cattle are fed and watered. MUCH more rewarding to cattle and to me…………..

      • Science is a verb, not a noun (not my sound bite)- and the ultimate best use of science is to create change in our reality based on the principles discovered- thus, engineers. There is a body of knowledge compounded through the use of the scientific method; that body of knowledge is NOT science. Calculus is a great tool, but the things built with that tool are far more wonderful.

    • Kinda of reminds me of that final I took for Microwave Theory. One week after the final, it was all Greek to me!

  16. Great post, looking forward to the rest. It also reminded of me of what the much maligned Rumsfeld said.

    “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

    There are also in my view “things that we know that we know that are in fact wrong”, which applies especially to the left.

  17. Now you’re going all Heinlein again: “If it can’t be expressed in figures, it is not science; it is opinion.” and “The difference between science and the fuzzy subjects is that science requires reasoning while those other subjects merely require scholarship.”, with a bit of “‘Logic’ proved that airplanes can’t fly and that H-bombs won’t work and that stones don’t fall out of the sky. Logic is a way of saying that anything which didn’t happen yesterday won’t happen tomorrow.” but, I think, none of “Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe and not make messes in the house “.

    Lots of “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. “.

  18. The two most important things I learned in college were grad-level Stat and Prob (two quarters of it) while I was getting my teaching credentials (didn’t take the SocSci watered down version…took it in the math and engineering school) and B.F. Skinner’s behavioral theory (along with Thorndyke, Hull and Pavlov). Wikipedia, believe it or not, has a very understandable and well sourced entry on it.

    After a lifetime of hating math Stat and Prob finally allowed me to make friends with the subject.  Finally, a go no-go way to examine and express human behavior.  I loved it so much that I learned to use my dad’s old slide rule quite well (pretty much had to. The HP calculators were well over $100 in 1974) and I aced both quarters.

    Skinner’s Behaviorism allowed me to put all that theory into practice in my professional life in the SpEd classroom and into my night work as a behavior interventionist and trainer. I distinctly remember another teacher who saw what I was doing, pulled me aside where no one else could hear and told me he saw the progress I was making and how my methods were so similar to the dog training class he was taking. Told him the principles were identical. He nodded in agreement and made me promise not to tell anyone what he had said (sort of like a silent Trump supporter…heh).

    Behavioral Reductionism isn’t the end-all be-all in human behavior. DNA and, of course, a spiritual component are hugely significant, but you can’t really touch the former all that much and the latter is, outside of conversion of some sort, beyond the scope of the sort of teaching or intervention I’m talking about. I take Kierkegaard’s leap of faith. But, even so, I unabashedly think the four basic non-spiritual drivers that one can actually touch in another (and this goes for groups as well as individuals) are the ones empirically demonstrated over and over again are R+, R-, P+ and P-.  Those four simple concepts (well, R- is a hard road for some) control pretty much all observable behavior of every animal on the planet from the sea slug on up. I think everyone with more than half a brain should have more than smattering of knowledge of these two disciplines.

    My 2¢ anyway.

    • Good on you for “acing” the courses! If I remember correctly, my first HP-35 and HP-45 were in the $400 price range in the early ’70’s.

  19. I second the notion that Naked Statistics is a good book. In addition Charlie Wheelan, the author, is a really good guy who is most generous with his time. And a really good teacher as well.

  20. It’s been a while, but as I recall from Churchill’s My Life as a Young Man he didn’t have much if any college education and when he was a subaltern in India he had his mother send him crates of classical texts to read. Always had to have the English translations, because he simply refused to learn Latin or Greek.

  21. To understand the physical world one needs a basic understanding of: numeracy including probability theory; chemistry, thermodynamics, and Newtonian physics, i.e., mass, acceleration, force.

    I begin every single discussion of the dire “water shortage” facing the Earth with the proposition that the amount of water on Earth has remained substantially constant on any time scale that matters to human life. The proportion of water on Earth that exists in its solid phase (ice), liquid phase (water), and gas phase (vapor) may change over time, but the number of H2O molecules on the Earth remains substantially constant. We know this is true because basic chemistry and thermodynamics tell us that the formation of an H2O molecule releases energy, while splitting an H2O molecule into its constituent components consumes energy.

    Thus, by definition there can be no such thing as a water shortage on Earth. Water may not be in our preferred phase or in our preferred location, but those are logistical problems, not resource problems. Further, there may be too many people, animals, and plants vying for a constant water resource, but that’s a population management issue, not a resource problem.

    This elicits slack-jawed, dumbfounded stares, even from people who are ostensibly well-educated and who work in policy-making fields. I have explained this over and over and over again and it’s like the Brawndo scene in Idiocracy–they simply cannot grasp it. In their warped minds the amount of water on Earth is shrinking year-by-year, rather like seasonal rivers in the African desert that run dry following the end of the rainy season.

    Ultimately I will ask the question: If the water on Earth is disappearing, where does it go? This usually ends the conversation.

    These people have no business changing bicycle tires, much less working in responsible policy-making fields.

    • re: “If the water on Earth is disappearing, where does it go?” Guest

      Water vapor reaches the stratosphere and in its upper reaches reacts with UV and is ionized. Hydrogen and Oxygen are thus separated. The hydrogen continues to rise and either as H2, H+, or as a free radical of H (H•) and are swept away from the earth’s atmosphere by the solar wind causing a net loss of Hydrogen. The O2 thus builds up in the atmosphere.

      Dan Kurt

      • Yes, I am aware of this and the theory that the Earth may have lost up to 25% of its water over the course of the last billion years, which is why I qualified my comments with a time limitation relevant to human existence. At this rate we could be out of water in a mere 4 billion years, which is about the same time the sun is scheduled to collapse.

        If the theory is correct then in the approximately 100,000 years of human existence the Earth may have lost 0.0025% of its water to diffusion into space. Not relevant.

        Your response prompts an interesting chemistry question though: does the O2 which builds up in the atmosphere combine with H or H2 to form H2O again? It takes a small amount of energy to overcome the covalent bonds of the O2 but in theory every lightning strike could trigger the formation of a small amount of H2O in the atmosphere, assuming there are free H or H2 and O2 molecule roaming around in the vicinity.

    • Arguing about the entropy of things is one thing. But Progressives like to castigate those whose lands are blessed with a relative abundance of water and decry the “inequality” and “unfairness” of these lands versus others because the others are prone to drought and have no infrastructure or planning to mitigate the looming natural disasters that plague them.

      As if you can move the rainfall, the run-off from snow-melt in arid lands to those inhospitable lands dying of thirst. It is complete lunacy and yet so much of the NGO type industry jumps on this bandwagon pleading for more money to correct this unfair deficiency in nature.

      However, we find the same thought processes at work in education. Good teaching methods are well known. The basics can be taught. But the underlying problems to students’ inability to learn, grasp, and perform is always sloughed off due to “inadequate” funding. Always “more” money! The problem is never the teachers, the methods or the philosophies behind the efforts to dumb-down the population.

      I would go into my neighborhood grocery store and the teachers unions would be out soliciting signatures for this or that proposition for more money for education. We do it for the kids! Of course. But does anything change? No. I would always give my opinion which was that money was not the issue. I said the issue was good teaching of the 3 “R’s”. Focus on that and a big part of the problem will be solved.

      The fight over confirmation of Becky DeVoss as Secty of Education is going to be monumental. The Education Lobby has much to lose and they are the cradle robbers of the Progressive movement.

  22. If I am forced to take another algebra class, I will go postal. And what is wrong with a society that requires multiple years of math and 1 English class? We have people that can’t communicate with the written word.We have folks that can’t tell you what countries we fought with in World War I.

    • forced algebra class=>going postal.

      See, you can do it, you have used properly a fundamental structure of algebraic logic, the major premise of the syllogism.

  23. This is a great idea for a recurring topic. Podcasts have been a huge influence as well, all very timely.

    Maybe as the discussion develops more mass, you could add a tab to the top of the page…. like “Mokita” ; thereby allowing the benefits of a list without the boredom.

    One problem I now find is that podcasts are piling up in the queue like books on the night table …..geeze…..!!

    ……Not to mention how does one defragment a 60 y/o brain to free up space ….?

      • Z, I got that… and think it’s a great idea…a recurring theme to look forward to every week….
        My thought is that after a year or more of Fridays I’m gonna have occasion to need/want a book on a given topic and remeber you had such a suggestion and have no way to QUICKLY find it, nor have any frickin idea of when it was, to start looking…..

        Not to mention you will most likely continue to grow your readership and people might not have the wherewithal to search all of the archived posts to get the benefit of your suggestions /requirements for cognitive improvement…..

        …..Just sayin..

        • I hope you will forgive this plug for some commercial software but your discussion leads me to think this company might have something that could be helpful. I use their “All My Books” software to manage my “Dead Tree” library but they have software for movies and other stuff. Check it out at:

          • Thanks. They offer some very useful software. I’m a Mac guy….actually I don’t even own a desk or lap top at the moment….I had to live on the bleeing edge of imaging and storage technology for so long, that when I changed careers, I basically became a Luddite…..I’ve allowed myself to backslide (somewhat) with untethered mobile keyboardless devices .

  24. Isn’t math in it’s system critical thinking? I ask because I personally can’t perform any complex math beyond addition subtraction and division, I have severe dyslexia, my brain doesn’t grasp the complex functions. I’ve never been able to make sense of them, it won’t go in my head and connect. But I need math in my trade as a welder/fitter/fabricator/machinist, so I’ve figured out workarounds in thinking and techniques that make no sense to anyone else. I remember one day it was like an epiphany, why not go around my cognitive disfunction’s, ignore the accepted norms and try some different thought processes. It works after a fashion. It is more a combination intuitive/associative process I think. You got to do what you got to do. I’d love to be a physicist, physics is endlessly fascinating and it’s basis to the universe. I read many works from the great theorists, blows my mind not just the scope of nature, but how these guys could even figure this stuff out. Sometimes that is as amazing as the physics itself.

    • I’m with you, Doug. I can’t get to where I want to go, intellectually, but the workarounds serve me fairly well, most of the time. To a point, I am a great “test-taker”, but it all falls apart when I must “show my work”.

      • Oh ya, I hear you. History is filled with great works and accomplishments. You have to wonder how much was done with or without the advent of structured mathematics formula’s, i.e. seat of the pants and intuitive genius?
        I mean, you take Pythagorus’s theorem. I used it for years because you can lay out a perfect right angle without a square, like sheet metal for layout work, in a piece of stock that has no perpendicular or square sides, before I ever understood what his theory really was about. It literally transform human perception of the world if I understand it correctly. Pythagorus figures highly in Masonic ritual, for good practical and spiritual reason.

  25. Math rules the physical world, so it’s critical to the application of reason. Also super important: the three laws of Thermodynamics.

    • Math is an important tool to help us understand the physical world; I am a fan of Tesla, who commented on the physicists of his day with ” equations on a chalkboard are not reality.” I am now counting day 29,870 since college when I have not used algebra.

    • I read Feynem’s book lecture on Theory of electro thermal dynamics a few times. Even for such genius minds, even they have found the answers are there are no answers to some things, they found if they accepted what they found it solved the mystery. Could you call it an interesting theory in itself about theories? I guess you could call that a paradigm. But then there’s Schrodinger’s Cat, I know Schrodinger was using it as a foil against certain other theorists, but the guy was pretty sharp, because it is a theory within a theory wrapped in a theory. How much IS reason at that level, and how much is intuitive thinking, or is it thinking on another level entirely?

  26. Zman how does the diminishing scope of words long known and understood in their classical meaning fall into your essay? There’s a lot of examples of this, like for instance Wikipedia is notorious for their thought policing of undesirable meanings to words. I personally witnessed Wikipedia edit out the original definition of Nomenklaturer. The schools are running common core to intellectually nueter this nations children.
    I only have a 7th grade formal education at best, and have found to much delight and fascination the classical thinking and history of the world is an incomparable enlightenment. Our friends down the road have a teenage daughter who stops by when she gets off the school bus and not only tells my wife and I about hoe stupid common core is, she is always asking about words, events, and people from history and what their context is, in particular to our nations history and founding. She is a pretty sharp kid who picks up on things instantly and puts them in context, but you can tell when she has questions, she is trying to figure out the unknown unknowns. You can almost see the lightbulb go on over her head. It’s really sweet. She has remarked that her and her friends and even some teachers are disgusted with common core. I bring it up because it seems so pertinent to your essay. And like how you said it’s more important learning to use critical thinking, than learning itself, right?

    • re: “Common Core”

      Tell your young friend to learn common core solid because the genius who gave the country that reform now heads the College Board Exam. Her score will depend on how well she has mastered the common core.

      Dan Kurt

      p.s. My maternal grandmother had only 6 years of formal education. She was born in 1884. When I knew her she had raised 6 kids and supplemented the family income as a book keeper for a variety of small businesses most of her adult life. IQ is the key in life and with it an interest in improving.

      Dan Kurt

      • Heard that. I doubt this young lady would heed that advice though, she is a definite independent thinker, rather intelligent mind she has, though she is smart enough to game as you say, the system, without it corrupting her mind. I’m touched she asks the things she does. You can see the gears turning, soon as you begin to give her an answer she connects things and is already on to the next before you finish. IQ is a funny thing, it’s definition is allusive, but it is real.

  27. I dispute that we have the ‘totality of human knowledge at our fingertips’. Intellectuals make this same mistake every century, every era. It is the downfall civilizations and ruin of empires to think that ‘we have finally arrived’ at some pinnacle of knowledge. You even said it twice. Frankly I’m a little disappointed to find this here this am. Some things are known by the heart. What we don’t know would fill a trillion Internets. Some things can only be known and understood through the heart. Some things can only be known by looking a man right in eye. Some things can only be understood by a properly prepared heart. Some things are of God. Some things are of God’s Natural Law.

    Having said all that, I have thanked you in the past in for the ‘free education’ and I thank you again for this and I applaud your effort to impart this knowledge on us. I’m looking forward to the next entry.

    This is priceless; “always ask what a thing is, not where a thing is. What is its nature, what does it do. Who thinks it is important.”

    • If one approaches the Internet properly (IMHO), it is a wonderful tool to help us realize how much we do not know, or barely understand. One must approach it in the right frame of mind.

    • Fred, perhaps you could elaborate on your comment “Intellectuals make this same mistake every century, every era.” about having “the totality of human knowledge at our fingertips.”

      I wholehearted agree with your follow-up comments on things that can be known but related to the internet, it is difficult to argue that there isn’t an awful lot (ok, maybe not literally “the totality”) of data information, history, records, etc. available for review and learning. The challenge to me is sorting the wheat from the chaff. And I always start by considering the source.


      • “the totality of human knowledge at our fingertips.”

        I didn’t like that sentence when I wrote it. I thought about changing it but couldn’t really think of a replacement that still made the point. I shouldn’t have used quote marks. It’s a generalization. No offense to the author is meant. Never, ever, use absolutes no matter what, forever.

        I guess my greater point is; the more we think that it’s different this time, well, it isn’t. Some stations, usually the chattering classes, of every generation tend to think that they have finally arrived. That this time will be different, that human kind has finally overcome our violent, instinctive predispositions through the acquisition of knowledge. The moment one (or a society) thinks it has arrived, in whatever form, is the moment of the beginning of its downfall. Some of my thinking on this is from the bible, some from history, some from human nature. It does seem so.

        I don’t like to start by considering the source. It immediately skews my analytic capability by clouding it with personal opinion and prior biases. Of course I find myself asking; ‘what site is this or who is this author?’ about a third of the way through things. And, to your point, some organizations are known liars.

        There is a higher order. Have you spent any time in the wilderness? You get past everything you know and simply exist to the point where you can practically see what is behind you and readily anticipate what must be done at the next ridgeline. We were designed and built this way. The internet can’t know what I’m talking about here and it can’t tell you. I can’t even do it. You have to be alone in big predator country before you understand. Technology has made many things very convenient and it is a ruinous thing.

        As an honest explorer of the Holy Scripture I know to start with the truth regardless of how it makes me feel. The truth does not care about my feelings. Feelings are a critical input for physical evasion. We translate this into a need for mental evasion. The need doesn’t exist and evading the truth is harmful. Evasion is not always desired. I sit in church and listen for when the people start to fidget and shift in their seats because I know at that moment that I’ve heard an uncomfortable and fundamental truth. I’m babbling. I may have answered your question.

        • Thanks for the extended version Fred! Lots of ideas there to discuss. Simply, I agree with you on all you said. I guess I use the “consider the source” (if I am familiar with it) as a quick filter that I rely on because there is so much stuff out there. If I know the source is a false or questionable entity, then unless it is of significance for further investigation, I will not give it the time of day.

          To your point about “society thinking it has arrived” and gone past it’s primitive, inbred nature … you are absolutely correct. These people, and there are many, are fools. It is the story of the scorpion and the frog all over again. But on the issue of “having the totality of human knowledge at our finger tips,” to me the issue gets back to the difference between data, information, knowledge, truth and wisdom. I take things like Wikipedia with a grain of salt because everything is politicized these days and with the censorship that goes on, it is clear that a “source” that is supposed to be “democratic” and free is not unbiased and free from agendas.

          I am a Christian and know and try to follow the Word of the Bible. I also have been outdoors in the wilderness and know of what you speak. It is a mind clearing experience that takes you closer to the essence of survival and the realization of the beauty of God’s creation and the essentials needed to be able to live in the wilderness. And even that is with the help of all my modern clothing, backpack, gear, food, water filtration, etc.and not using the raw knowledge and hard earned skills needed to really make it on one’s own.

          Recently I am always remembering the saying “The forest through the trees” because when we discuss things like critical thinking, so many people are unable to step back and look at things from a 30,000 foot level. Rather than view the Bible, for instance, as a guide book on how to live life they get distracted by all kinds of things. But if you look at the message which is distilled into the Ten Commandment, I always have to ask myself, “Now what is so repulsive about those rules God handed down” except that man does not want to have any rules. Man is rebellious by nature. And yet, man grants unto himself all kinds of superior attributes. The elites are masters of this to the point they think they are God’s gift to the world, although they would not give him credit for it.

  28. The really sad thing is none of this is taught in universities. How to think for yourself is no longer important….what to think is “critical.” Witness the “New Civics.” All of which proves what I’ve long believed….that real education takes place outside of modern schools. What’s nice about your blog is that it’s like the conversations I remember from university…a fair amount of bullshit and a good amount of new ways of looking at stuff. And sometimes distinctly crystallizing what I’ve long felt but never put into words. Tim

  29. I’m going to wildly disagree with you on the relevance and importance of those higher order mathematics skills. You can’t last 5 minutes in most treaties on math/numbers without the ability to think logically and critically, and the ability conceptualize and visualize numbers in 2 and 3 dimensions (your standard Cartesian coordinates). What I tell my students (bias alert!) is that the two primary gateways to knowledge are mathematics of 2nd degree and higher polynomials, and literature of the Great Works (by which I generally mean at the level of not-dummified Shakespeare…the calculus of literature…take your pick but the list is not small).

    Anyway, Pythagoras was right to believe that “All things are numbers. Mathematics is the basis for everything, and geometry is the highest form of mathematical studies. The physical world can understood through mathematics.”

    The reason why most people gloss over when they see big numbers (or any discussion of numbers) is not they don’t read enough about math. It’s that they don’t actually spend any of their time trying to solve math problems. When you study math long enough, you start to realize “the math IS the science”. That was my revelation when working on my physics degree. Once you could see the mathematics playing out in the physical world (like the numbers that flash on the screen in front of the pilots in “The Matrix”), everything about how you see the universe and everyone around you changes.

    The people with most intuition about the world have highly developed analytical skills (innate mathematical skill, even if they lack formal training), and are exceptionally well read across a range of subject matter and depth of the age of the reading material. It’s important to read broadly, but is also important to read back in time because the literature of the past is also the author’s historical account of the times and the lessons and wisdoms of that age.

    We’ve foolishly distilled much of that down into internet memes and quotes from dead white guys and those of other educated cultures/philosophers.

    • As a math guy, I share your bias, but I think you can do well with just an awareness of the importance of math. For instance, when blank slate types start yapping about how humans share 99% of their DNA with one another, simply knowing that 99% is not 100% is a big first step in understanding the flaws in the blank slate argument. It gets you going in the right direction.

      Put another way, there is a threshold of understanding that you have to cross.

      • Riffing off your DNA example, knowing that that your DNA is not bianary code designed to be read by a machine and is probably vaguely convolutional (note I wrote vaguely, hard core math geeks) with a small a small number of genes controlling how other genes manifest themselves in the phenotype (with multiple phenotypic outcomes maybe even coded in the same set of base pairs) would help the know-nothings even more. Since we share 98% of our DNA with chimps, you’d think that the SJWs could even do the basic linear extrapolation and and figure out that a 1% delta could (and does) yield some substantial differences in outcomes.

      • It’s also a meaningless thing to say to people who have no idea how long and complex a DNA molecule actually is.

      • I disagree because until you know in a very practical sense, computationally, what that % symbol represents and how it is produced, 99 vs. 100 is just another two numbers.

        Besides, until you really grasp how numbers work, you might not realize that the difference between 99% and 100% is a chasm not a sliver when you apply it to things like airline safety records. We have whole industries (tech manufacturing comes to mind) where 99% would yield very substandard (garbage) product.

        I hear what you are saying, but disagree that the surface-level familiarity with math concepts is sufficient to call oneself knowledgeable any more than reading the Spark Notes summary of Macbeth would. Both are decent ways to introduce the concept…but Essential Knowledge? No.

      • Also a math guy – retired electronic systems engineer with a second major in applied mathematics, now a full time Calvary Chapel pastor – and I always find it odd how people react to math. Example 1: 50% chance of rain on Saturday and Sunday so 100% chance of rain overall. Example 2: Son brings home info from school on how much of the earth we are using up hourly. So we computed the computed the amount daily x 365 and discovered the earth was being completely consumed annually after looking up the mass of the earth.
        Also a small book Fascinating Fractions shows just how unusual everyday things are like 3 and 1/7 used to approximate pi.

    • I get the “math” thing, but here’s the rub. My brain cannot wrap itself around the equations. I can see the elegance of the math from the outside, I can understand the concepts of calculus, differentials, probabilities, and what arrays of points distributed in two or more multiple dimensions can mean, but I am like Tiny Tim peeking through the window watching the rich people feasting.

      My college girlfriend was one of those “math” types, and my daughter is way out there with it, and I envy their ability to operate inside of the space. For my part, I can watch it all happen and I can refer to the ideas of others with an appreciation of what they are doing, along with a simpleton understanding of what they are up to. So I can grab on to the idea that there is this wonderful alternate universe existing alongside our own, but I can’t live in it. I guess it is good for a guy to know his limitations, but it is frustrating, too.

      • Your point is actually mine as well. Mathematics isn’t about the equations. They are a means to an end. Where people struggle with mathematics (students and adults) is lack of a fully developed number sense…which is developed and grown through the steady application of computational skills. Until people develop those computational skills, the higher order mathematics are a mystery. You have to understand how numbers work with each other to really grasp how they explain the universe around us (i.e. equations).

        Most people are not given enough time to fully develop these skills as children. The schools are like a train that moves at a constant speed and which never stops. Programs like the one I’m affiliated with can stop the train, back it up, move it sideways, and most importantly we can “just wait longer” for the individual’s mind to develop. I actually hold up at lot of my 5th graders from the higher levels of algebra because even though they are very strong computationally, they need to “grow into the mathematics”.

        The mistake the schools ALWAYS make, and which Common Core compounds, is this bizarre fixation with understanding “Why?” before mastery of “How”. So they mix and confuse the study of mathematics with complicated and pedantic word problems without ever establishing the computational skills required to understand the relationships. Smart people understand that most kids need TWO “math” classes. One that is focused on strict mathematical and arithmetic computational skill, and one that is basically an applied-math course of problem solving, time-telling, money counting, etc…which are harmonized to the computational skills the children have already demonstrated mastery (not “familiarity”) with.

        Most adults I meet when I talk to them, I can hear in them the same things that bring their children through my front door.

        The thing you can always do is train yourself to be strong in math. But you have to be willing to start at the very beginning…number counting, sequencing, and core computational skills (mental addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, up through fractions and decimals). If you can do those things well, the rest tends to sort itself out.

        • I absolutely support your point about ridiculous math teaching methods that reverse the order from learning the basics first (like add, subtract and times tables,etc.). I still fume a little when I recall our youngest daughter’s epic and discouraging struggle with plane geometry about 20 years ago. Seems the nifty new pedagogical theory of that day was to start working with complex polygons (instead of line segments, etc.) and assume that the students would ‘get it’ through pattern recognition (or something; who knows – forget it Jake, it’s Edu-town).

          In the first parent-teacher conference the genius HS math teacher said that the problem must be our daughter since this was the most advanced theory to date. I mentioned that pupils had been successfully learning geometry for well over 2,000 years since the days of Euclid but now they’re (our daughter wan’t the only one) having trouble_? Just maybe this theory is what’s stupid.

          He didn’t take it well so we went to the principle and had our daughter pulled from the ‘advanced’ section. She did just fine in the average section that used the classic method of building up from the very basics.

  30. “Ten people in a room may have an average height of 5’8?, but no one in the room may actually be that height.”

    Reminds me of the old joke about how if you, me, and Bill Gates are in a bar, then the average customer that day is a billionaire.

  31. Perhaps this is a personal bias, since it’s where I make my living. But most people have a severe deficit in “probabilistic thinking”. Witness the inane assertions that came with Obamacare. All of us in the “business” (though my only exposure to health insurance side was selling an underperforming subsidiary years ago–it is a crappy business) knew the death spiral would be quick and brutish. “Against the Gods” by Peter Bernstein provides a good framework that applies to almost anything where likelihood of outcome is important.

    • And I warned everyone I knew about the coming catastrophe and thought that since I was in the business of selling insurance it would carry some weight. I also had experience with European healthcare and how uncaring the system is, all to no avail. My friends on the Left could not, and are still not, swayed by logic or reality. When your religion is Progressivism then you will broker no heretics.

    • We seem to live in a society in which a high percentage functions quite happily on inane assertions. Look at all the people who worship such an obviously corrupt dishonest politician such as Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi. But tell them the dirt people don’t have to do anything the clouds say they have to. That the assertion of our government derives it’s just power upon the consent of the governed.
      Or better yet, “There is no government like no government”. You want to talk about a deficit in thinking.
      Look at the art of gas lighting the public, there is the math of percentages. You only need a certain percentage of the public to believe the propaganda your selling, and that percentage of koolaid drinkers suffice to give you al appearance of legitimacy, a fig leaf really, and you get away with the big lie. It doesn’t matter what the remaining percentage thinks. There has to be mathematical equation in social engineering that explains this. Like Obamacare. It had to be all math percentages that made it a viable scam to attempt.

      • The percentages are now breaking down for them. The problem for all of us is what they are going to do about it. The only hope they have, to get back into the cocoon of a high enough proportion of people buying into their way of things, is to trash every aspect of the alternatives in every way possible. It is going to be an interesting couple of years.

        • Thats pretty much my assessment too. I like how you composed your assessment.
          What else are they going to do right. They won’t stop until something or somebody dose stop them.
          I’m trying to figure what percentage decide to fight back. There is the political science of history that 3% fought against the brits, I’m finding through study of the revolutionary war period from the Frenh Indian war to 1778, it looks like maybe 2% actively participated. So it begs the question what percentage comprises a “plurality” and their motive power is capable of overcoming a vast majority who are at the least ambivalent?

          • That 3% number has always been an interesting assertion. What I think matters more is where those numbers are concentrated. An average over an entire population is very different than specific pockets of high adherence. What I’ve found, somewhat anecdotally, is that in certain areas, the “frontier” of the time, there were much higher participation percentages. In my own family, both sides, who lived on those frontiers of the time, the muster rolls show something more like 50-75% of eligible men signing the Revolutionary Association and serving. Ethnically, most were Scots-Irish and had fought in the French and Indian War. In the cities, where people had a lot more to lose, the adherence was much lower. But, as you saw during the war, it meant the British could hole up in the cities, but to venture out was death. There was simply no way to operate in the countryside for extended periods. What is fascinating is that an electoral map for Clinton showed the same characteristics.

    • “Against the Gods” — good book. I read it decades ago. Hmmmm, maybe it’s time to pull it off the shelf again.

  32. Witness the blank stare from most people when the news proclaims that our national debt is $20 Trillion. Most simply have no idea what “trillion” means other than a lot. Something more than a million and less than infinity.

    • Sometimes alternative thinking suffices in a case like this. What $20 Trillion in unsecured debt and derivatives really means is it is so much money at some point it the note comes due, implodes back on us and at least economically this nation is in a serious world of hurt.

      • Since the subject is fundamental things we should know one would be about money. We have $20 Trillion in debt but under the present system of money creation if we paid all the debt we would have NO money. All money is created by debt. So if a bank says to the FED they need $10 million or whatever, the FED creates a bond(debt) then the Treasury issues the cash. You can’t pay off the debt because in the process of creating money you create more debt. You may think this so positively stupid that I’m lying to you but this is the way it is. Nice racket if you can get it. A private bank, the FED, issues a bond from thin air, tells the Treasury they can issue money, from thin air, and the FED gets interest from it.

        The FED owns about 50% of the debt. They issued a bond then just kept it instead of selling it.

        So in actuality $20 Trillion is roughly the size of all cash and loans in the economy. Derivatives not included as they are just promises to pay and not actual money…yet.

        I think it very likely that most of the bonds on the planet are just traded back and forth between countries who are buying each others debt. We could probably swap them all back, issue cash for the rest, kill all of each countries FED’s and come out a lot better as we wouldn’t need to pay interest.

        • Sam,
          Thanks, you’re one of the few who gets it. Reading books outside the normal reading lists is what got us here, with an understanding of reality, and not the mythology the masses think they know. Even though I can’t do much about the lies and con games we’re forced to play for the system, I’m content that at least I know the why of how it works.
          Informing the dumbmasses is the hardest part, most of them don’t want to know that what they know is a lie. Instead, we’re labeled idiots, how amusing.

  33. Looking forward to the series. I barely graduated from high school and didn’t go to college. One great resource I’ve found for filling in knowledge gaps is the ‘Very Short Introductions’ series from Oxford University Press. I think there are over 500 of them now. Each book is a 100 – 200 page overview of whatever subject that’s written an expert in the field.

  34. Another tool I find useful is a bookmark tagger. Trying to find something I’ve already read is one of my most frustrating activities. Taking a few moments to tag articles with keywords saves me much of that frustration. Keeping tags consistent becomes the new frustration. For instance, I won’t find an article on “stupid” if I tagged it with “idiot”.

    I use the “Bookmarks Tagging” extension in Chrome.

  35. Understanding the differences between linear, geometric, and exponential growth and the biological, economic, and physical limits on all three is pretty important in our day and age.

    Some small appreciation of chaos theory is useful. I’d recommend a video on the magnetic pendulum theory. There are many out there and some even do a good job of explaining how it relates to larger phenomena like climate and markets.

    Hope that adds to the discussion.

      • re: “Understanding the differences between…geometric, and exponential growth.” el_baboso

        A distinction without a difference, no? Perhaps more coffee.

        Dan Kurt

        • Perhaps you should plot the curves? A closed system could support geometric growth (x^n) for longer than exponential growth (n^x).

          They are not different names for the same thing.

          • re: “They [geometric growth and exponential growth] are not different names for the same thing.” el_baboso

            Half a century ago I remember in number theory being taught exponential growth was a sub-set of geometric growth. But then again the semester I took the subject we covered three “small” branches: Number theory, Boolean algebra, and Linear algebra. All taught from three thin books and no electronic calculators or computers. All plotting was done by hand on graph paper.

            Dan Kurt

  36. What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question. Jonas Salk

    I just ordered both books, thanks.

    • What you said causes me to think of these two quotes.

      Thomas Sowel: “It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.”

      “Critical thinking is thinking about thinking to improve your thinking through better thinking. Get acquainted with the entire fascinating world of fallacies. Practice conversation and Socratic drilling. Identify your bias filters and hone your skills at identifying other people’s filters. Learn to frame arguments properly.” -Bill Buppert

    • Depends which European you are speaking too. Here in the Old Country a billion is the same as it is for you guys, our erstwhile colonial subjects. In France it was always 100 million. Others had other interpretations. Nowadays, however, the good old Anglo-Saxon billion dominates. That doesn’t stop Joe, Guiseppe or Jean failing to understand it, though.

    • Old physics joke,

      A scientist was giving a public lecture about solar evolution. He spoke about how our sun in about 4 billion years would expand to the size of a red giant, swallowing the Earth and all of the inner planets destroying them. A terrified woman in the back shot up her hand to ask, “How long did you say?!” “About 4 billion years ma’am,” the scientist replied. Relieved, she lowered her hand and replied, “Oh, thank goodness! I thought you said ‘million’!”

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