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.