In the age of the smartphone, the ability to recall facts seems fairly outdated. You can google everything from baseball statistics to the date of every historical event to "Is it safe if I use a wool sock as a condom?" So what good is it to have all that stuff clogging up your brain? Why learn how a pearl forms when the web is your oyster?
According to author William Poundstone's new book, Head in the Cloud: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are so Easy to Look Up (out now via Little, Brown), possession of seemingly random tidbits of knowledge is correlated with increased income and even happiness. Using his own trivia-style questionnaires and findings from previously-existing polls and studies, Poundstone makes the data-driven case that the more facts you know, the more successful you are.
In the book's final section, Poundstone explains the ramifications of our seemingly increasing ignorance, and offers up solutions for the internet's shrinking of both our knowledge banks and attention spans. "What an amazing age," he writes, "in which cosmic mysteries can be revealed to all and ignored by almost all!"
VICE recently spoke with Poundstone about his findings, their ramifications, and the most obvious current example of willful obliviousness in our country.
VICE: Your studies find a lot of shocking correlations between seemingly trivial subsets of knowledge and increased income. I was most surprised that among college-educated 35-year-olds, those who scored 100 percent on a sports trivia quiz earned an average of around $50,000 a year more than those who scored 0 percent.
William Poundstone: That's certainly something that's gotten a lot of attention because you just wouldn't expect it. Obviously, it doesn't have to do with anything you learned in school, so it's good example of something that would seem irrelevant to put on a resume, but really has this effect. Part of the reason is that it applies to relatively easy sports questions. If you ask really hard ones that only a real sports fan is going to know, the correlation disappears. But with questions like Where does a shortstop play? or How many players are on a soccer team? You do get that correlation between knowing that stuff and higher income.
Why does this correlation exist?
I suspect that the explanation at its base is that this is something you can obtain by osmosis. If you just listen to the conversations at the water cooler, you're going to learn a lot about sports, even if you're not a sports fan. I think there is a real value in being interested in what people around you are saying, and taking an interest in whatever interests them. So if you can do that, it probably helps you in a lot of different areas of your career.
You can have very superficial knowledge, but there does still seem to be value in having that, just in being connected to the general culture. Just in having conversations with your coworkers, they'll know if you're the kind of person who has many interests and knows a lot of things, or else just someone who seems to have very narrow interests. If they peg you as the latter, maybe you won't be thought of someone who's management material. A good example of that is pronunciations. People who don't know how to pronounce segue or niche, that tends to correlate with lower income. I tend to think it's just a measure of how socially connected you are, although I'm ostensibly asking about dictionary pronunciations.
You pin lots of this seemingly random correlations between knowing facts and success on the benefit of simply "paying attention." Does being on the internet all the time hurt this?
There's what's known as the "Google effect," which has been the subject of a great deal of research. [Researchers] have done tests where people are given a set of trivia knowledge that they're supposed to type, and it'll be memorable things, like An ostrich's eyeball is bigger than its brain. So you type these things, and they'll tell some people, After you type all this stuff, it's going to be erased, and another group of people, After you type all of this, it's going to be stored on the computer. Then later, they quiz these people on the facts they've just typed, and what they find is that if people believe that their work is not going to be saved, that this work is just going to vanish, they're much more likely to remember it. But if they believe that it'll be stored digitally, they just tend to forget it.
Of course, the implication of this research is that because we now know that every fact is out there in the cloud, it gives people the incentive to forget a lot of stuff and to not retain knowledge as easily. You would retain maybe how to find the knowledge, but people really do regard the internet as your co-brain out there.
And some of this is generational.
When you look at what people of different ages know, there are considerable differences. One of the big ones is literature. There used to be a big emphasis on knowing American literature, but now, you ask people, Who is the captain in 'Moby Dick'? And if you're under 30, there's a pretty good chance you don't have a clue. I think it has a lot to do with education because you tend to know what you've been taught in school, especially with younger people. If Melville wasn't taught, you're not going to use your cell phone to look him up [because he's unfamiliar]. In that sense, education plays a big role in how people are going to be using the internet.
How do you think we can alter our behavior in order to maximize the internet's potential?
Websites tend to maximize the potential of whatever their profit is. They have to make the money to keep in business, and also have some way to monetize this. So in many ways, their interests are not aligned with their own audience's. In the book, I spend a considerable amount of time trying to determine how best to stay informed these days, such as doing surveys where you ask people to tick off all of the news sources they regularly use.
You find there really are big differences in that most newer, more configurable sources like the internet and 24-hour TV news channels tend to score relatively low [on a survey about current events] compared to older media like radio and newspapers. We've all said that it's a great thing that you can customize your newsfeed, that you can make sure that you don't miss any stories about a topic that you're really into, and if you regard something as boring, then you don't have to look at that. If you want a political slant, then you can get that. People do that a lot, but in general, the more they depend on those sort of news sources, the less good they are at answering very basic questions about current events. If you look at what you can get from a newspaper's website, it's generally a much broader view than you'd get from a something like Facebook. Some of the news is wonkish and boring, but you should at least get a little of that, just as you should eat your vegetables.
"What you don't know or what wrong ideas you have plays big role in your political views and whole philosophy of life."
You also allude to the idea that this narrowing of news sources is causing people to shy away from debating with those who hold opposite viewpoints.
You just get comfortable with what people like you think, and then when you have to deal with someone who's different, you tend to realize, I just won't say very much. But that's a sad thing. It's very good having people with different viewpoints confronting each other. That's one of the things I think is good about the notion of deliberative polling, where they'll conduct a poll, but then they'll bring a set of the people who were in the poll together to actually talk out various issues. Just the act of defending your view against people who may have very different views face-to-face does seem to have a big effect, and results in some people changing their views.
You write that in an information climate like this, political "campaigns become exercises in miseducating the public," and that rings out especially true in relation to Donald Trump. You never mention him by name—had he announced his presidential run before you were finished with the book?
He was just starting when I was finishing up the book, so I certainly was aware of him. As everyone who reads the book tells me, the section about the Dunning-Kruger effect [which states that less-competent people are more confident of their competence] obviously reminds them of Trump. He's one person, and there's examples of this all around us, but I think he did play on a lot of these misconceptions that the American public has.
The idea that there's this war against white male Christians, you can see that when you do the interviews and ask people to estimate minority populations, and they come up with ridiculously large figures. They just don't have a sense of what the reality is. Although this might seem like a very small thing, if you have the wrong idea about what percentage of the American public is Latino, this does tend to affect some of your political views. I think that's a reason why you can't say, Oh, I don't need to know this, I don't need to know that, because even what you don't know or what wrong ideas you have plays big role in your political views and whole philosophy of life.
'Head in the Cloud: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy to Look Up' is out now through Little, Brown and Company. Order it here.
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