The more I learn, the less I know

The internet was in its infancy when I walked into my friend and physician Dr. Mike Miller’s office one afternoon with a strange pain in my left shoulder. He asked me what was going on and I said, “Well Mike, I looked on WebMD….” and he interrupted me.

“What kind of cancer do you think you have?” Mike asked with a grin.

He was obviously not a fan of the newly launched medical information website that so many people visit each day.

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I had a strained muscle in my back, a common occurrence during the period from my 20s to my 50s when I worked construction every summer.

We live in an era of instant communication, instant information, and in a society with a glaring lack of patience. The rabbit hole of the internet can lead you to some strange, and perhaps dangerous places.

Sociologists blame television for our short-term attention span, impulsive habits, and “fix it quick” attitudes. Maybe they have something in this premise. Television breaks up programming into orchestrated segments, interspersed at regular intervals with 20, 30, 45, and 60-second commercials. You can test this organization by switching channels when a commercial break takes place. What you’ll find is that every station has the same programming pattern, meaning when you switch channels, every one of them has a commercial break at the same time. It’s all carefully calculated by analysts with the same MBA from many of the same universities. It is another classic example of being unique, just like everyone else.

We didn’t always live this way. In the very recent past libraries were our source of information, or perhaps an almanac, set of encyclopedias, or just a friend or family member who knew something about a subject.

Having a tangible source of reliable information was worth the effort, and still is.

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The jumbled world of the internet offers anything you want to find, and from the political viewpoint, you carry with you. Most people don’t seek information, they seek vindication when they delve into the idiocy of politics online. If you’re a white supremacist there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of websites supporting you’re inbred prejudices, and you can claim them all as factual since you’ve found a viper’s nest of people sharing your misconceptions.

The same is true for vaccination sites, both pro, and con, right to choose, or right to life sites, and just about any other issue hitting your news feed. It can be bewildering.

For those of us raised on CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite or the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC the modern, Balkanized, homogenized, bunker-style reporting of the extreme right-wing news outlets is difficult to stomach, as are many of their left-leaning competitors.

As usual, we are left in the middle trying to decide what is real, and what is hyperbole. It is a challenge.

It seems the right only cares about the top one percent of the wealthiest people in the nation, and the left only cares about the poorest 20 percent. Both cater to extremists as well to bolster their base, but where does that leave those of us in the remaining 79%? It leaves us devoid of support, though the vast misinformation and advertising campaigns of our elected politicians sure spend a lot of time trying to our minds off what really matters.

It seems the more you learn, the less you know. I find that happening all the time. In my career as a historian, writer, construction worker, farmer, and especially in the world of IT I was continually perplexed, not by the mundane of the every day, but by challenges that never appeared until you had almost mastered a skill. That’s the basic premise of learning more and more and knowing less and less.

Albert Einstein famously noted the same thing, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know,” the famous scientist once said in an interview.

You can delve much further into the past to see this in action. In classical Greece, the attorney and philosopher Protagoras first mentioned this paradox.

Protagoras is considered the finest attorney in classical Greece, and was renowned as a law professor as well, teaching individual students for a fee.

Protagoras Paradox is a fixture of philosophical discussion into our modern era.

Here is the problem the great counselor faced. He taught one of his best students, Euathlus the law and wasn’t going to charge him until Eathlus won his first case.

Euathlus decided not to become an attorney and refused to pay Protagoras.

Protagoras decided to sue his former pupil, but here lies the paradox. If Protagoras won the case, Euthalus didn’t have to pay because he had not won his first (and only) case. If Protagoras lost the case, and Euthalus won, he still wouldn’t get paid since he lost the court decision. If Euthalus won, he was obliged to pay, but since the decision was that he didn’t have to pay… That is the paradox.

It is the type of ridiculous situation we find ourselves in our lives all the time. You can’t find work because you’re not experienced, but you can’t get experience until you work. You can’t get a loan for a home because you don’t have enough money, but if you did, you wouldn’t need a loan. You have to have money to make money, but if you don’t how do you get started? These are all paradoxes, not necessarily of the modern tilt, since we can trace written examples of this back 25 centuries at least.

The more we know, the less we understand is a similar sentiment. The reason is that the vastness of knowledge is beyond even the brightest among us in our ability to understand even the simplest things.

We all know someone who purports to know everything, but in reality, they are among the most ignorant people we meet, and we actively avoid them.

That too is a paradox, albeit one in reverse. There are far too many, particularly the elected variety of people who live by “the less I know, the more I claim to understand.”

As I’ve told kids for three generations now, don’t be that guy.

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