Inside Knowledge: Why We Like to Know Useless Stuff

This blog post has the same title as a Feature article by Daniel Cossins in the 1 Apr 2017 New Scientist. The author notes that knowledge is more than just information.  “Even the nematode worm caenorhabditis elegant, the owner of one of the smallest brains we now, forages to maximize information about its environment, and so its chances of staying alive and reproducing.”  This is the typical analysis offered by scientists.  It seems like the entire point is for species to evolve and to reproduce.  However, evolution offers the hope that we can evolve into something better.  Homo sapiens as a whole is quite depressing.  We seem to be preoccupied with warfare and have developed weapons that can lead to our own extinction.  However, there are some members of our species who espouse transcendental values, which leads to the hope that we might become something better.

Cousins writes, “The precise details of how we first came to love knowledge may always elude us.  But it is easy to see how it would have spurred our success as individuals and as a species furnishing us with the tools—often literally, if you think of  cutting blades or fire—to survive and prosper.”

So the argument is that we are addicted to knowledge because it has served us so well in the past.  It still does today, in everyday life as well as the frontiers of technological progress.  The term infovores has be used to describe this propensity (enter “infovores” into the search block of the healthy memory blog).

Abraham Flexner, the founder of the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) at Princeton pointed out in a 1939 essay “The usefulness of useless knowledge,” radio communications and all that came with it wasn’t ultimately the inventions of Guglielmo Marconi.  It was down to James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz, scientist who worked out the basics of electromagnetic waves with no practical objectives.”

The current director of IAS, Robbert Dijkgraaf has written a companion essay to a reissue of Flexner’s original.  He wrote, “The theory of general relativity is used every day in our GPS systems, but it was not the reason Einstein solved it.

The problem is that too many people reject science.  Some reject science on the basis of religious texts.  Others are fundamentally ignorant.  What is most depressing is the leader of the United States rejecting scientific research.  For this HM apologizes.  Although he did not win the popular vote; he was chosen by the electoral college, an anachronism that denies the sacred principle of one citizen, one vote.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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