Sunday, November 20, 2011

Knowledge vs. Intelligence

Here is my one-question IQ test: does reading the entire encyclopedia automatically make you smarter?

If you answer yes, then you're not very smart.

If you answer no, then you at least understand the difference between knowledge and intelligence.


This question comes courtesy of a fun but sometimes annoying book I'm reading: The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A.J. Jacobs.

Over the course of a year Jacobs reads the entire Encyclopeadia Britannica from A to Z: thirty volumes and 33,000 pages. He then writes about his quest in bite-sized chunks of interesting, funny, and trivial facts he learns as he works his way through the alphabet.

I appreciate his project. As a fellow trivia nerd, I think it's a cool and noble goal. Certainly better than, say, building the loudest car stereo or eating a 25-pound burger.

What I find annoying is how Jacobs is obsessed with being "smart," and he thinks the way to do it is to cram his head with facts. Being smart and knowing a lot of stuff often go hand in hand, but that's correlation, not causation. (A concept smart people understand.)

I don't know if it's just his shtick-- playing dumb and going for the cheap laugh rather than showing off his intellect-- but time and time again throughout the book, Jacobs illustrates how having all this knowledge does not make him particularly smart. He focuses so hard on trivialities that he fails to see the big picture.

For example, it irritates him that the logo for Rene Lacoste's brand of tennis shirts is described as an alligator, even though his nickname when he played was The Crocodile. Which one is it on the shirt, Jacobs asks, an alligator or a crocodile? Now, a smart person would get that the two animals are similar enough, and a logo is crude enough, that there's really no difference.

Is it a boy or a girl? How old? Have long ago did it eat?

But Jacobs starts his own journalistic investigation, calling the company and such, to get to the bottom of it. When one source says an alligator and another source says a crocodile, he is greatly distressed. What he doesn't consider is that the people themselves might not care or understand the difference between two similar animals. A smart person would understand that people often use the wrong words.

This is a theme that pops up a lot in the book. What Jacobs doesn't seem to consider is that knowledge itself is fluid. There's often not a clear definitive answer, but lots of different competing theories or interpretations. He has an almost pathological respect for the writers of Britannica, as if they are the final arbiters of all facts. If he really wanted to show how smart he is, he would illustrate his understanding of bias and where knowledge comes from. The world is complicated. The smarter you are, the messier knowledge becomes.
To be fair, it's possible that Jacobs understands all this. His book is popular literature, not an academic treatise. His whole "smart person" angle could just be a marketing gimmick. And he does bring up some insightful ideas about the process of reading the entire encyclopedia. The book is part memoir, and he does a good job of threading his own life through the new things he's learned. For example, throughout the year he and his wife are struggling to get pregnant, so entries that deal with stuff like gametes or fertility or reproduction, for example, get particular attention.

I do admire Jacobs for having the stamina to finish a project like this. I know I couldn't. I'm a slow reader and it takes me forever to read something-- even exciting novels that I really get into. I don't know how Jacobs could possibly read, pay attention to, and absorb 33,000 pages of dry encyclopedia entries. (Which I calculated is 90 pages a day for a year.)


Part of the problem might be that I'm listening to part of the book on an audio CD during my commute. The guy who's reading the book? He's very... shticky, like a bad comedian delivering lines in emphatic and excited tones. And the voices are just too much. Whenever he's quoting someone who's not the author, he'll adopt a terrible accent. His French or German accent sounds like a drunk frat boy at a party trying to imitate a foreign professor. He tries to sound haughty and British when he quotes the Britannica himself. The accents are so bad as to be distracting, so I end up not understanding a thing he says. It's annoying.

I got both the book and the CD from the library, which is an interesting experience in itself. I'll listen to some of it, then find the place in the book where it left off, and start reading again.

This process is complicated by the fact that the audio CD I got is abridged. I hate hate hate abridged audio books. It makes me angry to even know they exist. But I didn't realize this one was abridged until I started switching back and forth from it to the book, and noticed that lots of entries were missing. WTF?!?

If it were any other book, I would have immediately stopped listening to the odious abridgement. But with a book like this, with lots of bite-sized entries that don't necessarily advance a plot, I think I can pull it off.

It's not as impressive as reading the entire Britannica. But then again, my blog isn't nearly as impressive as his book.


Anonymous said...

Happy (belated) 10th anniversary, Schlep.

Tim said...

Thanks for the nostalgia trip, Anon! I can't believe it's been 10 years...

Dan S said...

if "A smart person would understand that people often use the wrong words" what does that say about your being so bothered that he's using smart to mean "knowledgeable" instead of "intelligent?" :)

Does your facebook goal of no arguments this week extend to blogs? It would be awesome to win this argument by default.

Tim said...

Dan, I'm afraid my moratorium on arguments does not extend beyond FB, and you've walked right into my trap!

You make a good point, but there are a few flaws in it. First of all, I'm not convinced Jacobs is using smart to mean "knowledgeable." I think he understands the distinction, he's just being lazy or gimmicky.

Secondly, even if he is conflating smart and knowledgeable, a smart person would care about this distinction. It's not the same as confusing two similar animals whose differences you don't care about.

Thirdly, the whole theme of the book is how smart reading the encyclopedia makes him. It's like if an alligator wrote a book and kept calling himself a crocodile. Other people might understandably confuse the two, but the one who claims to be a crocodile should know what it means.

Fourthly, you suck.

Fifthly, you're wrong and you suck.

So there.