The science of knowing

(Posted by Mark)

Nosce te ipsum. Know thyself. While Francis Bacon has been attributed with that stalwart of business training session slogans “Knowledge is power”, I vastly prefer Oscar Wilde’s opinion on the subject of knowing: “There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating – people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing”. And so, perhaps to counteract the art of guessing, we have the science of knowing.

Knowing trivia
My name is Mark, and it’s been two days since I last played a quiz machine. I just couldn’t help it; I saw the bright, flashing lights, the sounds of coins dropping and electronic twangs and bumps and I was drawn towards the touchscreen. I know it’s a problem, but with the group’s help, I know I can fight it. Actually, I know no such thing. There is something wonderful and at the same time slightly shameful about quiz machines. I think it’s because after years in primary, secondary and higher education, I now use my knowledge not to find a cure for cancer, nor to broker a peace settlement in Northern Ireland, nor to write a Nobel Prize-winning piece of literature, but rather to remember how many goals Peter Beardsley scored for Newcastle United or when Ramsay MacDonald was Prime Minister.

The way that my (and it’s not just me, it’s also other people’s) eyes light up when they see a Cluedo, Trivial Pursuits or Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? machine in the corner of the pub is, I realise, a sign that my social life may need some form of enhancement product. I would defend quiz machines simply by stating that they are, in fact, intensely social. When three or four are gathered around the machine desperately trying to put car models in the order in which they were produced, it promotes team work and friendship. The occasional shouting across the room to the guy who you are positive will know Pele’s first name manages to draw other people into your circle as well as make them feel good about themselves because they are regarded as an ‘expert’. It’s a feelgood thing. Being able to draw disparate friends with different spheres of knowledge together in the noble pursuit of getting rich quick is certainly a talent, and while I might not be saving the world in style, I am doing my own little bit for society. Well, society in our pub, anyway.

Knowing the score
Akin to knowing how the land lies, knowing the score is all about being up-to-date, to the minute, with the times, with one’s finger on the pulse, being au courant with the latest trends and news. What I am doing writing about this is therefore something of a mystery as I can rarely be said to know the score; indeed often I don’t even know that the match is being played. Knowing the score originates from the Middle Ages when “the score” was a term for the amount owed by one person to another, or the balance of a business account, so by knowing the score you would be aware of exactly how much you owed. As the language has evolved and filtered through the centuries, it now simply means that you know what’s hep, hip and with it, daddy-o.

Of course, if you were to take the term “knowing the score” more literally, you would be able to have the perfect entrée into the average male conversation. “What was the score?” “Oh, 2-1”. Naturally, we will actually need to know what the result of the football, rugby, cricket or other sporting event was in order to participate properly in this, but assuming that you are aware of the tally after the final whistle, you now have a quick way to get acceptance. You should try and back this up with a few other key phrases:

  • “Shocking defence” (football)


  • “It’s all down to the slips” (cricket)


  • “You’ve got to convert them, though” (rugby)


  • “Magic arrows” (darts)


  • “It’s about temperament” (all sports)

After a few careful minutes gauging the reactions and team allegiances of your newfound friends, you will be able to discuss all manner of sporting events with them, free from the fear of being regarded as ignorant or, even worse, uninterested.

Knowing too much
No-one likes a smart aleck, or so the saying goes. I beg to differ. I think that a lot of us really do like the smart aleck mainly because without the person who knows too much, most detective stories or thriller films would not exist. It’s the classic scene and you can pretty much cast and write it yourself. Edward G Robinson is the gangland boss who is attempting to pull off the heist of the century. Alan Ladd is the good guy in the wrong place and the wrong time who has stumbled into the dastardly plot. Peter Lorre is the henchman entrusted with making sure that Ladd is silenced. All you need is a half-decent score, the RKO logo and a gangster’s moll and there’s a sure-fire film noir hit for you.

Too much is generally a bad thing to know, however, for that particular person. As a form of criticism, it is a strange one. Are we not supposed to like someone because they are intelligent? Are we not supposed to like them because they worked hard at school or they educated themselves to a high standard? It’s not really clear, but I think the main reason we’re not supposed to like them is because we’re not supposed to display the fact that we know things. Like Tennyson, we are supposed to be “wearing … learning lightly, like a flower”. It is bad form to be constantly showing off (like quoting Tennyson, Wilde and Bacon in one post, for example; oops) that one has done such heinous things as, well, read books or paid attention. Perhaps it’s better to know too little, but then we return to the cult of the gentleman amateur and, as my mind constantly does, we turn to Sherlock Holmes whose knowledge of literature, astronomy and philosophy may have been nil, but whom no-one would accuse of knowing too little.

If, as is often said, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, then I will end the science of knowing here, hoping that while it may not be comprehensive, it may at least be said to have a little thrill about it.



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