Everything You Know is Wrong

If a newly activated robot were to ask you, “Which are smarter: adults or children?” what would you say? On the one hand, toddlers know next to nothing about Austrian Economics, and they’re really easy to knock down, too. Yet a ten-year-old can learn Mandarin in a matter of months, without taking time away from finger painting, hide-and-seek or locking babysitters in the basement.

Until recently I would tell the robot, “Adults are smarter in terms of accumulated knowledge, but children are better at innovation.”

It’s problematic, though, because it turns out that the inordinate amount knowledge adults lug around is wrong. Whole libraries of the stuff. Not just on the really obvious things like the Laffer Curve or Biblical literalism, either. I mean rock-bottom principles you learned before puberty, and did not know are even up for dispute.

Here are some things from my early programming which have since been disproved:

  • Dinosaurs are cold-blooded
  • Pluto is a planet
  • Slap bracelets are stylish and functional
  • It is dangerous to wake sleep walkers
  • There are forty-eight chromosomes in a human cell
  • 90% of body heat is lost through the head
  • The human brain irreversibly atrophies with age
  • Eating before swimming causes muscle cramps
  • Brontosauruses were large dinosaurs (they never even existed)

(The Brontosaurus one should throw anyone born before 1990. For youngsters, childhood education in the 1980’s and early 90’s mostly consisted only of three classes: math, reading and dinosaurs.)

Those are just “given” facts, too. Facts that most adults would recognize as fluid and changing are rarely updated. For instance, which city has more crime per person? New York City or St. Louis? The answer is St. Louis. New York has a lingering reputation for crime, based on television shows and outdated statistics, but in terms of violent crime per 100,000 people, it’s not even in the top ten.

Kids are better at having their worldview deconstructed and reassembled, since they’re basically morons. Have you ever talked to a kid for more than five minutes? They spit out ideas constantly, most of which are terrible, so they get corrected every few minutes. “When I grow up I’m going to be a dolphin.” You can’t be a dolphin. “Oh, okay then. I’ll be an astronaut.” Better.

Adults, conversely, make a shift over the course of their lives. In the latter half (if not much earlier) new information becomes troublesome, and people seek out information which corroborates what they already think rather than challenging it. (How many people make themselves read columnists they disagree with, or watch Fox and the BBC?)

Add to this final advantage of children that they don’t mind looking stupid in the same capacity adults do. Have you ever tried making up a word in front of two or three adults? Most of the time they just nod a little and their eyes glaze over. They don’t want to appear uninformed

I make it a point to try and ask someone the definition of words and concepts I don’t know. Because, comparatively, I’m not that well educated. For all I know “neutrinos” got their name because they make up anti-oxidants and vitamins.

 What’s to be done here? For one thing, we should be very suspicious of children. If we’re not careful the little brats might replace us in twenty or thirty years, and I’m sure as hell not going to let that happen.

The other thing to do is to roll with the punches when facts get in the way of what we know to be true. A lot of the stuff we believe to be essential to the fabric of reality is often times made up, incorrect or outdated. It takes energy and bravery to confront a world which is forever changing, but the alternative is to ossify and spend increasing amount of time grumbling and throwing your boot at the television.

It’s funny that in our culture the word “disillusioned” has a negative context. Isn’t it a good thing to expose illusions?

To read more about factual atrophy, check out The Half Life of Facts: Why Everything You know Has An Expiration Date, by Sam Arbesman. Or, read a good review of it by Ronald Bailey.


Andrew Heaton is a humorist based in New York City and Washington DC. Other musings can be found at www.MightyHeaton.com

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