Humour

Knowledge is NOT power - it's anxiety

The leading cause of despair? Rebecca Davies reckons it's too much information, about everything

29 October 2017 - 00:00 By REBECCA DAVIS
If you like to take the ostrich approach to life, you'll be worried to know that the world is running out of sand.
If you like to take the ostrich approach to life, you'll be worried to know that the world is running out of sand.
Image: 123RF/alphaspirit

Did you know the world is running out of sand? On a planet ravaged by global warming, you'd think dwindling sand reserves would be the one thing we didn't need to worry about. My vision of our future sees everyone trudging through mountains of sand. You'd think there would be more than enough to go around.

Not so, friends. We do indeed have loads of sand, but it is the most in-demand element other than water and air. Only some sand is suited for construction purposes - and it's a finite resource.

To get the sand we need to build modern cities, we are now pillaging forests and riverbeds and beaches. There are sand mafias in India, and international sand cartels. Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.

To be honest, I would rather not know that we're running out of sand. It's just one more thing to add to an ever-expanding list of anxieties about which I can do nothing.

"Knowledge is power," people say. I beg to differ. The relationship between knowledge and power is much fuzzier than everyone pretends. Knowing about the world's sand crisis does not make me feel empowered in the slightest. In fact, it makes me feel the opposite: sad, anxious, and confused about whether I should start stockpiling it.

Merely learning something new does not magically transform you into an informational Popeye. Sometimes, by contrast, it makes you want to pull a duvet over your head and not get out of bed for a week. Not all knowledge is power. Sometimes the power lies in not knowing.

Sometimes learning something new makes you want to pull a duvet over your head and not get out of bed for a week

It's not just sand that I'd rather not know about. I'd be happy if many geopolitical developments beyond my control stayed mysterious to me. My response to the Wikileaks release of diplomatic cables was effectively to clap my hands over my ears and hum loudly, because I found it so demoralising to learn that the world's top diplomats communicated with each other like mean teenagers passing notes in maths class.

"What do you know that you wish you didn't know?" I asked my friends. "Almost everything related to food manufacture and preparation," one responded immediately. "Like the fact that milk contains millions of cells of cow pus." Is that true? I don't know, and I absolutely refuse to investigate.

Another friend cited her discovery that the reason a cappuccino maker at her office kept getting blocked was because flies were laying eggs in the milk tubes. "I wish I'd never found that out, because now I can't stop thinking about all the maggoty coffee I drank," she said sadly.

Unpleasant realisations about heroic public figures fall into another better-off-not-knowing category. "Finding out that Gandhi was actually a massive racist," said one friend. Another pointed to her discovery that noble polar explorer Captain Oates fathered a child with a 12-year-old girl. "Real kick in the teeth," was how she summed up that news. As someone who once gave an adulatory Grade 8 class speech about Captain Oates, I second that response.

It was at school that I learnt another type of information that is better to avoid. "The one kind of knowledge it's best to lack," intoned a teacher, "is what is said behind one's back." You can instantly tell that this is great wisdom because it rhymes. It is entirely true.

When I was 19 I found out something unflattering that a total stranger said about me, and it is no exaggeration to say that 16 years later, I think of it almost daily. You should never find out what people truly think about you, because chances are good that it's bad.

You should never find out what people truly think about you, because chances are good that it's bad

In a recent episode of the podcast Hidden Brain, host Shankar Vedantam quotes a common belief among economists that "we should always be willing to know information about our health or finances".

These are, of course, two of the scariest human domains of all. Research shows that people check their stock portfolios less frequently when the stock market is falling, due to anxiety about future losses.

One way to deal with this is to follow my lead and not own any stocks at all.

The information avoidance which I like to practise is technically known as the "ostrich effect", though this is a misleading term. Ostriches are, in fact, much more likely to face a challenge head-on than to hide their heads in the sand. Why would they need to hide?

They are the bosses of the bird world, able to out-run anything they can't kick in the face. I can't run very fast or kick very hard, so I have a good reason to keep my head down. It's cosy here in the sand - until it all runs out.

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