Wednesday, 17 May 2006

Just because you don't know...

I was listening to Matthew Parris’s programme Great Lives on Radio 4 yesterday. He began like this: “I don’t choose whose great life to explore, I only choose my guest, and when she told me this week she’d nominated an obscure Hungarian doctor of the mid-nineteenth century, whom you’ve probably never heard of and I certainly hadn’t, I did wonder whether it might have my listeners lunging for the off switch….”

I guessed who he was talking about and mouthed ‘Semmelweis’* and then slapped this supposedly educated man for not being familiar with the name and for assuming that no one else would be either. I thought for a moment he was just being ‘British’, i.e. he didn’t want to appear to know too much, but he genuinely didn’t have a clue and I'm sure the word ‘obscure’ was his, not his guest’s.

If you’re ignorant, it’s not such a good idea to assume that everyone else is too – especially on a supposedly ‘intellectual’ radio station. It makes you look stupid and patronizing.

It’s not a good idea to do that in writing either. A little while ago, someone who discusses translation on his blog wrote an excited post about how he’d discovered – after over ten years in the UK – the meaning of a fairly common word. It made him sound so silly!

It’s always better to overestimate the knowledge and intelligence of your listeners/viewers/readers. It makes you look generous and it makes them feel good.


*If, by any chance, you don’t know who Semmelweis was, look him up: his story is absolutely fascinating. Women owe him an awful lot.


  1. Off to Wikipedia to look him up - I know the name but nothing much else, sadly. Or maybe I'll do Listen Again to the radio progamme.

    There's a difference, isn't there, between not knowing something and not caring that you don't know? You can't blame people for ignorance, only for being proud of it. I like that phrase about us standing on the shoulders of our ancestors. But it only works if you take account of older knowledge. My education was sadly lacking in philosophy and cultural history, and although I want to know, I still find the language hard to read and follow and, with philosophy, I find it hard to know what to believe because I get easily convinced by each opposing argument as it's presented, LOL (no good on a jury, me). I would love to have been taught critical thinking and for someone to do a summary of major strands of thought over the ages. (I'm waiting for Bill Bryson to write one.)

    My 76-year-old mother is very defensive about what she doesn't know, and always believes no one else knows it either. Whatever I say, she says 'Well, I never had the benefit of' (the missing word is 'expensive', by the way, and is meant to make me feel guilty because my parents had to contribute a few hundred pounds a year to my living expenses. I am definitely one of the people who might not have gone on to further studies if I'd had to pay tuition fees on top, like now). But it's become such a habit that I can't say anything now. Her fridge broke down and she was lamenting that she had only just bought a dozen eggs. I said 'But eggs don't need to be in the fridge,' and got the usual response. So I said, 'But think where the supermarket keeps them (i.e. on the shelf)'. And she said 'How would *I* know where the supermarket keeps them?' Sigh.

  2. I knew about Lister but did not know about Semmelweis. It's good to know that Lister credited him.

    I must respectfully disagree with your suggestion that one err on the side of overestimating the knowledge level of one's audience. If you're teaching them something and they don't possess basic knowledge about the topic, they can't follow you. Also, we were all ignorant of everything we know until we learned it, so it's pointless to berate people for not already knowing some bit of information, no matter how important or culturally relevant it may seem. (My endocrinologist was telling me the other day that most of his younger patients have never heard of wet nurses and think he's a pervert for "inventing" the concept. Isn't that bizarre? I can't imagine being old enough to have a baby but never having heard of wet nurses. But that's the society we live in.)

    That said, I do think it's polite to grant your audience that knowledge IF they have it. For example, when I'm lecturing I usually say something like, "I'm sure many of you are familiar with XXX," then I repeat what I think they already know so the rest of the class knows it too. Any student who knows MORE usually volunteers that information. Of course, the goals of a university professor and a radio announcer are different, but informing and entertaining are common to both professions. :-)

  3. Assume your audience knows nothing but understands everything. I'm quoting some stuff from someone about something. A good epithet in my mind. Explain, if you must, in a non-patronising way.


  4. Lulu, have you heard the one about the professor who is so frustrated with a failing student that he berates him, shouting, "Are you really this ignorant, or simply apathetic?"

    The student shrugs and replies, "I don't know, and I don't care."


  5. Thank you! Thank you for teaching me about this man!

    He was a blessing indeed. *ashamed* I didn't know his name.

  6. L, apart from that initial gaffe, the programme was extremely good. I think you should Listen Again to it.

    Yes, there is a difference between not knowing something and not caring that you don’t know. I wasn’t blaming Matthew Parris for not knowing that name (I happen to be familiar with Semmelweis’s work because, for some reason, my father, who was neither Hungarian nor a doctor, had a thing about him, and I remember him telling me the story when I was quite young), but for being arrogant. He was saying, “If someone like me didn’t know about that person there’s very little chance that you – who are less educated than I am – will.”

    I’m the same with complex concepts, etc.: I have great difficulty in memorizing them. The typical French education is strong on facts but it doesn’t teach one to think for oneself or question anything. At least that’s the way it was in my time.

    As for your mother… I get very tired of people who have a chip on their shoulder because of their lack of education and who have decided once and for all they wouldn’t use their head – for anything. I used to know someone who was rather boorish by nature anyway but who made a point of being even more vulgar when faced with someone ‘educated’. Seems to me your mother mostly lacks common sense. LOL!

    WW, I’m sure you’re right. Overestimating people’s knowledge is the wrong way to go about it, especially if one is a teacher; I should probably have said ‘crediting one’s audience with having brains’. I think the way you do it is perfect.

    JvS, I agree 100%. :-)

    LOL!, D. That’s the attitude of quite a number of young (and older) people these days, isn’t it?

    TLP, I’m so glad you’ve now discovered that wonderful man.

    His story is quite sad because he was a bad communicator (he was hindered by a strong accent and he wasn’t very articulate anyway) so he wasn’t able to persuade enough people he was right. Matthew Parris had invited a guy who’s just written a biography of Semmelweis: he was very interesting, but I found him rather unfair. He ultimately blamed Semmelweis for not saving the lives of more women. He saved the lives of hundreds of them; as far as I’m concerned, that’s more than enough for one man.


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