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Knowing What We Know: Book Review

Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic, Simon Winchester (2023). A broad brush about knowledge, wisdom, and interrelated topics.

Prologue: To Know This Only, That He Nothing Knew. “The arc of every human life is measured out by the ceaseless accumulation of knowledge. Requiring only awareness and yet always welcoming curiosity” (p. 2). Knowledge according to OED (Oxford English Dictionary): “The apprehension of fact or truth with the mind; clear and certain perception of fact or truth; the state or condition of knowing fact or truth.” Plato talked about “justified true belief.” Socrates: knowledge as perceiving something; a logical justification for believing the notion to be true (logos). Then, justified true belief, leading to epistemology, the study of knowledge. Belief, truth, justification. A priori (deduction and reason) versus posteriori (observation and experience).

Problems with belief, like dogmas of religion. DIKW: data, information, knowledge, wisdom. Information is data made useful. Indigenous people with ancient knowledge. How is knowledge passed on? Wise men as knowledge keepers: respect for environment and maintain cultural ways.

Chapter 1: Teach Your Children Well. Bangalore, home of 11 million people, but 2 million live below even India’s poverty line. A woman started educating the children and they proved excited to learn. Samuel Johnson: “Curiosity: one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind.” If knowledge is the iron filing, then curiosity is the magnet (p. 42). Craft of writing from 3,400 BC.

Nippur on the Euphrates first excavated by Austen Layard in 1851, another wealthy Victorian, dug up the “tablet house,” a school with hundreds of tablets. Similar schools across the Fertile Crescent, including the Nile Valley. Schools also in China and by Mayans and Aztecs.

Silk Road from Antioch to Xian. Chinese schools taught Confucian classics, causing technological backwardness. Practical knowledge is of obvious short-term worth. The gulf between dogma and discovery has widened, especially since the Enlightenment. Japan like China closed off outside influence from the 17th century, then Dutch had trade relationship. Scholar Fukuzawa wrote about conditions in the west around 1870. Japan adopted a parliamentary democracy with the emperor as nominal leader. Most countries in the region were European colonies including India. Macaulay had ideas for education in India working for the East India Company, including introducing English as the language for India. The literacy rate is 63% (75% for males). John Stuart Mill also an East India Co. employee.

Henry Adams criticized American education, charging it was too slow and rooted in irrelevance to the real world. He suggested self-education. He was overwhelmed by the “dynamo of the scientific revolution.”

Testing for intelligence: math, verbal reasoning, English comprehension, and non-verbal reasoning. Seemed to focus on ability to think. “Nothing was absolute in literature, all was scattered by interpretation. Everything in physics was either correct or incorrect” (p. 87). SAT test in US from the 1930s. Chinese testing complex and started 1500 years ago with the Sui Dynasty. Civil Service jobs then depended on merit. Confucius: “knowledge makes us humble. Ignorance makes us proud.”

Chapter 2: Gathering the Harvest. The first great library was in Assyria (Nineveh, now Mosul) by Ashurbanipal in the 7th century BC, found in 1849 by Austen Layard and now in the British Museum, including the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Spaniards set fire to the deer-skin scrolls in the Aztec libraries. China’s first emperor Qin ordered the destruction of all books and executing all scholars. The Great Library of Alexandria, founded by Alexander in 332 BC, with papyrus scrolls. Romans introduced the codex made of vellum or parchment. The oldest working library is St. Catherine’s Eastern Orthodox Monastery in Egypt since 550.

Denis Diderot invented the idea and name of the encyclopedia, published in 1751. An earlier encyclopedia was published in Germany in 1630. Diderot wanted his to be a foundation for the Enlightenment (banned by the pope), the secularization of knowledge—in 28 volumes and 140 contributors. The Encyclopedia Britannica was by three Edinburgh printers in 1768, and continued in print until 2012 in 32 volumes. It was sold to an American then joined with Sears using door-to-door salesmen.

The Louvre Museum was established in 1793, British Museum in 1823, Metropolitan in New York in 1870. The earliest were collections of wealthy individuals.

Theodor created hypertext to interconnect material in a complex way. Programmers could create links for binary processors. Douglas Engelbert used a mouse to move words and group them. Then hyperlinks, graphical user interface, internet, then Tim Berners-Lee and World Wide Web. Finally Wikipedia, started by Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales. The key was collaboration using hypertext links. Karl Popper: knowledge was finite, ignorance was infinite. Oxford English Dictionary has a corps of professional editors. Both OED and Wiki rely on the wisdom of crowds.

Chapter 3: This Just In: “Books and all forms of writing have always been objects of terror to those who seek to suppress truth” (Wole Soyinka). Cai Lun, a Chinese court official was given credit for inventing paper early in the common era (but early forms of paper could date to the 3rd century BCE). Other writing materials: “would have been papyrus. Or vellum, or parchment, or tree bark, or in China before Cai Lun strips of bamboo, sheets of silk, the shoulder bone of oxen, or the under armor of the turtle” (p. 178). Papyrus dates to the 20th century BCE, about the time of ideographic writing. In Egypt it was hieroglyphs then phonetically based text. In the 1890s archaeologist Bernard Grenfell discovered scrolls and sheets in multiple languages in Oxyrhynchus in Upper Egypt.

Paper went from China to the Islamic world to Europe. Other inventions in the first two centuries were “the ship’s rudder, the armillary sphere, the air-conditioning fan, the gimbel, the odometer, the crank handle, the mathematical concept of negative numbers, a means of detecting with pendulums where an earthquake might have occurred and maps” (p. 183). The Silk Road was the vector. Paper mills opened in Damascus and Baghdad, then Spain and into Europe. With paper came an interest in reading.

Gutenberg was a goldsmith and familiar with casting molten metal. He created movable type: upper case, lower case, numbers, punctuation, a total 290 punches. He created oil-based carbon-black ink that worked on paper. He stayed in financial trouble. He started his Latin Bible (Vulgate) in 1452, first published in 1455, 1,286 pages in two leather-cased volumes of 180 copies (145 on paper, 45 on vellum), 49 copies survive. Copies went to monasteries, universities, and cathedrals. Most printers were on rivers or other trade routes. They printed what sold, broadsides, indulgencies, posters. Martin Luther used printers for his letters to church officials in 1517, then accused of heresy. One copy was nailed to the church door. A question of the time was whether literacy should be widespread or limited to the ruling class.

A new invention was the newspaper. The first was in Strasbourg in 1604, published weekly, then spread around Europe: Edinburgh in 1641, then Stockholm. Many printed false stories, then paper wars like Hearst versus Pulitzer in New York, both publishing fantastic stories to sell papers (and advertising). The Daily Universal Register started in 1785 in London, then changed the name to the Times (of London), as the “disinterested English-language recorder of Britain’s, Europe’s, and the world’s most significant events” (p. 208). The New York Times had a similar role, but still got the facts wrong on Iraq in 2002, before Bush invaded claiming weapons of mass destruction. The result was Middle East disaster. The newspaper problem was to publish a journal of record or make money.

The volcanic eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 near Java was reported quickly in London because of underwater cables using Morse code. Earthrise was pictured in 1968 by astronaut William Anders.

John Reith created the British Broadcasting Corp, BBC to “inform, educate, entertain” (p. 226) in 1927. Experts were invited including Keynes, GB Shaw, and Bertrand Russell. By the same time, the US had 346 radio stations and 5 million radios.

Chapter 4: Annals of Manipulation. Conspiracy theories are common and many people susceptible—“fake news.” The first war correspondent was William Howard Russell, covering the Crimean War (including the charge of the Light Brigade) and the Civil War, etc. His writing on the plight of the wounded led to Florence Nightingale. He embedded with the Union because of his opposition to slavery.

An example of state-sponsored rewriting history was the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. All newspapers, radio and TV are state controlled. Now called knowledge suppression. China built the Great Firewall as an internet censorship apparatus, no Wikipedia, Google, YouTube, or Twitter. Bloody Sunday in Ireland was manipulated by Britain.

Propaganda started in 1622 as Sacre Congregatio de Propaganda Fide to combat Protestantism. Propaganda as the “systematic dissemination of information, especially in a biased or misleading way to promote a political cause or point of view” (p. 257). In war the aim is to boost morale at home and destroy it for the enemy. England made up atrocities against the Germans in World War I. The Nazis were adept at manipulation especially Joseph Goebbels and their use of Lord Haw-Haw (William Joyce, hanged after the war).

Edward Bernays merged propaganda and advertising, focusing mainly on selective truth. Bernays worked for Wilson to promote his message of peace and action. Key point: people are malleable—why not to promote capitalism? He was “the godfather of public relations” (p. 267). Promoting bacon, doctors insist people need the morning jolt of eggs and bacon. He persuaded women to smoke. Problem: women viewed the cigarette as a phallic symbol. He called it the “torch of freedom.” He promoted beer as the “drink of moderation” and “drink responsibly.” Bush to promote freeing Kuwait from Iraq invasion created a fake atrocity.

Chapter 5: Just Leave the Thinking to Us. Technology included the early computers, the transistor then computer chips, used to make advanced computers and even spart phones. Word processors. Global positioning system (GPS) established by Pentagon: satellite-based using a Doppler-system, 34 satellites 12,600 miles above earth with an atomic clock beneath solar panels.

Google (they misspelled googol) by Larry Page and Sergey Brin used hyperlinks and WWW to create a search engine; key point was page ranking based on linkages. AI research started in 1956 at Dartmouth. Open AI named product ChatGPT.

Chapter 6: The First and Wisest of Them All. Knowing: smart, clever, intelligent, genius, to polymath. But most information is easily available on Wikipedia and other internet sources. Shen Gua a Chinese polymath born in 1031, turned information on how a compass works into a useful tool for navigation. The Chinese Confucian exam turned bureaucracy into a meritocracy. Shen Gua also wrote on evidence of climate change, movable type in printing, build dry docks to repair ship hulls, sword and steel technology, construction joints in timber framing, and described UFOs.

James Beale was a polymath from Sierra Leone, under the British colonial system. He was a surgeon and wrote about African nationalism, a mining engineer, and political activist. Edward Blyden was Ibo knowing multiple languages and brought up in the Danish West Indies. Indian Ramanujan was brilliant at math but almost nothing else.

Benjamin Jowett, Oxford don: “Here come I, my name is Jowett. All there is to know I know it. I am Master of this College. What I don’t know just isn’t knowledge” (p.340). Knowledge: justified true belief. Known for: “never regret, never explain, never apologize.” But he was a great tutor. Frank Ramsey was a brilliant mathematician and philosopher and made contribution to both plus economics but died at 26. “Wisdom is the highest state of mental acuity short of Buddhist’ enlightenment” (p. 355). The Delphi Method uses a panel of experts to arrive at a consensus.

Characteristics of wisdom: advanced cognition and emotional development, driven by experience, rare, can be learned, measured, increases with age (p. 358). Winchester claims that stockpiles of information will lead to a lessening of wisdom. The use of the atomic bomb showed a lack of wisdom by many.

The Constitution was an act of wisdom by 55 men in Philadelphia in 1787, then the Federalist Papers. Ben Franklin claimed polymath status. Before white people ruined the planet, there were elders with a deep knowledge of how their world operated, like the Polynesian wayfinder Mau Pialug, able to navigate the Pacific.

Confucian Analects on rules to nudge society toward civility, stressing the virtuous nature needing self-imposed rules; respect elders, obey rulers, show courtesy, right thinking, including ceremony and ritual. Number one is follow the tao. Confucius also considered women inferior. Aristotle was complex, learning from Plato, then visiting others to learn and expand his experience, becoming a polymath. “Aristotle opened doors” (p. 376), attempting to find happiness: virtue, achievement, a life fully lived. Take pleasure in doing the right thing. Plato took an otherworldly view of knowledge; when he traveled he spoke to philosophers. Aristotle traveled to discover biology, physics, weather, and geology. He avoided extremes and was neither a rationalist nor empiricist, but multidimensional.


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