Friday, January 09, 2009

[eyewatch 1227] how stupid are people these days

In Private Eye this fortnight, apart from the Jamaicans stealing beaches for the construction industry [p16], the one which grabbed my attention was about David Lammy MP, on Celebrity Mastermind [p9].

Asked, "What was the married name of Marie and Pierre, winners of the 1903 Nobel prize for the discovery of radiation?" Lammy answered, er, "Antoinette," and went on to say that Henry VII succeeded Henry VIII, Leicester is a famous English blue cheese and replied with other gems. However, he did know about Opray Winfrey and William Hague's 13 pints of beer.

There is great danger in lambasting the Dumb - just because half the population is dumber than you, half of it might be brighter than you too. Bill Bryson recognized this principle in his Notes from a Big Country and yet ... and yet ...

There really does seem to be an awful lot of ignorance about these days and inevitably it must come down to, not only what is being taught in schools but the whole curriculum and methodology, combined with the breakdown of society. Easy to use the old "in my day" preface to any remark but you know, it's true.

My occasional quizzes here were not what I should have thought fiendishly difficult although I'm sure you could have constructed one on feminism, reality TV and the Beckams which I would have failed miserably. All of which brings us to the question of which knowledge we value.

Surely there is a base level of memorable facts and figures which one would expect the average bear to have a working knowledge of and if not, why not? Try these five and see how you go:

1. Name any three of the seven ancient wonders of the world;
2. Which substances are represented by NaCl and H2CO4?
3. Name any revered American baseball babe and a perfect 10 from the Montreal Olympics;
4. How many are a baker's dozen, a score and a gross respectively?
5. What is the difference between "respectively" and respectfully"?

It's not the intention of this blog to put anyone down because you could hit back with myriad things I don't know and yet the general ignorance about in this day and age seems a little more than the imaginings of a jaded ex-academic and way above any statistically acceptable level.

By the way, is "myriad" used in singular or plural and what number does it originally refer to?


  1. H2CO4: patent it.
    respectably yours,

  2. H2SO4 is so boring.

    H2CO4 is for today's respectable academic.

  3. They tried some funny teaching methods on my way through infant and Junior school. As a result, although I can do maths I am unable to do my times tables. Nobody in my class could, that method didn't work.

    Moving on to senior school the only history we learned was the industrial revolution!

    Although though it was the law to have religious education, my school got round that by teaching moral education instead.

    As you see quite a few learning opportunities missed at school...

    On the plus side we did get to take the English Language exam a year early!

  4. I knew all of those except for the Olympics question; watching sports tends to bore me.

  5. James, that's not fair - you went and put a sports one in there!

  6. Bugger me.
    "percarbonic acid


    A trivalent carbon atom and a divalent hydrogen atom: who changed the rules without warning me? If the hydroxyl were attached to the carbon atom, I could believe it.

  7. Now the truth, dearieme and I'll present it as a conversation I had.

    Me [downstairs]: I just got caught out.

    Friend: Oh, who by?

    Me: Dearieme - he picked up on my H2CO4.

    Friend: What's that?

    Me: Well actually, I was meant to write H2SO4 but made a mistake. He chided me by signing off "respectably yours".

    Friend: Is there no H2CO4?

    Me: Well, fortunately, Wikianswers did come up with it but I don't think my response fooled anyone. One up to Dearieme.

  8. One of the best chemistry books I've ever read is "Nonexistent Compounds" by W E Dasent. I, normally lousily-memoried, can remember the author's initials nearly 40 years on.