This actually happened once. I was with some friends at a restaurant, and having an intense discussion with two of them, when another person interrupts us.
"Tell me this. Deer, horse and cow pretty much eat the same stuff, but the deer excretes pellets, the horse big clumps, and the cow flat patties. Why is that?"
There was silence for a moment, then I spoke up: "Well, they may all eat the same stuff, but they digest them differently. I'm thinking the deer absorbs the most moisture of the three, and the cow the least." That led to the others taking out their cell phones to fact-check what I had said. Yup, I'd pretty much gotten it right.
I'd also deprived the person interrupting us of a punchline:
Since then, I've seen people getting all serious about the logical fallacy that not knowing literal shit means they are not qualified to talk about other shit. There were even people who went out and researched why different animal shit had different shapes and consistencies. No shit, folks!
This is what's interesting. Here I was, with little prior experience or study of animal biology, and I'm able to figure out why each one excretes different shit. Which raises the question of which is more important - knowing shit to begin with, or figuring out shit.
I'm thinking this is why my two friends – who are quite smart – felt uncomfortable responding to that question. They assumed that, since they didn't have enough information about shit, they weren't able to give an intelligent answer about shit. I've found myself in similar situations, even when I was able to figure out that shit. Somehow, we've equated having information with being smart, to the detriment of problem-solving and critical thinking.
That, in turn, affects our discourse. We find ourselves talking to someone, and they're rattling off all sorts of figures and assertions on some shit, and we assume that having this apparent command of facts on this shit means they really know said shit. Or, do they?
Seriously. My father's a physicist, along with knowing all sorts of random scientific and mathematical shit. Yet when something breaks in the house, he gets frustrated and unable to figure out how to get it fixed. One time, the garage door broke, and he was getting ready to bash it with a sledgehammer, when my mother yelled at him to put it away and sent me to take a look. Me, who at the time was studying sociology in college. I looked at what was broken, deduced a possible solution, and had the door up and open within ten minutes so that the car could go in and out and final repairs could eventually be made. How is it that a man with a graduate degree from Harvard, knowing all sorts of shit, is unable to figure out practical mechanical shit, but his youngest son is able to figure out such shit?
Being an empiricist, I'm deeply concerned about facts. But I'm also mindful that understanding such details – their relationship to one another, and how they fit into a larger picture – is just as important as merely accumulating them. Especially because we're often put in the position of figuring something out before we have all the details (what's often called a "minimum information problem").
And no, I'm not talking about endless theorizing and analyzing about shit, or deconstructing how other people try to understand and figure out their own shit. That's what I’ve come to call "criticality over practicality". Ever sit in a room where housemates spend hours debating how to determine who is going to clean the toilets and take out the garbage "in the most equitable fashion" even when one person rolls their eyes and says, "Look, I'm willing to do it, so let's move on"? That's what I'm talking about.
What bothers me is that we're not teaching people how to do the practical work of figuring out shit. We're teaching them to categorize and memorize, to label things and other people, and to delude one another into thinking that this amounts to knowing shit. It doesn't. And until we figure out this shit, we're going to find it harder to get shit done.