You Know What They Say

28 November 2013

‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’. You know what else they say? ‘Many hands make light work’. And yet, ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’. My grandfather was endlessly interested by this paradox. It isn’t really a true paradox that we’re more familiar with today, because it doesn’t have anything to do with momentum or atoms or infinity-in-two-mirrors or whatever.

Sometimes my grandparents come out with sayings that I’ve never really heard before. They say them like they are common knowledge, because at some point they must have been. ‘Empty vessels make the most noise’, and a really good one: ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’. My grandfather’s two favourite sayings above can’t really be true, because they’re both wrong and right. There may be a way to find out which of my grandfather’s favourites may be true.

Science and statistics I guess. Boring. I think both are actually true and it depends on circumstances, if I learnt anything in my first year psychology courses. But that’s all old school 20th century stuff. What about 21st century ‘common knowledge’?

‘You know what they say about drinking water, right? They say 8 glasses a day’. 2 litres. And another one. ‘You know, they say that if you eat lots of small meals throughout the day, your metabolism stays high’.

Science and statistics again, I guess. Also boring. I think I’m right in saying both of these things are bullshit, if I learnt anything in my second year physiology courses.

So what? Good for me; I learnt something at university… But what’s relevent is that I learnt how old fashioned and eccentric and just plain ridiculous you sound if you say any of these old sayings, like ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’. Yet these were ideas that were common knowledge 100 years ago. There wasn’t some net-loss of ideas that were ‘common knowledge’ though; there are ideas that are common knowledge now. I’m going to guess that these sayings were replaced by some pseudo-scientific ideas that are becoming very, very common: Drink two litres of water a day to feel revitalised and kick depression’s arse. How about seemingly all of human behaviour–your boyfriend, your friend’s friend’s strange problem, all those girls you wanted to pick up on Saturday–may be explained by some simple psychological theory in some book, based on ideas involving men as hunters and women as carers and most importantly: we never, ever ate any carbohydrates before the industrial revolution. Or something.

It sounds like I’m cheering the past and berating the present. That’s wrong; no entire population nor individual has understood everything in any time period, right? I don’t actually want one version of common knowledge over another. Instead, I have a fantasy that I thought of while pissing my life away on the bus every morning in 2013.

A fantasy where our growing body of knowledge isn’t used for funny ideas by the media, but is instead refined to some sweet little phrases that everyone knows and understands. Because ‘the dorsal cingulate corex in the pre-frontal lobe of the brain makes people do ‘bad’ things, if they’re not busy … here’s an indecipherable paper to maybe prove it’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it.