“Ha, ha, ha,” I told my brother smugly. I probably said it exactly that way: like a Martian who has learned about human expressions of mirth from a book. “That’s a mistake, right there, of course. Because a duck’s quack doesn’t actually echo.”
“Doesn’t it?” he said. His was an open sort of curiosity. I think it was a children’s book he had been reading to my toddler.
“No,” I said, with a hint of a sneer. Then out came the phone and the Wikipanion app—the great settler of disputes in modern conversation. But even as I started to bash the phone with my thumbs it occurred to me to wonder, for the first time in the history of my possession of this pleasingly esoteric piece of knowledge: why on earth wouldn’t a duck’s quack echo? What sonic property could the ordinary duck muster that would cause an exception in the generally accepted laws of physics?
Seconds later: humiliation. Snopes—the myth-debunking website—had confirmed that my “knowledge” was yet another urban myth; woundingly described there as the winner of the “Most Ludicrous Entry” contest with regards to bogus lists of little-known facts on the internet.
As I approach my 40th birthday I realise that I know sod all about anything. I read lots and lots of books. I spend a good deal of time talking to intelligent people. I work as a journalist, which means that at least in theory I spend time checking truth-claims. But—honestly?—as Alex Garland put it in the epigraph to his novel The Tesseract, where the characters are unable to understand the causes that shape events: “The larger the searchlight, the larger the circumference of the unknown.”
I’m not alone. There’s my wife, whom—he writes, slightly ungallantly—isn’t to be put off a vague conviction that drinking bottled water that’s been left in a hot car is bad for you by my efforts with Wikipanion. Nor my mum, and homeopathy. Nor, it seems, the whole voting public.
A recent, magnificent news story in the Independent earned itself the headline: “British Public Wrong About Nearly Everything, Survey Shows.” For instance, the public thinks that 15 per cent of girls under 16 get pregnant (real figure: 0.6 per cent). The public thinks 31 per cent of the population consists of recent immigrants (real figure: 13 per cent). They think that crime isn’t falling (it is). Twenty-nine per cent of people think more is spent on jobseekers’ allowance than on pensions (nuh-uh: pensions cost 15 times more). Twenty-six per cent of people think foreign aid is among the top three state expenditures (nope: it’s 1.1 per cent).
And so on. One can point fingers: the Daily Mail and Daily Express, God love them, will—probably—have done little to shake these misconceptions. And one can, perhaps, consider the slightly sad irony that as long as these people get a vote, the gradient in public life will be against correcting misconceptions. As Aldous Huxley remarked, “the propagandist is a man who canalises an already existing stream. In a land where there is no water, he digs in vain.”
But that is only a small part of the issue. Ignorance is not simply a product of a Chomskyan, consent-manufacturing political-media complex. It is the very air we breathe. Every day we coast from unexamined assumption, via received idea, to unchallenged prejudice: most of them not determined by any sinister special interest but by the humdrum fact that the lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on. In Philip K Dick’s words—“kipple” being the term he used for junk, trash and viral nonsense—“kipple drives out nonkipple”: a second law of thermodynamics for knowledge.
The internet, which some utopians thought would solve this problem, has only made it worse: kipple propagates faster than nonkipple online. The illusion that we know more makes us all the more prone to know less. We’re all kippled. It will only be poetic justice if the last thing we all hear is the mocking echo of a duck’s quack.