Known Unknowns and Such


I got lost in word weeds for a few minutes. This is pretty common, and I'm not alone, although we pick our poisons.

I still remember my son first coming across the Star Trek Wiki (whatever it's called; no way I'm looking that up) and staggering out of his room a few hours later, haggard and barely speaking, only enough to warn the others. We have to be very careful.

A phrase popped into my head, and I wanted to nail it down. Who really said it, and when and how and in what way is the origin story amusingly different from general knowledge? Boy oh boy. Fun times.

If you've ever wondered where a quote really comes from, is a good source, I'm just saying. And a good place to spend a few hours.


Like anyone attempting to stay conscious while riding the online wave of information, I'm wary of quotes. I'm wary of lots of things, and mostly people. A friend just posted a graphic that said, "This year, Cinco de Mayo falls on Taco Tuesday..." and then makes a joke about that, which is an OK joke. My friend obviously agrees with the sentiment.

The mean thing to say would be that my friend doesn't know how to use a calendar (May 5th is on a Saturday this year). The more accurate statement probably is that my friend is no different than any of us, tending to believe innocuous things because who would lie about innocuous things?

And no one was lying, or anything close. This was probably from three years ago, when May 5 was actually on a Tuesday. Things get recycled, including news stories. Which we all know, too.

Someone corrected my friend, although I didn't. I just noted the discrepancy (I have something to do on May 5th, so I knew what day it would fall on) and understood it. I've been on this ride a few times.


The above, originally from XKCD, is so well known precisely because it identified the phenomenon we were all experiencing at the same time. It was a compulsion, overwhelming sometimes, to fix errors, correct the record, make things right with the world. We all felt it.

But also, maybe, I mean, you's possible we just really, really want the rest of the world to know how smart we are. And how dumb you are. Thanks, bye.


I have a friend who's wrong all the time. Not online, since he has no presence there. Just in person, and now for decades. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

He's very intelligent, too. Very aware. Very well-read and well-versed in all the important things we need in our toolboxes, philosophy, political science, history, psychology, etc. Educated.

He just tends to announce the future. "This is what's gonna happen in the next week," he says, and he always says. And he's always wrong. He's actually remarkably wrong. We never discuss these wrong things. It's not a big deal, he's a friend, he's harmless in this regard, spreading fake news only to me, and I don't pay any attention.

Some people are just dumb. We all know them, have them in our families, sometimes love and cherish them. They just don't seem to have the cognitive firepower the rest of us do, just basic stuff. General fund of knowledge, logic, deduction, assimilation of new information and adjustments...they seem to be deficient in these things, and most of the time it doesn't matter at all. To them and their lives, sure. Not to us. We either like them or not, tolerate them or don't.

We've probably all seen the statement, or a similar one, pointing out that half of us have below-average intelligence. This is a peculiar and particularly dumb way to look at averages, although it helps with perspective, I guess.

Long before the right-wing media empires arrived and began informing senior citizens that, yes indeed, the kids were on their lawn and doing some really bad stuff, I was appalled by Ronald Reagan. He was old and doddering, and he believed really dumb stuff.

Years later, Peggy Noonan wrote What I Saw at the Revolution, a bit of hagiography but still an interesting portrait of Reagan from the perspective of a speechwriter. She referred to him, summing up toward the end of the book, as having "above-average" intelligence, in her view. For such a Reagan apologist, this struck me as a backhanded compliment and I wondered.

But I understood, eventually. A careful look back at the man's career showed an adroit, engaged mind. He just tended toward the general, the anecdotal, the easy to understand. There was nothing wrong with his brain. I could have argued with some of his ideology, and he surely was slowing down and eventually beginning to experience the ravages of Alzheimer's, but he wasn't stupid.

And James Comey just referred to Donald Trump with the same compound adjective. Above-average intelligence.

I dunno. The man's an idiot, obviously. Practically drooling. I've hauled out my opinions and preconceived ideas and gut reactions and I still can't polish Trump up.

But that's Trump, and today. In general, most people are intellectually capable of most things we need to be capable of. A couple of dozen IQ points might make your life better, or worse, but I suspect in most cases it's a wash. Maybe the smart ones watch more PBS. I don't dwell on it.


I also suspect most of us give ourselves credit for more brains that we might actually have. Some of this is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is currently in full force on Facebook, but I imagine a lot of it is just simple transference fallacy. We all have abilities, and given enough time we get pretty good at stuff. We just think that facility transfers across the board. We understand how to take apart a dishwasher; we surely can grasp macroeconomics, right? Just balance your damn budget, like the rest of us do.

First, almost none of us have a balanced budget. Second, this is what I'm talking about.

And I think we suspect our own deficiencies, and want to fight back against the creeping sensation that we don't get it. I run into this a lot these days, the feeling that somehow I'm just not smart enough to grasp the foundations of some situations. That no matter how much I study and try to learn, I'll never get there.

So when I actually know something, maybe I'm more tempted to show off. It's not like I can back any of this up. I just think about it. I wonder why I'm pulled in directions that really shouldn't interest me. May 5th is on Saturday. It's not in dispute. Move on.


The quote I was researching was "The important thing is honesty. Once you know how to fake that, you’ve got it made."

In my mind, I was replacing honesty with humility. I think I fake humility a lot. I'm not sure what that's about. Some is politeness. Some is humor. Some is something else.

Some of it has to do with not making waves, or causing problems. Because I definitely know what I don't know, but I also know what I do. I've done certain things for too long. It's not possible to unknow what I know.

I understand the dangers here. I grok erroneous assumptions. I keep mum most of the time these days, because that's just easier but also because I don't like surprises. I'd rather not find out I'm wrong in a public way. It's embarrassing, and it's very possible.


Today, then. After the flurry of weirdness and hoaxes that floated around after the first news of Barbara Bush's health, today we're seeing the reflections. A lot of Facebook posts praising the former First Lady, talking about how elegant and tasteful and classy she was.

I know what most of this is. We've had some relatively controversial First Ladies, but only in First Lady ways. Hillary was too pushy, Nancy was too fancy. But in general, we leave them alone. When they die, we honor their style, or something. Their projects and causes.

So all of this fluff about Barbara's elegance and class aren't unusual, really, except for the implied comparison. They're all classy and elegant, in their own way. Barbara Bush was frumpy, in a charming way. She just wasn't the black one, so she was elegant. Really, this isn't rocket science.

And the others, mostly my friends, who might have had questions about Mr. Bush's presidency but in this conflicted time, seem to feel compelled to praise this woman. There's plenty to praise in most lives, so no problem.

But c'mon. My wife and I just shrugged. Has no one read a little more deeply? Is no one aware of the stories, the horror show that this woman apparently was when her kids were little, and beyond?

I mean, I don't care. The woman had plenty of good qualities, I'm sure. None of my business if she wasn't the easiest person to live with, or work for. The stories are legion, but she was 92 and now she's passed on and there's really no point in this.

It's just like saying May 5th is also Taco Tuesday, though. It's just easier to agree than look that shit up.


But this is not about Barbara Bush. Just me. And I'll tell you what it is--I'm dealing with a personal issue at the moment, not a big deal at all, just a clash of personalities, or maybe just different styles. I'm dealing with it, smoothing things over, and I just notice bursts of theatricality and self-righteousness. This person is wrong, I know.

But I don't know, not really. And that's why I'm faking humility all over the place. I'm hedging my interpersonal bets. I'm staying out of Facebook fights, resisting urges and trying to understand them at the same time. It will be on a Saturday. It doesn't matter. Nobody cares.

So RIP, Mrs. Bush. It must have been hard being in the spotlight for so long; most of us don't consider that.

That quote about faking honesty? Appears to have been first said by a soap opera actor you've never heard of.

And someone is always wrong on the internet. It might be me.

Chuck Sigars2 Comments