In the year 1643, Rene Descartes wrote to the Dutch polymath and poet, Constantijin Huygen, requesting on loan a new book rumoured to contain great discoveries. The publication was written by the Jesuit priest, Athanasius Kircher. While often inspiring in his pursuit of knowledge, Kircher, and most of his ideas, would prove to be somewhat underwhelming. In this 900-page volume Kircher claimed his theory of magnetism could explain everything from the grandiose (the orbit of planets) down to the mundane (how snakes acquired venom).
Huygen grudgingly complied with Descartes’ request. He did insist, however, that the book be returned in haste, offering the following advice: “The nonsense of fools takes as much time to read as the good things of the learned.” I don’t think Huygen was being outright dismissive of Kircher’s work in this case. It seems to me that Huygen had an acute awareness of manure when he smelt it.
And now I do too.
Reading this story one might presume that Huygen had simply denied Kircher access to the club we now call – rather conspicuously – the great minds of the enlightenment. But hidden in this concise and dismissive piece of advice is a lesson we all should pay attention to: there is no need to read everything.
This is not to say that one must ignore all contrary ideas that may contradict our own. Huygen, denying the request, could have informed Descartes that the book contained nothing of substance and refused to send it. Saving both himself money and Descartes time. But he sent it anyway. After perusing the work, Descartes would later reply, “the Jesuit is quite boastful; he is more of a charlatan than a scholar,” as chronicled in A Man of Misconceptions by John Glassie. Huygen was aware of his responsibility to let Descartes decide for himself.
If your newsfeed is anything like mine it can often take the appearance of a digital orgy: a gathering of promiscuity and self-indulgent materials. The overwhelming amount information available to us seems to be doing just that – overwhelming us. This, I believe, contributes to the popularity of the meme. Not the memes that make you laugh. I’m specifically referring to the meme that tries – and always fails – to contort incredibly complex social, political, and philosophical phenomenon into a dozen or so words.
An attempt to save readers from thinking for themselves it seems.
A well reported 2015 study by Microsoft claimed to find a correlation between diminishing attention spans in humans as the use of digital devices increased overtime. This study was not peer-reviewed and to my knowledge has not be replicated. None of this information seemed pertinent to the media who reported the following headlines:
- Time.com: “You now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish”
- The New York Times Opinion page: “The eight second attention span”
- Telegraph.co.uk: “Humans have shorter attention span than goldfish, thanks to smartphones”
- Australiannationalreview.com: “Human attention span shrinks to 8 seconds due to digital technology, Microsoft study shows”
Despite it being painfully obvious to those of us who know otherwise, this was all reported under the guise of science. The media is notoriously bad at filtering scientific information to the masses. And the irony in these headlines lies in reporting on the unsubstantiated findings of a study that none of them thought important enough to verify. A severe case of tail-chase-dog – or dog-chase-tail, whichever way you look at it.
While critiquing this coverage our friends over at the geneticliteracyproject.org pointed out the difficulties in studying attention span:
“Attention is actually the result of a series of reactions in the brain to sensory stimuli. First, a stimulus (say, an object picked up by the eyes) makes its way to the posterior parietal cortex of the brain, which seems to be the centre of managing stimuli and attention. The brain has to disengage from whatever it’s focusing on now, move to look at the new stimuli, engage that new stimuli and raise a sense of alertness to that new stimuli.”
If this is true, which all accounts suggest that it is, then could the popularity of the meme described earlier simply be attributed to the bombardment of information provided by social media? Could the great riddle of getting readers to engage with long, complex and nuanced ideas simply be for the reader to take more responsibility over their own reading habits?
In our attempt to read everything that finds its way into our hands, we read nothing. Instead half-baked ideas (memes, comment sections, a friend’s opinion) become the cornerstones of social discourse. And like all foundations built upon sand, they are destined to failure.
Ironically, the only way we can heed the advice of Huygen is to read more and to read wide. One cannot be sure if Huygen’s advice was given with a deliberate awareness of the finite nature of life, but we can assume so much as to say that he was not fond in wasting any of that time on reading the work of fools. Neither should you.