Ostrich Effect


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Received Knowledge

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Oral tradition is probably the oldest form of information preservation and distribution.

Before writing was developed and formalized, knowledge was primarily transmitted from generation to generation through word-of-mouth, with parents teaching their children when to plant, when to harvest, and how to kill various pests, among a great many other things.

Other members of the community would teach each new generation about sport and combat, warn them about the people who live on the other side of the river, and share folklore, often in the shape of morality tales, but also for entertainment purposes or to reinforce a collection of origin myths.

In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to refer to the gene-like transmission of information and concepts using imitation rather than a reproductive, biological mechanism.

Instead of utilizing procreation to pass on genetic information to each new generation, then, we created stories to help the encapsulated information—be it cultural or practical—continue on throughout the generations, shared or not shared based on how memorable, interesting, and/or useful it might be.

In this way, knowledge could compete with other knowledge, ways of seeing things could compete with other ways of seeing things, and the outcome of these competitions would determine, in large part, a society’s foundation of learning and understanding.

According to this concept, although there would be some shared knowledge and ideologies found pretty much everywhere, we would otherwise all have distinct intellectual and cultural starting points because different information, stories, and sharing mechanisms would win out in different areas and for different individuals.

When described through the lens of folktales and parents teaching their children about the sometimes friendly, sometimes antagonistic tribe across the river, oral tradition can seem like an antique model for preserving and promulgating knowledge; but it’s still very much alive and influencing our perspectives, today.

While we do have many mediums for sharing information from generation to generation—and peer to peer—in the modern world, we still transmit a large amount of theory, wisdom, and expertise through more traditional, memetic methods.

The term “received knowledge” is sometimes used in reference to knowledge we possess that we did not earn through direct observation and iteration.

Most of us know that the world is roughly spherical not because we’ve been to space or done the math that shows this is the case, but because folks who have done the math and seen the curvature of the Earth firsthand have told us so, and have provided proof to support those assertions.

We base our understanding of at times even very fundamental things on such authority, and on the evidence provided by these authority figures. An arm’s length relationship with knowledge is common, perhaps especially when it comes to foundational knowledge that is difficult to learn from direct observation.

This type of learning extends beyond treatises on physics and photos of nebulae, though, all the way down to our most basic understanding of ourselves, our environments, and other people.

Parents imbue their children with a foundational grasp of the world through aided rote learning, stories, and demonstrated know-how.

Because children are primed to watch their parents and other authority figures for data, however, even the most unintentional, knee-jerk act on the part of a parent can accidentally be transmitted in this way.

This is thought to be how knowledge, but also potentially anxieties, prejudices, eating habits, and even obsessive-compulsive behaviors are transmitted from parent to child when a biological transmission mechanism for that inheritance isn’t obvious.

The same is possibly true of teachers with their students, leaders with their followers, and even employers with their employees: those who wield power in a given environment tend to calibrate expectations, demonstrate norms, and serve as the de facto source of information about that environment.

Students of circumstance, in such situations, might not even be consciously aware they’re learning, even as they adjust their habits and thinking based on what they’re told and what’s implied by those with authority, what they’re picking up from their peers, and the spin subconsciously applied to everything by lessons they’ve previously learned from other sources of received knowledge.

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