Monday, March 23, 2009

"How do you know that?"

A couple weeks ago, the youth activity at Church for my middle daughter, T, was learning to bake bread. They had a baker come in to teach them how to make challah bread.

During the course of the instruction, the teacher asked them what they knew about yeast. One girl said, "Well, it's a microorganism...." T then spoke up and said, "And it converts sugar into carbon dioxide, which is how it makes bread rise." At which point, the class came to a halt as everyone turned and looked at T as if she'd just recited the Iliad from memory. In Greek. One of the girls said, "How do you know that?"

"How do you know that?" I must have heard that question hundreds of times in my life. And I never know how to answer it. How should I know how I know something? I don't maintain some sort of mental genealogy of every piece of information I happen to acquire. I don't think that's what people are getting at anyway. What they're really asking is, "Why do you know that?"

I have no idea how to answer that question either. The first answers that come to mind are, "How do you not know that?" and "I thought everybody knew that." Those are pretty rude, though, so I can't really say them. "I read a lot"? "I pay attention to the world around me"? "I'm smart"? All true, but they sound boastful, and people could easily take them as negative comments on themselves. "I read a lot (and you don't)." "I pay attention (and you don't)." "I'm smart (and you're not)." Sometimes those are all true also, but like the man said, "there are many things that are true that are not useful."

So I usually just shrug and say, "I don't know." Which makes me feel kind of dumb, actually. I think that I should know how to answer a question like that. If I was smarter in some of the ways that really seem to matter in life, I probably would know how to answer.

Or maybe I would know when to hide my knowledge. People seem to dislike it when you know more than them. Smart people learn to hide how smart they are. I read this book once, Blue Blood by Edward Conlon (very good book, BTW). He's a cop who also went to Harvard, and the book tells the story of his first few years as police officer. Half the people Conlon was working with didn't know he went to Harvard, because when one of his teachers at the police academy asked him where he got his degree, he was embarrassed to say "Harvard," so he mumbled and was misheard as saying "Howard." Then he thought he'd look like a jerk if he said, "No, I went to Harvard," so he just let everyone go on thinking he went to Howard University.

Another passage in the book that stuck with me is when Conlon is talking with a friend who's also kind of an intellectual cop. The friend tells how in a classroom setting with other cops, he quoted the Fourth Amendment from memory in answer to some question. About halfway through his answer, he noticed he was getting the "How do you know that?" stare from the rest of the class (although he didn't call it that), so he rather lamely tried to cover up his smarts and return to regular-guy territory by throwing in a "...and shit like that" at the end of his Fourth Amendment quote.

I can relate. Have you ever played Dictionary? It's that game where people give fake definitions for words, and one person gives the right one, you're supposed to guess which is correct. I think I always spoil the game when I play, because I know most of the words. As soon as somebody reads the correct definition, I say something like, "Oh, that one's right." Sometimes I forget myself and add something I know about the word, like its etymology or whatever. But even if I don't, I get it again. "How do you know that?" "I don't know, man. STFU and pick harder words if you don't like it." No, I've never actually said that. I stop at "I don't know." But I've thought it.

Like most Aspergery children, I used to try to share my knowledge of the things I'm interested in. I thought I was just talking about interesting facts, but apparently the way most people experienced me was as described in Wikipedia:

...they approach others, even if awkwardly, for example by engaging in a one-sided, long-winded speech about a favorite topic while misunderstanding or not recognizing the listener's feelings or reactions, such as need for privacy or haste to leave.

I finally understood this when I was about 12 or 13 years old. My mom used to have a book called People I Have Loved, Known or Admired, by the Jewish humorist Leo Rosten. One of the people Rosten described in the book was a guy named Wilbur. Wilbur probably had Asperger's syndrome, although back then nobody knew what that was. But he would learn all kinds of random facts, and then he would start discoursing about them to anyone he met.

Unfortunately, Wilbur was unable to read his listeners' reactions, which got him in all kinds of humorous (from Rosten's point of view) trouble. People thought Wilbur was insulting them, or bragging; he got fired from jobs and even beaten up once.

I was a lot like Wilbur. I'd learn something, and I'd want to tell people about it. So I would, and I guess it didn't really occur to me that others might not be interested. Until my mom started calling me "Wilbur."

"Hey Mom, did you know that the blue whale is the largest animal known to have ever lived on Earth? It can grow to be a hundred feet long, and just its tongue alone can weigh three tons. That's way more than our car weighs and -- "

"You sound just like Wilbur."

"Huh? Oh. Yeah. Ha-ha."

I don't know how many times that happened. A couple dozen, maybe? "Hey Mom, did you know that Cherokee is the only Southern Iroquoian language still spoken? It also has a writing system that was invented by Sequoyah in 1819, and -- "

"OK, Wilbur."

Get the picture? "Hey Mom, did you know..." "Thank you, Wilbur." Even I finally caught on. It kind of hurt my feelings, but my mom wasn't being mean. She was teaching me something important: people don't want to hear that stuff. OK. So I stopped giving discourses on random subjects. (Mostly.) That was a good thing, I think. OTOH, ever since then I've been self-censoring my conversations, trying to guess at whether I'm boring people, and usually assuming I am. That's not a good thing, I think.


  1. Being the only person I knew of at the time to subscribe to a science magazine and having spent a LOT of time in the library, my answer usually was, "I just read it somewhere".

  2. WOW, I think I have Asperger's and now have to research this a little more, because a lot of what you just said describes me for much of my life.


  3. Oakley,
    Yeah, that's a better answer than "I don't know."

    I'm kind of surprised. I don't know why I would be, though, because I guess that would be pretty hard to pick up on over the internet. Hmm. Well, let me know what you think after you do more research.


What do you think?