Early on when Vat and I were learning Korean, he complained to me about a vocabulary list he was learning from. The list had intermediate-level words such as “technique” and “to brighten” to which Vat said, “when am I ever going to use these words?”
The complaint was a fair one, we were still in the beginner phase, so learning these words was probably not very efficient. But the exact phrasing of his complaint got me thinking. How often would we actually use these words?
In Chinese, which I reached a higher level in, I knew that the word for “technique” (技术) was important enough that I remember relearning it on at least three occasions in actual conversations. Far from being useless, it had spontaneously come up in enough situations that I remembered being irritated at forgetting it.
My point isn’t about word frequency, but about underestimating how useful knowledge is.
Availability Heuristics and Usefulness
I can already picture what Vat was thinking when he said he would never use those words. He was trying to imagine situations where he would use those words. When nothing came to attention immediately, he rated it as pretty unlikely the words were important.
Psychologists call this the availability heuristic . It’s a mental tool we use when trying to estimate the likelihood of something. We imagine situations and use the ease or difficulty of that process as a proxy for the probability of the event.
But this process is far from infallible. A perfect example is to ask if there are more words that begin with the letter ‘K’ than those which have ‘K’ as the third letter. The availability heuristic suggests K-first words are more numerous than K-third words, even though this isn’t the case. Our memories of vocabulary are more easily sorted by first letter, so we think of KALE, KANGAROO and KICK instead of RAKE, OAK or LIKE.
I argue that it’s difficult to imagine the usefulness of new knowledge for two reasons:
- The relative inexperience with new knowledge makes it harder to think of applications.
- Much of the practical ability of knowledge is to make further understandings possible, since you’ve never learned these future ideas yet, it’s impossible to imagine this type of use.
Inexperience Makes Imagination Hard
When I first started learning Chinese I heard that, when writing Chinese characters, Chinese children are taught a memorized stroke order and direction. If you write a character in exactly the same way visually, but with the thirteenth stroke going from left-to-right instead of right-to-left, you’re wrong.
To me, this seemed like the pinnacle of ritual over function. How useless would memorizing this be?
After learning more Chinese, however, I realized why these stroke-order rules were important. If your handwriting is even slightly sloppy (which, it will be if you’re writing quickly) a mistaken stroke order leads to unusual looking errors which reduce readability. Standardizing stroke order is more important in a language which has thousands of possible visible elements as opposed to the Latin alphabet, having only around 26.
I didn’t know enough about Chinese to judge the usefulness of stroke-order, so when I started learning it, I underestimated its importance.
Knowledge Helps You Learn
One of the first principles I discussed here , in Daniel Willingham’s excellent book covering the cognitive science behind learning, was that knowledge is exponential. The more you learn, the easier it is to learn new things.
Calculus seems fairly useless when you start learning it. Until you start studying more advanced mathematics, physics, computer science, chemistry or almost any other subject. Then you see how it is an essential building block, without which, truly understanding a lot of ideas is actually impossible.
Of course, when you’ve haven’t tackled the more advanced ideas, it’s harder to appreciate the practical use of the earlier ones.
Why I Learn “Useless” Things
The first reason should be obvious by now: because a lot of “useless” ideas aren’t actually useless. They only appear so when you haven’t learned far enough into the subject yet.
The second reason is that ideas don’t need to have a practical application to be worth learning. I’ve read books on cosmology which I’m almost certain I’ll never apply in a real-world situation. Scientists and engineers may use the ideas, but a blogger who writes about learning and motivation will never need to know what color confinement  is.
But that’s okay. Even if ideas can’t make you money, friends or a six pack, it can still make your model of reality a little more accurate. And an accurate model of reality is useful to have, even if any particular idea that helps you form it is not.