Knowing Facts Still Matters (Even in an Age of Wikipedia)

A popular meme is that knowing a lot of facts is unimportant for being able to think well. Albert Einstein stated this idea best when he said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Perhaps in a previous time, when instant access to answers on Google or Wikipedia wasn’t available, facts were important. But nowadays, the meme goes, it’s more important to know how to think about things, rather than know a lot of facts.

Unfortunately, this isn’t true. Factual knowledge isn’t just important, it probably underlies the very capacity for imagination that Einstein valued. Here’s cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham’s explanation:

“Knowledge is more important [than imagination], because it’s a prerequisite for imagination, or at least the sort of imagination that leads to problem solving, decision-making and creativity.

“[T]he cognitive processes that are most esteemed—logical thinking, problem solving, and the like—are intertwined with knowledge. It is certainly true that facts without skills to use them are of little value. It is equally true that one cannot deploy thinking skills effectively without factual knowledge.”

Knowledge is Exponential Growth

Factual knowledge matters because it determines the speed you can acquire new knowledge on a topic. The more you know, the faster you learn. The smart get smarter.

Experiments confirm this idea. In one study, participants were given a topic that was unfamiliar to them. Some were given the opportunity to learn more about the topic than others. At the end of the study, these two groups were measured on their ability to learn new facts, neither group knew, about that topic. The group which had previously studied the topic learned the new facts faster than the group who didn’t.

Knowing more about a subject also allows you to understand more of what you read and listen to. In a different study, participants were asked to read a description of a baseball game. Those who had higher prior knowledge of baseball before the study were able to remember more details about the passage than those who didn’t.

Reasoning isn’t independent from what you know. Thinking about something isn’t divorced from knowledge, but dependent on it. You can’t reason critically or creatively without first having amassed a large amount of factual knowledge.

This is why the existence of Google and Wikipedia doesn’t reduce the need to learn facts. Something being a Google search away doesn’t mean it’s available in the background to allow you to parse new information easily.

Learning Facts Doesn’t Equal Rote Memorization

Knowing facts is clearly important, but I don’t want to suggest that everyone should get flashcards out and start memorizing details like a bad history class. Facts are important, but connected facts, ones that are linked to concepts and contexts are more important.

Generally the only time rote memorizing facts makes sense is when the volume of facts is so large that it’s unlikely to be remembered in passing and the usage is so straightforward that there won’t ever be a need for deeper understanding. Vocabulary in a foreign language is a good example of where memorization works—because you need to learn tens of thousands of new words and simply knowing their translation is good enough, most of the time.

Most other situations factual knowledge is best acquired by seeking to understand it. That way the facts aren’t isolated stems, but woven together. The way to memorize these kinds of facts is to understand them via connections.

How Should You Learn More Facts?

Read more. Watch more. When you don’t understand a work, look it up in the dictionary. When you don’t understand a concept, look it up on Wikipedia.

Use orienting tasks while you’re reading and watching to make sure you’re actually thinking about the things you want to remember.

Read broadly and don’t be afraid of topics you don’t quite understand. Knowledge is exponential, so if you’re not used to reading something you’ll learn a bit less. However, as you read more about it, you can read faster and smarter.

Read deeply and don’t be afraid of books that are “above your level”. It may take quite a few lookups before you can read an entire article or chapter alone, but each time you’re building your fluency for the ideas. New subjects are like languages in that they start confusing but later become easy.

Google and Wikipedia don’t remove the burden of learning a lot of factual knowledge, they increase its importance. The people who learn from them will race ahead in knowledge and understanding, while the people who use them as an excuse not to learn won’t just be ignorant of the facts, they’ll be unable to think carefully when they need to.

  • Austin

    I actually wrote a recent article on my blog related to memorization for interviews, specifcially for coding interviews. For the most part I agree, however I do have one clarification question.

    I argued that “knowing what’s possible, as opposed to facts is the most important aspect of knowledge. ” I mentioned thT for a learning a language it may be required to learn specific words. However, if I know I can look up an algorithm or cooking recipe I dont need to know all the facts, only what I can do.

    That being said, I am curious to hear your take. Since, Imagination doesnt seem to be effected by not remembering details.

  • John

    Scott,

    Like yourself Scott, I am a HUGE FAN of Daniel Willingham. I have read his book and regularly read his blog.

    I have given a lot thought to the question of why knowledge matters in our world of information abundance. To understand this topic I have created a very useful metaphor (I learned this tactic from the master himself 😉

    Metaphor (Note: ( )’s represent where a comparison is being made.)

    Imagine if you went to the doctor and he told you that you had a rare disease called vegemonia. Vegemonia means that you can only eat green vegetables for the rest of your life. From now on, your entire diet has to be comprised of vegetables. However, since your childhood you had been eating exclusively junk food (consuming empty entertainment).

    The only good news is that your father is a farmer and he has a 100-acre garden (internet) filled with nutritious vegetables that you can eat as much as you want.

    In this world, accumulating knowledge means becoming “fatter”. As you are well aware staying alive on low-calorie vegetables is very difficult, because you have to eat a lot and your body quickly burns all that energy to keep you body functioning (forgetting that naturally occurs)

    The good news is that overtime you can re-train your taste-buds to like the taste of vegetables (the more you learn the easier it is to learn more). Also, overtime your body becomes more efficient at burning fat so you can eat the same amount and gain even more weight.

    The big insight is to eat for the long-term and pace yourself in pursuit of becoming the fattest person in your area of expertise.

  • Chris

    Einstein did not imply that knowing a lot of facts is unimportant. He simply meant that imagination is more important.

    Einstein learned continuously until his magic year of special relativity and photoelectric effect. Of course he derived theories by himself and practiced a non-trivial amount of thought experiments throughout his growth, but he learned almost everything at the frontier of the nature of light that enabled him to cross the threshold of insight.

    That said, imagination is still more important, as I think he meant. It is very hard to think how he would denigrate knowing a lot in the first place as he endlessly read papers, studied his courses and read books with his two friends of Olympia Academy (an unofficial institution they made..).

    That aside, I agree with you completely, as my paragraphs above seem to support your position. Just felt like clarifying…

  • Leland

    Just like Aristotle believed that books would destroy human memory by not requiring us to ingest every bit of information–which was necessary when books were indeed memory-aids rather than a means to acquire information, Google now threatens to take away our precious memory capabilities that still remain. Unless we use the engine properly–Not as an excuse to let one’s memory fail, but as a means through which to acquire information for the long haul.

    This reminds me of Foer’s talk at Google, where he explains just how important it is to remember facts. https://www.youtube.com/watch?…

    All in all, I think the end of this article hits the nail on the head. Those who spend the extra second to file info mnemonically, or connect it to other ideas, will win. Those who simply use the information and forget about it, will lose. For if humans continue to look up simple ideas to solve simple problems online, how will they be prepared to look up more complex ideas and problems, with multiple or missing solutions? They won’t even have the foundation out of which arises the question…

  • Jonathan

    I think the point about Einstein has been missed by Daniel Willingham, and to some extent you, Scott. I am sure Einstein well understood that without the footstool of knowledge, imagination would be useless – as would most things humans do like banking. What Einstein was responding to was the misperception that scientific discovery is merely knowledge + time. The energies that drive music and poetry, were also driving his ideas which is why he made the bold statement that creativity trumps knowledge. Here’s more from Einstein’s quote in 1929, “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Daniel Willingham states that “logical thinking, problem solving, and the like” are the most esteemed cognitive processes – but Einstein esteems creativity above these – because it is more rare, thus the x factor in his discoveries.

  • yu wang

    I totally agree the point that the more you know,the first you learn,smart get smarter.When we learn something we should create a connection with other knewledge,and try to know the details not surface.

  • Stanislaw Gadomski

    Einstein was not wrong.
    Examples:
    1. Einstein,
    2. Newton, Copernicus – facts were known, but imagination was needed to interpret them
    2. Great artists: Beethoven, Mozart, Michelangelo, van Gogh, …

  • Alex

    It’s really great that this ‘quotation’ from Einstein has not been grabbed as a mere soundbyte without coherent reflection. Brownie points for that, Scott.

    But if you’re going to make the categorical statement that Einstein was ‘wrong,’ I would gently suggest that you needed a far more comprehensive epistemic framework for your own understanding of your own epistemology as well as Einstein’s!

    I write as someone who has invested a great deal of time in trying to understand the differences in language and logical processing in both (so called) a) the Anglo-American ‘analytical’ philosophy; and b) ‘Continental’ philosophy. Here is the relevance: speculative philosophy is based on a paradigm of creativity which recognises that mere surface-level mastery of facts does not constitute ‘knowledge’ (I’ll not insult your intelligence with a history of the etymological development of the English word ‘knowledge’). A person may have a genuinely magisterial grasp of factual data but utterly lack the actual problem-solving skills that merit the use of the lexeme ‘lateral thinking.’ Since the death of ‘logical positivism’ and the (stupendously flawed) verification principle, people have in fact begun to realise that genuine creativity in any dimension of life/thought/concept/practice is to be highly prized, and this is why the longstanding US educational system of ‘multiple-choice’ test systems has been so robustly criticised as time has passed – because there is no other Western system of education where people can advance through higher education systems without possessing any real ideas of their own. English-speaking thought across multiple disciplines values factual data and real analysis highly, and we need that! But epistemic systems from elsewhere (Europe being only ONE example) have shown us that ‘truth’ is more than the ‘facts.’ I do kind of see what I suspect you have wanted to say in this post, and while I have learned from you and suspect I will continue to do so, this particular post did require more teeth than you gave it. I’m with Chris (who I think has been somewhat generous to you) and Jonathan. And as for this argument by Daniel Willingham, as a Brit I’d have to place that in the category of what I personally describe as ‘binary arguments that I recognise as possessing a distinctly North American heuristic…’

  • Gurumoorthy

    Hi Scott,

    I was an avid watcher of BBC World News about 15 years ago and I liked their adline/tagline: KNOWING IS EVERYTHING”- because it just coincided with my passion for fact gathering .
    Over a period I found another tagline by Nike : “JUST DO IT” conveyed something more important ie. Skill Acquisition.

    Even today if I were to print my Drafts/Notes saved on my mobile phone , it will easily run into over 500 pages – full of facts on thousands of topics . “Am I mad “, I always wonder and your blog is a welcome relief to me and reassures that I am not ABNORMAL.

    Thanks for your thoughts.
    Gurumoorthy
    Trichy- India

  • Alfred

    After all my experience in these matters, I agree. There’s always a need to memorize a framework, such as what we learn in grade school. (Think of the abc’s. Is there any logic to them?) Then we can connect new information to the frame. My struggles with linear algebra and differential equations proved to me that I had gaps in my knowledge, and the lack of geometric examples, such as found on You Tube with MIT, et alia, only made it worse. We cannot understand concepts without a framework.

  • Stanislav Tsaplev

    Regarding to next to last topic of the article, isn’t it worth to explicitly distinct knowing facts and knowing concepts?

    Also I wonder if the participants of the first study were allowed to use Google/Wikipedia in the second part of experiment?

  • muhammed rafeeque

    I too believe, the knowledge is a pre-requisite.
    Without the relevant knowledge, imagination is not useful.

    It’s the visibility/clarity of the facts would eventually lead you to a good decision.

  • LYDIA

    First,i should admit what you said are valuebal,i love reading you analysis.i think knowlege is as important as intellectal talents .without konwledge we do not have enough ablilty to develop.it like you can not cook without rice.that is definately ture,and i also thank you for the passage you send to me .i was so glad to find a friend sharing the same favorate topic with me .thank you scott young!

  • Renato A. Dela Pena, Jr.

    I think that Einstein’s and Willingham’s views are correct if considered in the specific context in which they make the claim/statement. Any conflict is apparent, not real.

    I also think that Einstein did not absolutely say that knowledge is not important at all, that is, knowledge of facts, hypotheses, theories, etc. However, if these “knowledge” does not constitute an integrated whole, but rather form a simple mixture of things in one’s mind, then such knowledge may not be valuable or useful. Imagination, Einstein implied, leads to creativity, innovativeness, insight, discoveries. It seems to me, Einstein was pointing to meta-knowledge, the generation of something greater than the combination of everything one knows. Einstein was inviting us to go beyond the confines of what we know, to take that quantum leap into the world of creativity and discovery. Indeed his though experiments were exercises in imagination, which undoubtedly enabled him to discover his theories of special and general relativity. Sterile and inert knowledge is less important than productive knowledge. Our knowledge must be generative and creative and the means to it is imagination.

  • Bruce Harpham

    Scott,

    Well put on the importance of facts. There are plenty of business contexts where knowing facts are important: the professions (accounting and law) and sales and marketing (it makes a better impression on the customer if you remember facts about them like their favourite book vs drawing a blank).

    P.S. Speaking of reading above your level, you might like Ryan Holiday’s perspective on the topic: http://ryanholiday.net/read-to

  • Tim Mathews

    Great post on knowing the facts! I am going to link this to my blog!

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