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.