There Was a Time


There was a time when it made sense to spit on wounds.

We didn’t have a very good understanding of disease or germs of any of the medical science that we understand today, and enough stories were told about the healing properties of human saliva that it seemed like a smart choice to expectorate on any flesh wound within range.

There was a time when it made sense to kill anyone who claimed that the world wasn’t flat.

To say such a thing went against the church’s edict, and to do so meant that everything that society was built upon — the very fabric of what kept civilization ticking away — was wrong, and in the minds of those making the decisions, a few lives were worth sacrificing for the sake of maintaining power and stability.

There was a time when it made sense to keep marriages traditional and races from intermingling.

As far as we knew, allowing a man to marry a man or a black person to marry a white person would lead to death, destruction, and the sentencing of various peoples’ souls to hell, not to mention the social instability that was bound to happen should something along those lines occur.

There was a time for these things, but today is not that time. Not anymore.

Back then, we had all kinds of beliefs that later proved to be untrue, and we’ve left a goodly number of them behind.

Yet for some reason, we’ve decided — out of laziness or, stubbornness, or sheer ignorance — to hang on to others, not because they’re true, but because we’re uncomfortable with change.

Clinging to old, factually-inaccurate ideas, simply because your family or church or politicians refuse to update their mandates based on new information, is the easy way out of having to make decisions for yourself. What’s ‘true’ will change based on the time, because as a species we continue to learn and spread the knowledge that we come up with. But to have access to the most up-to-date knowledge and not using it is tantamount to not having it at all.

There’s an excellent quote attributed to Mark Twain that goes like this: “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”

The same thing applies to knowledge in general, regardless of how the information is taken in.

If you have access to knowledge but choose to ignore it, or to deny its validity because some other entity tells you to ‘look away! look away!’ due to incongruence with its traditions or tenets, you have no advantage over the poor, ignorant souls of the Bronze Age who didn’t have access to the fruits of so many centuries of trial-and-error, study, and scientific experimentation.

There was a time when there was an excuse for ignorance; we simply hadn’t built a proper infrastructure for learning and retaining knowledge, and those who wanted to learn would likely never gain access to the resources they needed to do so.

Today we have the opposite problem: an abundance of knowledge, and too-few people willing to take advantage of it, either ignoring facts to back up their own opinions, or simply lacking the ambition to reach out and take it.

What field of study are you incredibly ignorant about? European history? Algebra? Fundamental coding languages? Cooking? Parcheesi?

Try choosing a topic per week to study: you’ll be amazed at how the times have changed.

There’s no time like the present to fill the cracks in your knowledge, and these days the plaster is free (though you’ll still have to apply it yourself).


  1. @colinismyname: life is all about gaining new knowledge & perspective. Knowledge is can’t be taken away! Cool post!

  2. Wonderful attention to history. I think we get this “chronological snobbery” that makes it easy to point the finger at the injustices of the past. There is a quantum leap that occurs when you start to listen deeply and empathize with the oppressed. I thought I knew something about the LGBT plight, then I had a student that found out he was “T,” and my worldview shifted. I was sympathetic before; now I was empathetic. This is entirely different. Wikipedia is wonderful–a sandbox of knowledge. Cultural renewal and social justice is empathy joyfully tethered to knowledge. It builds castles in the mudflats; mansions in the slums.

  3. Hey all,

    Isn’t there also an argument that our time is potentially the most vulnerable to ignorance? I heard a great idea that claims the Internet doesn’t expand our horizons, it limits them because we use it mainly to back up our per-existing beliefs.

    Also with communication technology in todays world it is very easy for groups promoting misinformation to spread their ideas.

    Also many people who are ignorant are only ignorant from our point of view, in the eyes of people with strong religious convictions, atheists are the ones with poor knowledge and vice versa.

    Everyone thinks they’re right, chances are we’re all wrong about a lot of things (except me of course ;) ).


  4. @JoshuaMunns Definitely agree that there is a pro/con situation with any knowledge, but I would still argue in favor of learning more of as much as possible, because then the chances of you coming int contact with other opinions are much higher.

    Also, I would argue that there are a lot of things you can have opinions about, but facts are not one of those things. That hundreds of millions of people still don’t ‘believe’ in evolution doesn’t make it any less true in the eyes of science (as the most supported theory available, which is all any fact is). If someone comes up to me on the street and tells me that I’m a donut doesn’t mean he just has an opinion that’s different from me, it means that he’s wrong.

    Now, you can have opinions ABOUT facts, but trying to make opinions into facts…it’s troubling to me that this is so common; in politics, in schools, in the press, etc.

    There’s a certain point where it’s important to stop worrying about offending people are start thinking about the harm caused by allowing opinions to be taught as facts.

  5. @colinwright I agree and I like where you’re coming from. Learning also gives us something just as important as facts, the ability to evaluate and challenge the information we’re bombarded with on a daily basis.

    Yet people will always merge opinion and fact, mainly because it serves a political or economic agenda and I don’t think that is something we can ever truly escape, mainly because it’s a tool utilized by both the uneducated and educated (though maybe not moral) individuals to serve their own interests.

    Also the Theory of evolution is still a relatively young idea in contrast to religion and I think it still needs time to truly sink in. Especially since it’s an idea that really went against the grain of religious doctrine, probably the most powerful set of ideas ever invented by man (with the exception of Mcdonalds that is) .

  6. @JoshuaMunns It’s tough for me to accept religion – something that was developed before the scientific revolution (and therefore the process of scientific inquiry) as anything other than heresay and folktales until there’s some evidence given (beyond that heresay and storytelling from back in the day).

    Good point that people will always merge fact and opinion, though, and unfortunately I don’t see a good way to peel the two apart, since they tend to evolve together and create a mish-mash of useless sludge (or ‘factpinions’).

    I’m thinking that making sure that we – as individuals – do what we can to up our evaluation abilities, we’ll be doing the best we can until some social structure or technology comes along that helps us sort out the supportable concepts from the ones we just want to support.

  7. @colinwright

    ea I hold the same opinion on religion, I personally think it damages society in many ways and tends to cause people to shut out other possibilities. If we took the man power and resources religion (and many other institutions such as the military) has access to and turned it to social and economic improvement we would be in a much better place.

    But if we were to suddenly dismantle religion I imagine it would cause chaos. Can you imagine all those millions suddenly having their whole world view shattered? Maybe it’s better religion dies a slow death rather then a swift one.

    A social/technological structure that helps us sort out concepts we want to support and those that are supportable? That sounds like science to me. But unfortunately it doesn’t mean people will see it for what it is. Rather it will be viewed as an attack on their views. Apparently for the most part, challenging someone’s beliefs only renews their convictions because they have to internally justify their own beliefs when they come under fire.,

    (Sorry if this comes up more then once.)

  8. @colinwright

    PS: You’re clearly someone likes learning for learnings sake and discovering new ideas. You may have heard of it all ready but the TED website is worth checking out. Might be your thing. Has some fascinating talks and lectures.

  9. I love this quote from Mark Twain, this is funny you mentioned him because i have a quote from him on my wall too: “They didn’t know it was impossible, so they did it” Great post as usual Colin! :)

  10. @JoshuaMunns yeah, I don’t think that would be an option even if the majority of people suddenly decided to get rid of religion. Probably a good thing, but not ideal for the distribution of factual information in a lot of cases.

    And you make another good point that it’s incredibly likely if some society-changing tech or structure came along, most people would fight against it, the way we tend to almost always fight change. Maybe we just need more Henry Fords and Steve Jobs, who will tell people what they want, rather than listening to what people tell them they want.

  11. @colinwright We as individuals are the structure of society. If we work laterally to encourage others to explore and critically evaluate facts, opinions, and personal biases, then they will inevitably carry this practice upwards in society. Individuals have the power to transform political, religious, and other social systems influencing millions. But no matter how far upwards we reach, the base of individuals holds the responsibility for this teaching, otherwise society (we) will again allow ourselves to slip into the lazy haze of following social norms rather than challenging and re-evaluating with the constant flow of new evidence.

  12. @colinwright Very cool, I actually watched it a few months ago, but didn’t realize it was a tedx thing. Really like your idea where you do certain things to change the way you look at the world, something we should all do. I’ve found doing sociology at uni was good for it, start looking at the patterns in the way people interact.

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