My ten-year-old, Li’l D, and I have many times discussed the difference between “knowing” and “knowing-about.”
As human beings, it can be far too easy to confuse knowing-about with deep knowing, as I first demonstrated to Li’l D—years ago!—with elephants.
While I can’t recall how that conversation started, it began with Li’l D being confident in his elephant expertise. He remained confident until I started asking him nuanced questions about elephants:
• How much do they weigh?
• What do they eat? How do they eat?
• Where do they live? Sleep? Eat?
• How do they spend their days?
• How are new elephants made?
• How much do they weigh at birth?
By exploring questions like these, Li’l D was able to see that he knew precious little on the intricacies of elephants. While he knew a little about them, his knowledge was far from as expert-level it seemed at quick glance.
Despite the many conversations he and I have had about these different knowings, and how similar they can feel from the inside,
I still fall into the trap of confusing knowing-about with knowing, as most recently evidenced by “Typhoid Mary.”
A few weeks ago, I began following several epidemiologists on Twitter. While I’d been following some public health experts and doctors for COVID insights, this represented a deeper exploration of my planned future career.
Epidemiologist Ellie Murray had just begun a Twitter book club on Terrible Typhoid Mary. This didn’t immediately strike me as interesting, but I read several of the tweets with growing fascination.
Based only on a few tweets, I saw I could learn a lot from the first handful of pages alone! I saw also that those learnings would further help shape my understanding of public health, past and present, and how these factors influence the pandemic in all our midst.
The book was short, and I read it quickly.
As I read its tender last paragraphs, I couldn’t help but marvel how I’d confused knowing-about
Typhoid Mary Mary Mallon with a deeper knowing.
I’d begun the book knowing that:
• Her name was Mary
• She had typhoid fever
• She was confined through her later life
I’d assumed, without seeing that I was assuming, I knew as much as there was to really know. Had I continued so assuming, I’d have lost out on a chance at dramatically improved understanding—about Mary Mallon, about public health in Mary’s not-so-distant time, about what has and has not changed in the field of public health since then—that begins with knowing
there are so many more
questions yet to be
Long may I be reminded that there’s a difference between knowing and knowing-about,
and, so reminded, forever be inspired to bridge, where it’s meaningful to me,
the gap between the two:
to keep on