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Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong

Monday, July 30, 2007

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(07-30) 11:24 PDT , (AP) --

"The Book of General Ignorance" (Harmony Books, 288 pages, $19.95), by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson: I am about to be even more annoying at parties. Armed with your ignorance, no random trivia will go un-one-upped.

Mapping a hike of the highest peak? I'll chortle and ask how you plan to get to Mars.

Staying out of the water because sharp-toothed sharks are the most dangerous animals to man? That's just silly. Mosquitoes and marmots are far more deadly.

Ordering a vodka martini because it's James Bonds' favorite cocktail? Actually, no, that would be whisky, neither shaken nor stirred.

Thank you, John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, for this new confidence in knowing that everything you think you know is wrong.

Lloyd and Mitchinson, two British comedy and television writers, have compiled "The Book of General Ignorance," a gently humorous put-down of our certainty in such "facts" as George Washington having a set of wooden teeth.

He should have been so lucky. With a mouth full of ivory teeth pulled from a hippopotamus, they write, no wonder Washington looks so tightlipped on the dollar bill.

The book is a list of questions that jump from science to history to "What color was the sky in ancient Greece?" (It wasn't blue, but it was bright.) Each entry answers the original query, explains what's wrong with the supposed "right" answer, then offers a bonus round of information to answer questions you hadn't thought to ask.

How did Lloyd and Mitchinson compile this guide to unlearning? Hard to say, because there's no acknowledgment of sources consulted or experts questioned. Instead, Lloyd offers a wondering introduction about human curiosity and the brain's complexity.

At least he admits there are some things the book can't answer: "What is life? Nobody knows. What is light? Or love? Or laughter? One of the many things we don't understand is, what is interestingness?"

It's counterintuitive to take a book of facts seriously when it's written by funny Brits. But here's the thing: Even if I am being pre-registered for a class in "Smartypants Getting Their Comeuppance," at least I'm learning to ask more specific questions.

Some entries are trick questions. If you answer "Where is the highest mountain?" with the Himalayas' Mount Everest, you've wrongly assumed the authors meant a peak on this planet. The correct answer is Mars' Mount Olympus, three times the height of Everest. A follow-up tests whether you know the difference between the "highest mountain" and "tallest mountain" on Earth; Everest is only highest.

Lloyd and Mitchinson also dare to ask questions I stopped asking when I supposedly learned to know better. How tall is Cloud Nine? What sound do shrimp make? How old am I in dog years?

"The Book of General Ignorance" won't make you feel dumb. It's really a call to be more curious.


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