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Valuing knowledge

Posted 12/09/2012 by sevans

So where in the body would you find a visor? How many bones are there in the human body? And what is the purpose of the pancreas? 

If you answered all of those questions correctly, then you are in the minority according to the results of a survey released this week by the Museum of London. Of the 2000 people questioned by OnePoll, the museum reports that over half were unsure of how many teeth we have (the correct answer for adults is 32 including wisdom teeth) while three quarters were stumped when it came to guessing the number of bones in an adult human (206); and a ‘puzzled’ 62% are reported as having no clue as to the purpose of the pancreas (part of the digestive system and an endocrine gland, producing both enzymes and hormones).

Recent surveys of natural history have pointed to a similar level of ignorance about the world’s plant and animal life, with only a fraction of people able to correctly identify even the most common species of butterflies, birds and plants. A similar trend is true of chemistry, where repeated questionnaires have highlighted a paucity of information about many of the chemicals used in everyday products such as toothpastes, shampoos, clothing and detergents.

But does this lack of knowledge about the world around us really matter? It is hardly like to advance our career prospects (unless you happen to be employed in the healthcare sector), while even for the 60% of people who apparently don’t know their own blood group, a simple coagulation test is all it would take to find out in the event they need a transfusion.

Easy as it may be to look up answers on the internet if asked, however, all of this misses a point. Without a basic knowledge, both of ourselves and the planet we inhabit, it is difficult to see how we can truly appreciate and place a value on what we already have – or to understand how things might change.

So if anyone knows what an anatomical visor is, let me know. All I could find on an internet search was sun hats.

And if you want to find out more about human anatomy, the Science Museum will be launching an exhibition on Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection from 19 October 2012.

Cath O’Driscoll, Deputy editor

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