Jenny Diski

Apart from those possessed of blind faith who go along with the view that only God can know the truth about the truth, most people assume that what we don’t know could be known by somebody looking hard and skilfully enough at the problem. I’m not sure if in the 21st century there is quantitively more in the world that isn’t known, but certainly we know that there is more we don’t know. The problem of knowing has been shifted from the house of God to the relevant departments of the academy. Those of us not in the right department or in the academy at all expect and even pay the experts to know on our behalf and pass the information on in such a way that we can absorb it. Well, it’s a nice idea. But reports on the wandering womb, the dangers of masturbation, relative racial brain size, cold fusion, food safety, weapons of mass destruction, the death of the author, suggest that it’s a hit and miss sort of strategy for getting an accurate handle on the world. In truth, most of us manage a practical existence knowing very little and trusting a lot. It’s not necessary for the passengers on a plane heading to Australia to know that the planet is roughly spherical, so long as the designers of the plane’s navigation system do.

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[*] Oxford, 334 pp., £50, September, 0 19 927440 1.