Whiskey, Google and knowledge

“The former objectives of education, which emphasised a knowledge of facts, are no longer as valuable in a society where information is available at your fingertips.”

This was a statement made recently in a column in the Irish Times and it is pretty par for the course. Lots of people have been making this claim for quite a few years now. It’s nothing new. Indeed, the very day I read this article I was attending a T&L conference in which one of the speakers made essentially the same point. It’s become a bit of a mantra.

So let’s imagine we want to find out some stuff about whiskey but have very little basic knowledge of biology and chemistry. In particular we want to learn about how whiskey is made.

So let’s Google the word ‘whiskey’. In Ireland the first hits will be for distilleries and pubs and the first source of real content will be – you guessed it – Wikipedia. So let’s go there because that’s what ‘learners’ tend to do.

The first sentence is this:

Whiskey is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. Various grains (which may be malted) are used for different varieties, including barley, corn (maize), rye, and wheat.

Straightaway we have two words (fermented and malted) that unless we have studied biology we are unlikely to understand.

So let’s follow the fermented link. When we do so we are confronted with this:

Fermentation in food processing is the process of converting carbohydrates to alcohol or organic acids using microorganisms—yeasts or bacteria—under anaerobic conditions.

Unless we have studied biology we are unlikely to have any understanding of the difference between a yeast and bacterium but, suppose for now that we do. That means we only have to worry about carbohydrates, organic acids and anaerobic. We’ll probably recognise the term ‘carbohydrate’ and associate it with things like low-carb diets, potatoes, bread and pasta. Organic acids is likely to throw us because we tend to associate the word ‘acid’ with pungent, corrosive liquids and we might have some memory of the term ‘battery acid’. But the word organic will conjure up images of the organic veg section of Tesco.

Now let’s follow the malted link. If we did, we’d find out that

Malt is germinated cereal grains that have been dried in a process known as malting. Malting grains develops the enzymes required for modifying the grain’s starches into various types of sugar, including the monosaccharide glucose, the disaccharide maltose, the trisaccharide maltotriose, and higher sugars called maltodextrins.

Now we’re really up against it. There’s no link for germinated so we’ll have to open a new window, do a search, and and make sure we know what germination means. When we return to our malting page we are confronted by enzymes. We might have some vague idea that biological washing powders have enzymes in them, or that our body produces enzymes to digest food, but we won’t really know what enzymes actually are unless we have studied some biochemistry. So we click on the enzyme link. When we get to the enzymes page we are confronted with this:

Enzymes are macromolecular biological catalysts. Enzymes accelerate, or catalyze, chemical reactions.

We will probably guess that macromolecular means that enzymes are ‘big’ molecules, although we won’t really have any sense as to what ‘big’ means in this context.

It’s likely that at this point we’ll go back to malt page and continue reading about what malting is. We’ll probably ignore all the biochemical stuff and be happy to accept that the purpose of malting is to in some way ‘develop the enzymes’ so that they can convert starch into sugars even if we won’t know quite what starch is, or what sugar is.

When we get back to the fermented pages, we click on the anaerobic link just to make sure we know precisely what that term means in this context.  Finally we go back to the original Whiskey page and realise that we have read one sentence. We’ll know that we’re in for a long day but if we persevere we might get to a point where we have some ‘understanding’ of how whiskey is made but it’s likely that our understating will be superficial at best.

Wouldn’t the whole experience be far more rewarding if we had learned (and remembered) some basic science facts before throwing ourselves at the mercy of Google?

And haven’t an awful lot of people got things backwards. Isn’t the fact that so much information is so readily available precisely the reason why our time in formal education should be the very time when we acquire the key knowledge that will enable us to navigate the digital world in a meaningful way?

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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4 Responses to Whiskey, Google and knowledge

  1. I liked your article! I have been following your Blog for many … now and I enjoy your witty perspectives. I agree that (basic) Knowledge is essential. It is also true that the entire spectrum within Bloom’s taxonomy is becoming increasingly more important. One point about the use of Google (which I rarely use) – there is a lot of misinformation. So when we attempt to initiate “student centered” research-based learning experiences; it is essential that students (i.e. researchers) have the capacity to evaluate what they discover. Therefore, your perspective is … Perhaps you would enjoy reading a (free) “White Paper” which I recently published @ http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/kennethfetterman
    A link to the manuscript is also available via my Blog @ http://www.kennethfetterman.wordpress.com
    Best Wishes, Ken

  2. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Whiskey, Google and knowledge

  3. Pingback: Whiskey, Google and knowledge | Teds Page

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