How To Know It All


Hi. I’m a know-it-all. I’m aware this might surprise you, since most of you faintly like me. You don’t like me enough to help me move a couch into a new apartment, I mean. You like me enough that you don’t particularly want to slug me. If you do it will be from a sense of civic duty. You might feel some pride. But it’s the pride of voting in the boring elections about whether to extend the municipality’s participation in the regional 9-1-1 service agreement for two years. This is the most socially welcome a know-it-all can hope to be. I decided long ago I wanted to be able to move in both know-it-all and likable-person communities. And now I’d like to share with you, the non-know-it-all, some secrets in how to be a know-it-all.

To set out being a know-it-all might seem intimidating. Even the name suggests you ought to know a bunch of facts about a bunch of things. This common misconception keeps millions of prospective know-it-alls from fledging. There are two things you need to do to be a know-it-all. The first to spot some commonly-agreed upon fact or amusing bit of trivia. Let’s see how you do with this sample. Which of these are commonly-agreed-upon facts or amusing bits of trivia?

  1. There’s a leap year every four years.
  2. North Dakota was the 39th state admitted to the United States.
  3. Stop, drop, and roll.
  4. No spider is ever more than three light-years away from you.

The correct answer is to be already writing a comment about how no, centennial years are not generally leap years in the Gregorian scheme of things. And that’s not even starting on the we-could-make-this-legitimate dispute about whether President President P Presidentson signed North Dakota’s or South Dakota’s statehood papers first. Because what makes a know-it-all is the second thing you need to do. Explain how, if you are being precise, some true thing can be argued in the right lights to be imperfectly true, which is the same as false.

So to know-it-all, recognize statements that nobody feels any need to dispute. Then dispute them. Be polite about it: start out by saying how “You know” or “It’s a common misconception” or “To be precise”. Follow up with anything. It doesn’t have to be correct. Just plunge in with the confidence of a white guy talking on the Internet. Bludgeon your conversational opponent into submission. Eventually, they slug you, and you’ve won.

The biggest danger, besides to your face, is if there’s another know-it-all ready to jump in the conversation. You might need several layers of technical points before your opponent gives up. That’s all right. There’s only a couple topics that know-it-alls really specialize in. One of the great ones is David Rice Atchison, who often hits trivia lists as having been Acting President for one day in 1821. The incoming President wouldn’t take the Oath of Office on a Sunday, and so the office devolved upon the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. But wait, you say. Yes, the President’s term had expired, but so had the Congress’s, and so Atchison wasn’t the President Pro Tempore of anything. My counter: ah, but until 1890 the Senate customarily chose a President Pro Tempore only when the Vice-President was absent from Washington City or on the final day of a Congressional session. Thus they believed they were choosing a potential successor in case of a vacancy between sessions. Fine, you might answer, but then Atchison never swore the Oath of Office and therefore did not act as President. I retaliate: granted the Oath of Office might be necessary to exercise the powers of the presidency. But Atchison’s accession is covered by his oath as a member of Congress to uphold the laws of the nation. And those laws would include the Succession Act of 1792 then in effect.

At this point, I should explain, we are furious in our debate. There’s people trying to pull us apart. People are emerging from their houses to see what all the excitement is. People shouting about offices “devolving” upon people is pretty exciting stuff even in these troubled times.

You’ve got more nitpicking to deploy. If taking the Oath of Office isn’t necessary to merely be President then the actual President took office at noon on the 4th of March regardless of whether he was sworn in. There was no vacancy for Atchison to fill. I answer. Before the 20th Amendment there was no constitutional specification to when a non-acting President’s term of office began. Stymied? You can ask how Atchison, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, could be an Officer of the the United States, which the Constitution specifies as the only people eligible for the succession. And then I point out David Rice Atchison was 13 years old in 1821. Not all of 1821, but in March of it anyway. The question of whether he was President for one day was about the time in 1849 that the new President didn’t want to take the Oath of Office on a Sunday. And then you slug me.

And I win.

I can’t tell you why you’d want to be a know-it-all. All I know it’s the best.

The Origin Of The Specious


The trivia board continued to tease me. Did you know, it asked in its white-board glory, it would take over eleven Empire State Buildings to reach the deepest point in the Gulf of Mexico? That “over” sounds weaselly, yes, but I can’t fault its inclusion. Obviously the exact number of Empire State Buildings needed would depend on where you start from. You need far fewer if you’re starting from Veracruz, Mexico than if you’re starting from Glen, New Hampshire.

This affects the economics of your Empire State Building-lined bridge to the deepest point in the Gulf of Mexico! I don’t judge how. It’s not my business to say whether you’re trying to build this bridge for the lowest cost in Empire State Building procurement, or whether you’re trying to keep the Empire State Building-building industry at a stable production level. These are questions of political and economic priorities and so are outside the domain of the trivia whiteboard. I think it’s important the nation have a robust Empire State Building-building industry. It’s unsound to have to trust there’ll just be ones on hand when we need them. It could be disastrous for a project requiring 22 Empire State Buildings to find we can only scrounge together 24 Chrysler Towers and an old 30 Rockefeller Center that was filling up the junk drawer, between the fabric pads for the chair legs and the ball of decaying twine. Again, that’s just my feelings on the issue. Reasonable people can disagree, though not with me.

But why do people love trivia? Sure, everybody likes knowing things. And everybody really likes knowing things they think other people don’t know. When you share trivia you’re giving up some of your hoard of knowledge to someone else’s. A good trivia item isn’t just something that makes you think about Empire State Buildings and the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a chance to dispense social patronage. And it works even if all you’re doing is telling someone the first video MTV played was the Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star”. They’ll grin and nod and tell the joke about MTV ever playing music videos, even though they already knew the trivia because they were one of the Buggles. You should’ve checked who you were talking to sooner. If they’re gracious they’ll share some trivia back. Say, that the first video played on VH1 was Bruce Woolley’s version of “Video Killed The Radio Star”.

That’s not true, but it doesn’t matter, because within eight months Wikipedia will say that’s true and it’s just VH1 anyway. It’s too good a story. Given a fact and a story we’ll pick the story every time. Consider: The United States produced 1,768,000 net tons of raw steel in the week ending the 15th of August, 2015. That’s a substantial amount of steel, more substantial still if you ram you toe into it in the dark, but it’s worthless as trivia. It’ll never be as popular as the Buggles thing, which has been the most-shared piece of trivia on Twitter for the past three years running.

That’s also not true. Well, maybe it is. I don’t know. Something’s got to be the most-shared piece of trivia on Twitter. But again it doesn’t matter, because that’s got the hope of grabbing the imagination. You can picture a story behind it that United States domestic raw steel production can’t match, what with the rate of capability utilization at 73.9 percent. Here’s one the trivia board said: the catfish has over 27,000 taste buds. Is that surprisingly many? Or few? How many taste buds should we expect a catfish to have on its tongue? Do catfish have tongues? Do they have taste buds somewhere other than a tongue? Could a catfish have tastebuds on its skin? If it does, would this imply they technically spend their entire lives in a state of licking rivers?

Even if the answer to all these questions is “get away from me” followed by the ichthyologist running down the hall, receiving this trivia has given us something to imagine. That would be thinking of how catfish taste buds were counted. Maybe it was a grad student in the biology department carefully tallying things with microscope and whiteboard. Maybe it was a local newspaper editor demanding, “Resnikoff! Enough of this debate about the city hiring a new building code inspector! Find out how many taste buds a catfish has and do it before we put Sunday’s paper to bed!” And Resnikoff had to turn in “over 27,000” because that’s as far as the counting got before deadline. I’d like to know more. Whether it’s true or not, I can tell you the catfish would rather have been left alone. Nobody shares good trivia with it. Maybe someone should tell catfish steel capacity utilization is down 8.4 percent from the same week in 2014. That’s starting to make a story, and with it, a good trivial one.