Have you found yourself stating a fact in a conversation–say some arcane statistic from baseball, the conjugation of Lithuanian verbs, or the air speed velocity of an unladen African swallow–only to be asked how you knew such a thing?
The latter of that list illustrates the kind of exchange that often happens:
The question as to how someone knows a particular fact generally carries specific implications with it:
1. Is that in fact a fact?
As the saying goes, 78.6% of all statistics are made up on the spot–including this one. One reasonable implied challenge in the question above is in regard to the accuracy of the fact being cited. Take the origin of the Guinness Book of World Records. Said tome was marketed as a way of settling disputes in bars. Today, with smartphones as ubiquitous as opinions, a world of information is available at our fingertips–or, at least, thumbtips. Verifying a statement is easy, so long as we understand the difference between reliable sources and otherwise. The person who can quote facts from memory is treated as something of a fossil, someone who wastes time and effort by storing knowledge in a biological hard drive.
What this postmodernist view fails to comprehend is that absorbed information becomes a part of the person holding it. Who you are is a combination of your memories and your personality. The more diverse and expansive the former is, the more the latter can make of itself.
2. How is something learned?
One method of learning is research, the act of combing through available sources to find the desired fact.
Another is that dreaded plague of childhood:
practice. Whether it’s threading a needle, producing pleasing sounds from a musical instrument, or hitting what you aim at, learning is often a process of doing the same damned thing over and over until the skill is mastered.
The other method, namely experimentation, is illustrated by the first image in this article. Yoda’s claim that there is no try is silly pablum, evidence that George Lucas would have made a better film if he’d never heard of Eastern mysticism or Joseph Campbell. There is indeed try. Try is what we do to find out if a given notion is possible or practical.
But in all of these, the essence is work. And that’s why some are astonished when a person comes out with some curious bit of lore. It disturbs their settled laziness to find that someone else put forth such effort.
3. How do you know that?
But the most common meaning of titular question is to express surprise that the person addressed has absorbed a particular piece of knowledge. An example of this comes from my experience discussing Tarot cards with a writing acquaintance of mine. She was shocked to learn that I know anything about a divination practice, since she held a view of me more suited to the fellow with the pointy ears. And that’s the point here. When we find that someone knows a fact that isn’t in keeping with our view of the person, we feel offended. How dare a person not conform to our theoretical model of the person?
Instead, we recall Aristotle’s opening to the Metaphysics that we all desire to know by nature. While we may justifiably explore the path a person took to knowledge, ultimately, its possession should come as no surprise. Learning is one part of the essence of being human.