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Let’s Just Not Know

My long-suffering husband Mr Frazer has been listening non-stop to a Van Morrison song called TB Sheets. It is a fantastic bluesy number from 1967. It recounts the experience of a man longing to escape from the room of his dying lover as she begs him to stay. The lyrics are simple and sparse. It isn’t terribly explicit in terms of the physical horror of her illness or the finality of her death. What makes it so ghastly and simultaneously brilliant is the shocking realism. It just sounds so believable. This song stayed with me long after it stopped playing. It kept me thinking, tortured me even. It troubled me, like good art should. But with this unease came a second and even more pressing torture…the unbearable urge to google it. Then I could know if this woman was real and if Van himself or some other man really sought to abandon her. I wanted to know something, anything, about this story in the hopes that it would somehow diminish the existential terror of it.  

And yet I didn’t want to know. I wanted to retain some mystery and let the art stand for itself. I lasted three days before giving in to google. This led me to observe that my tolerance for not knowing something is much lower than it used to be. I’m shocked by how accustomed I’ve grown to being able to access information immediately. I can have song lyrics, chords, band lore and even a singer’s life history on demand. Once upon a time when a cool friend let you hold an album sleeve on which lyrics were printed (reproduced in the band’s own handwriting no less)  you knew you were in the presence of something special. Awe was in order. This cool-friend access isn’t necessary anymore, for the loan of the album, the lyrics, or any of the band trivia. Anyone interested can listen for free and read up about it on Wikipedia. It’s democratic, I suppose, but what’s democratic about cool-ness?

There is a beautiful scene in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young where two forty-somethings who can’t remember the name of an almond confection immediately pull out their phones to search for it. They are gently reprimanded by a pair of groovy twenty-somethings who tell them “let’s just not know”. It is sort of pretentious, and sort of inspiring at the same time. Could we go back to just not knowing, or is it too late? Would we even want to? I don’t imagine Aaron Swartz would. He risked jail time and ultimately ended up losing his life in the battle for open access to research papers.

Sauron’s all-seeing eye beckons me to look at what people I dislike are saying on twitter, but probably best not. Artwork by Patricia Frazer/wondermuman, so not reproduce without permission. See

The mythology around knowledge is that it always comes at a price.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden as punishment for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. In Norse Mythology Odin sacrificed an eye for the ability to see all that happens, as well as throwing himself on his spear and spending nine days in torture hanging from a tree. Perhaps like Swartz we are willing to pay the price for valuable information that democratises science or allows the overthrow of corrupt governments. But what have I sacrificed to know who BuzzFeed rate as the 19 sexiest philosophers in history, or what cat my personality most resembles, and was it worth it?  There are obvious benefits to having so much information at our fingertips. But the gateway to almost boundless information in our pockets can also weigh us down. It’s not all helpful to know. Because this situation is still relatively new, I don’t think we as a species have developed a sufficient capacity to filter out what is worth knowing from what is sucking up our limited attention without clear benefit.

When I was in my youth, my search for information and truth came with a bitter, painfully earnest intensity. I needed to know things. If God exists. What my friends really thought about me. If love could ever really be true. Now, I can think of few things I would like to know less than what people really think about me. But I am disturbed by the fact that at times of emotional turmoil and existential angst when I am lost and have no idea what to do, I sometimes find myself unconsciously reaching for my phone, as though google could provide me with answers.


Domo Arigato, Mr Human

In November 2020 the Financial Times published a story titled “Thanks for polluting the planet” in which they reported on British research claiming that the 64 million ‘unnecessary’ emails sent by Britons each day contribute significantly to climate change.

A BBC article also reporting on the issue (Climate change: Can sending fewer emails really save the planet?) questions the calculations of how much energy would really be saved, and whether such targeting of relatively small savings may detract from more worthy targets. But what goes unquestioned in this and many other reports on the story is the underlying assumption that saying thanks is somehow “useless”.

The research behind the claims was commissioned by Ovo Energy, a ‘Green’ British Energy Supplier with a published goal to become a zero carbon business by 2030. 

The research was carried out by survey consultants Censuswide and identifies the following as the top 10 most “unnecessary” emails:

Top 10 most ‘unnecessary’ emails sent:
1. Thank you6. Have a good evening
2. Thanks7. Did you get/see this?
3. Have a good weekend8. Cheers
4. Received9. You too
5. Appreciated10. LOL

Chart Source: Ovo Energy website .

I have to say, as a psychologist I ROFLMAO when I read that thanks and sharing a laugh are deemed not just unimportant, but wholly ‘unnecessary’ communications.

No information is given on the Ovo website linking to a full version of the report, nor is any indication given that the research was published in full or in part in a peer reviewed academic publication. Of course, we don’t always need peer review to tell us whether to trust a piece of research as long as we have adequate information about how it was conducted and what measures were used. What we are told about the research is that the information comes from a representative survey of 3,000 British people aged 16+, surveyed between the 14th and 17th of November 2019. We are also shown detailed working out for the carbon calculations and extrapolations, but we are given no information whatsoever on how the uselessness, pointlessness or otherwise uncessesariness of our communications is judged. What is the measure of uselessness in workplace communications? The short emails of thanks and well wishes are described as ‘unactionable’. Is this the same as pointless? I’m not convinced. Findings from positive psychology research suggest that saying thanks is important, for those both expressing and receiving it, as it strengthens interpersonal bonds, leads to increased productivity at work, and brings all sorts of benefits in terms of increased well being

Even if this evidence for the importance of saying thanks to personal relationships, well being and productivity were unavailable, it would still be a gross error to deem these ‘unactionable’ emails useless. Not knowing the point of something is not equivalent to knowing that it has no point. To assume so is to commit the logical error of confusing absence of proof for proof of absence. We should not assume something is unimportant or irrelevant simply because we lack evidence or understanding of why and how it is important or relevant. This is especially true when we are considering extremely complex systems. A recent example would be the discovery of one or two unknown genes of life-altering significance, lying hidden in what had previously been considered to be all junk dna.

Stopping large swathes of the email-using public from saying ‘thanks’, or ‘lol’, would be social engineering at a grand scale. This story is a good example of how researchers can over extrapolate beyond slim, questionable evidence, to give life-altering advice way beyond their competencies.

Of course, after eliminating thanks-yous, we could always just inject the humanity back into our workplace with corporate team-building exercises, but these costly outings may not really be a great substitute. Perhaps we are better leaving well enough alone.

As someone who focused her PhD research entirely on behavioural adaptations to mitigate climate change, I’m not reluctant to make sacrifices to my daily habits to help the environment. But, at the risk of setting the world on fire, thanks for reading.

Original artwork by Patricia Frazer- do not reproduce without permission. NFT soon available on