How much did people know about stuff, and when did they know it?

So I’m reading the “Little House” books again, which take place in the 1880’s, and at one point Laura asks Ma about the moon and Ma says that it’s like the earth, but tiny and cold and nothing grows there. I was struck and started wondering how your average, uneducated, backwoods person like Ma knew anything about the moon in 1880.

How much did people know about stuff other than what was immediately around them, when? How did Ma know about the moon other than “that there white thing in the sky?”

How can I learn about what people knew and when, and what was common knowledge at what point, and to what extent, about things like astronomy and science throughout history?

That is one GARGANTUAN question. You’ve just asked for the entire history of human knowledge! Try reading, maybe, all of human literature for the answer.

Short version: Much of what we think is so recent is actually ancient knowledge. The Moon, for example, was charted with telescopes and that kind of knowledge wouldn’t be impossible to possess. The ancient Greek philosopher Anaxoras first postulated that the Moon reflected the Sun’s light, although he didn’t understand what the sun was.Galileo first used a telescope to observe the moons’ surface structure. In 1837, some German atronomers pretty conclusively demonstrated that it had no water, and presumably no life.

I guess I’m just more curious as to how that stuff “trickles down” to the common person throughout history. I mean, Ma Ingalls had no formal education in any sense - we’re talking about a rural, backwoods, chicken-pluckin’ yokel. I’m curious as to how the information slowly trickles down to a person like that.

Caroline Ingalls was a teacher. It wouldn’t surprise me that she knew that.

A map of the moon was published by Beer and Madler in 1834 and a full description published in 1837, Caroline started teaching in 1855 so that information would quite possibly have been something she taught.

That’s not true. Caroline Ingalls’mother had been a school teacher, and she herself attended a community school up to the age of 16 (and her family boarded the school teacher) She then got a teaching certificate and taught school herself until her marriage. So it’s a mistake to say she had “no formal education”…she was actually fairly well educated for a woman in her time and place.

I think in general we underestimate how learned people were in the past. Or how they lived, for that matter. I once mentioned medieval apartments to a friend, who responded “No one lived in apartments back then!” Um, yeah, they did. Why wouldn’t they have?

This is an unasnwerable question. How much of what knowledge is obtained by whom and when? You’ve tossed in so many variables that you render the very question pointless.

Heck, they had apartments in ancient Rome.

Would it have been possible for some person in the distant pass to have essentially known everything that was knowable at the time? For instance, could a particularly well educated scribe or priest (I’m assuming they tended to be the best educated) of the ancient world, having access to what passed for the best information of his age, known it all?

Not to mention that education at that time was by memorization and rote, so it wasn’t like today, where we learned to look stuff up in an encyclopedia. They learned stuff for keeps.

One thing that would hinder them is lack of access to books. A scribe or priest would have fared a little better, but remember that there were really no such things as public libraries. Before Gutenburg came along, there was no widespread distribution of books. Every single one was hand-copied, or at best, printed from a single carved woodcut. And publishers often had no interest in mass distibution. Often, books were copied for the sole benefit of a single individual.

Having said that, a priest with access to a vast library could become just as knowledgeable as anyone in the modern age.

What’s really changed over the past few hundred years is specialized knowledge. These days, it’s possible to become an expert the field of, say, astronomy. Back in the day, it was essential to survival to just be an expert in the field. If you didn’t know farming, you died. And that takes precious time away for more esoteric study.

The old saw that a medieval scholar could learn everything that was known is kind of true, but only in a limited sense. It was true that one person could probably read every book written in Latin that existed in Europe. But that medieval scholar certainly wasn’t reading books from China, or India, or Japan, let alone codices from the Americas.

And of course, merely reading every book in existance isn’t the same thing as knowing everything known, because lots of knowledge that existed at that time wasn’t written in books. Guild secrets, masonic secrets, political secrets, not to mention the sorts of mundane everyday knowlege that is never written down, or if written down is only kept in local tax records…that William Johnson of Bristol had 12 chickens and married Elizibeth Baker on June 23 1394, and had 3 children, and the oldest child had a bad case of sniffles last January, and so on.

Despite the lack of general written knowledge, I’d have to say that ancient people probably had it all over us in certain areas of knowledge. I’d bet that they knew far more about the phases of the Moon, the rising and setting of the Sun, and (apparent) planetary motion than any of us could hope to learn in a lifetime.

Even in the harder sciences, some folks in times past were better educated than is typical now. For instance, Johnathan Swift, in Gulliver’s Travels, wrote of one society more technologically advanced than his own, which had discovered two moons of Mars. Now, the details he gave for those two moons did not, of course, match Phobos and Deimos, which wouldn’t be discovered until more than a century later. But they did match with Kepler’s Third Law and a reasonable estimate for the mass of Mars. How many authors today, even science fiction authors, know and understand Kepler’s laws well enough to use them in a story?

This is an incredible book that has answers to the OP.

As a child, I was also a rural, backwoods, chicken-pluckin’ yokel. Information has trickled down to me through reading.

I think the same is true, by and large, of scientists as a whole — or I should say, fans and students of science. Back in the day, Einstein and Heisenberg and all the rest understood the fundamentals of the philosophies that underly science. Today, I’ve seen people, on this very board, claim that scientific testing can prove that one plus one equals two. I don’t know whether they are scientists, but I know that they do it no service. About such things, Daniel Dennett, possibly the greatest philosophical apologist for atheism today, said, “There’s nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear.”

I’ve heard it said that Thomas Jefferson, although undeniably brilliant, was fortunate to have lived in a time when a great mind really could take on board pretty much the whole sum of humanity’s knowledge. Jefferson was a skilled architect, scientist and political theorist in part because Western civilization’s body of knowledge could still be encompassed in a single brain.

It was exactly the same as today–intelligent, curious people (whether “educated” or not) knew a great deal about the universe around them, and dull, ignorant people knew nothing beyond the end of their nose.

By the late Nineteenth Century, for people who wanted to learn, there was no absence of opportunity. By that era it was unusual for anyone, male or female, to have had absolutely no education (except perhaps among the very lowest rungs of society), and the rudiments of science were covered in school. There were competing newspapers in every city and town (often with greater circulation than their counterparts today), popular magazines for both men and women, and specialized farm and technical journals. There was an army of lecturers riding the “chautauqua circuit”, speaking in cities and small towns, filling the niche that the Discovery Channel fills today. There were “educational products” ranging from the Old Farmer’s Almanac to stereopticon slides. And of course, at least a rudimentary library was within a buggy ride of all but the remotest farms.

For those determined to remain ignorant, it was easy to avoid all of these things. For those who wished to gain knowledge, it was easy to do so.

That’s not really true. These days, many scholars must run as fast as they can jsut to keep up with current scholarship, in fields which are ften constantly becoming mroe and mroe focused. So much knowledge exists that you can’t even really specialize in a sub-field of a subject. You have to go one level deeper just to be on the cutting edge. Specialization is good for advancement, but it also means that cross-subject learning is hindered, even very intelligent people have difficulty keeping up with subjects they might not constantly study, and most critically interferes with the education of young people.

Take me. I like a lot of things. But even just trying to keep abreast of physics and recall my math and continue learing about basic history of some parts of the world and read that Shakespeare I never got to and read modern books and catch the newpaper…

Well, it gets overwhelming.