Some years ago I attended a talk by Patrick Moore, given to a general audience. At the end of the talk he invited questions. Somebody asked the difference between a planet and a moon. PM mumbled some kind of technical something-or-other when all the questioner wanted was a simple explanation. 'Planats go round suns; moons go round planets' would have done perfectly.
Those boffins, eh? But I've been caught out exactly the same way on numerous occasions. What Patrick couldn't grasp was that there could be anybody in the world who didn't already know the relationship between suns, planets and moons. Had the questioner been ten years old, Patrick would still not have been sure - could any child of ten possibly not know that? - but when the question came from an adult... He thought the questioner must be asking something far deeper and answered accordingly.
I had a similar experience myself recently when somebody asked about the LPG tank that supplies my house with heating gas. He commented that the tank seemed so small he'd expect it to run out of gas in a few hours. A joke? I explained that the tank contained a liquid and that if it contained gas it would have to be huge. He asked if the gas was burned. Of course it was: I pointed to the gas fire. No, no, no, he said, was it burned in the tank? It was one of those Alice Through the Looking Glass moments when you wonder whether this conversation can really be happening. I said it wasn't and we left it at that.
I realised afterwards that he thought that if the tank contained a liquid it would have to be boiled by heating to turn it into a gas, like water being turned into steam in a kettle.
Most people live in a world where everything happens by magic. I am well aware that almost nobody knows how their mobile phone works. That's somebody else's job, somebody who's 'done' mobiles and 'texing' at college. All you have to do is pay your money and complain if it doesn't work. How messages get 'texed' to become texed messages is a mystery. (Sorry, I've just loved the idea of 'texing' ever since hearing a teen talk about it on TV.)
On the other hand I have always assumed a basic knowledge of the trivial and commonplace amongst people I meet. No matter how much my experience tells me otherwise, I still can't believe how basic, childish and often wildly inaccurate are most people's models of how the natural world works. The only reason I didn't discover it long ago was that it doesn't come up in conversation. If nobody mentions it, you assume they know all about it because - well, surely everyone does?
Does it matter? Yes, I think it does. When you have idiots like Jeanette Winterson campaigning to cure the African AIDS problem with homeopathy (little bottles of water) it's very serious indeed. But when you live in a world where everything appears to work by magic, one bit of magic must seem as good as the next. How are the Wintersons of this world to know any better?
Surely, in the 21st century, we can do better than this? Or maybe what we really need, instead of education, is compulsory school sports so we can do better in the next Olympics?