Liam Farrell: The uselessness of general knowledge

Noblesse oblige being what it is, I took part in a table quiz a few weeks ago, in aid of a popular and worthy Irish charity, The Royal College of Village idiots - we have a few locals studying for the fellowship and enjoy sniggering at them behind their backs.

My table was the epitome of petit bourgeois, consisting of people who would like to consider themselves my peers: a schoolteacher, a member of the clergy and an ex-terrorist, now in government. (I am good with lay people, skilled at Putting Them At Their Ease.)

At one stage the question was asked: 'What is another name for Hansen's Disease?'

Having already excelled in the earlier rounds on TV soaps (the answer is always the same, she was killed in a car crash), horse racing and hard-core Swedish, this was reckoned to be right up my street, and the rest of the team paused briefly over their beer and sausage rolls and turned to me.

All those expectant faces looking to me for enlightenment and intellectual succour, it might have seemed a weighty burden, especially as I hadn't a clue. However, not having a clue yet being able to improvise a plausible response is an integral skill for the general practitioner. As the Fat Man said: 'In any emergency, the first thing to do is take your own pulse.'

So I remained studiously calm, took a few seconds to assess the situation, then mimed a choking fit and rubber-necked the next table, recovering once I had seen the answer.

'Leprosy,' I intoned with Solomonic authority, as if I had never entertained any doubt. We won the quiz and, in an explosion of largesse, donated our winnings to the Village Idiots, which I hear they invested in the stock market.

The point of this anecdote is to illustrate the uselessness of general knowledge. I have travelled a bit and seen a few cases of leprosy. I know what causes it, when to suspect it, how to diagnose it and how to treat it.

What I didn't know was that it was also called Hansen's Disease; of all the facts about leprosy, that's probably the least important. Yet that was the question chosen - an easy cop for the question master because it had a concise and unambiguous answer; its irrelevance to the real world was irrelevant.

It sounds like suitable material for the MRCGP.

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