Saturday, July 14, 2012

On Ignorance and Idiocy

            Issac Asmiov knew a thing or two about a thing or two.  We all know his work in science fiction, but in addition to being one of the “Big Three” science fiction pioneers, he was an extremely well educated man, a professor of biochemistry, textbook writer, essayist and historian.  The man authored or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards.  His works appear in all ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System.  He once made an observation that will serve to introduce our topic of discussion for today: “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
            In that single sentence, unfortunately, Asimov managed to sum up what being American means to far too many people.  We seem to have come to this conclusion that the freedom for which our forefathers fought means the freedom to enjoy being wrong on any given matter without suffering any of the ill effects typically associated with error.
            Now don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with ignorance per se.  We are all ignorant of something.  There’s also no shame in making a mistake.  The shame comes when one descends to a state of willful ignorance or refusal to admit error and correct mistakes.  Worse, there are many who actively seem to take pride in their ignorance and mistakes.
            Let’s look at some examples.  First up, I recently watched a news story from an alternative source of news commentary I frequently watch regarding California’s decision to ban the delicacy foie gras, presumably in response to political pressure from animal rights groups.  Without commenting on the reasoning behind the ban itself (parenthetically, I will add that I oppose this insidious legislation, but I’m not offering judgments on the intellectual capabilities of anyone who disagrees with me--that’s a completely different issue), have a look at the news piece I watched.

            The first thing you’ll notice is that I disagree with the hosts, but that’s not the point here.  The point is that both hosts seem to take such pride in their inability to pronounce “foie gras.”  If you slip up and mispronounce it, I would consider it slightly unprofessional (if you’re reading a news story, you should check the pronunciation before filming), but forgivable.  However, there is no call to take such pride in it.  These people have allowed their political views that all rich people are evil (and believe me, that attitude shows clearly in their programming on a regular basis) to influence their work to the point that they are proud of their ignorance.  Indeed, beyond being proud of never having eaten foie gras, which may be defensible if you have animal rights attitudes, they extend this idiocy to a pride in not even being able to pronounce it.
            The role of media is to bring us information.  I’m sorry, but I don’t feel I get good information when the hosts demonstrate an ignorance of their topic.  It’s fine not to know about foie gras--culinary arts are obviously not the hosts’ forte.  But the appropriate action for a journalist to take when presenting a story on a topic he or she knows nothing about is to consult an expert.  The Young Turks, rather than engaging in mental masturbation, might have brought a chef into the studio to comment.  How else are we to trust that the information they provide us regarding the treatment of the ducks is accurate when they can’t even learn how to pronounce the words?
            I’ll treat you to another example, this one even more depressing.  It involves two people I know personally, and I will omit any identifying information to protect the ignorant (not a concession I would generally make as I feel that people should be made to feel ashamed when the demonstrate voluntary ignorance, but in this case, I have personal reasons to avoid identifying who I’m talking about).  During a gathering, Person A remarked on the absolute dangerous lunacy that is the modern anti-vaccination movement.  Person B responded by saying very much like “That’s a very double-sided issue and you sound ignorant when you don’t consider both sides.”
            In addition to just proving ignorance of what the science says on the matter, this person demonstrates a willingness to engage in a particular variety of ignorance that can and will cost human lives, with particularly high risk for children.  Indeed, there is nothing that smacks of greater stupidity than the ignorant calling the educated ignorant.  The simple fact of the matter (which we may discuss in detail in another entry) is that vaccination is a safe way to save lives, and that the anti-vaccination movement is an attempt by the stupid to stroke their own egos at the expense of not only their lives, but their children’s and their communities’ (herd immunity, after all, is a key component of why we’ve managed to beat many of the diseases that are now making a comeback as a direct result of the criminally negligent anti-vaccination movement).  All you really need to know is that the anti-vaccination movement was largely started by a doctor (Andrew Wakefield) whose license has been revoked and whose 1998 paper linking the MMR vaccine to autism is known to be a fraud and whose integrity is further called into question by allegations that his research was motivated by profiteering rather than science and by a woman whose only qualifications are that she took off her clothes for Playboy magazine and managed to have a child who she’s been willing to exploit on the international stage for a little unearned attention.  I’ve complained before and will again that “parent” is not a qualification.  All it takes to become a parent is unprotected sex--that does not make one an expert on anything.  And as much as I have respect for those who take off their clothes for the enjoyment of the rest of us, that also does not qualify one to speak on a matter of scientific importance.
            As Person B said, it may be a “double sided” issue, but on one side is every credible scientific study that’s been written on the topic--ever--and on the other side is a porn star and a disgraced doctor who faked the results of his research.
            Taking sides when one is clearly right is not a problem, and that it is perceived as a problem IS a major concern.  Matters of science are not subject to opinion.  Hell, I’m not even entirely convinced that matters of art and entertainment are completely subjective.  Regardless, when it comes to science, politics, economics--really anything to which there is an objective “right answer,” whether or not we yet know what that right answer is, we needn’t subject ourselves to an “unbiased” discussion of “opinion.”  Because opinions can be wrong, and the goal of the scientist as well as both the journalist and even just the average person considering the information from home is to determine the actual truth, the appropriate course is to argue passionately for what appears to be right, but to maintain sufficient humility to listen if someone presents a contrary argument.  Allow reasoned argument (as opposed to emotionalism) and fact (as opposed to opinion) to settle the matter.  If there is a question on which there is a right answer--and anti-vaccination is one of these as are evolution and global warming, despite what the deniers may say--then presenting an “unbiased” news piece in which “both sides” present their information is, itself, a biased form of distributing information.  It is biased in favor of the WRONG side because it creates the illusion that there is room for debate when there is not.
            People have a tendency to read exactly the wrong sources of information.  Conservatives and liberals both have a habit of ignoring or misusing science.  The conservatives rightly have a reputation for being anti-science, but it’s time for all of us to realize that, though they’re wrong about different issues, the liberals are just as scientifically misguided as their right-wing counterparts.  There are plenty of good sources of information capable of accurately distilling what the studies actually say (myself included, I say with an appropriate level of humility) but ultimately, if you’re reading your information from a political website, or any traditional newspaper, you’re probably getting bad science.  Go to the original study, or find a source capable of distilling the information for you without losing the actual meaning.
            There’s no shame if you don’t know a certain point of science (though there is massive shame in America’s institutionalized ignorance of any science at all).  But when that topic comes up, the honorable and proper course of action is to admit ignorance, and then do some research.  “I don’t know--I’ll read and get back to you,” and “I was wrong, and further evidence has changed my mind” are two of the greatest statements one can make, so don’t think I’m being cruel simply because some people know different things than I do.  Just don’t take pride in ignorance.  Strive to fill those gaps in your knowledge, and you can still be smart no matter how ignorant you are.  Take pride in ignorance--which includes an unwillingness to bow to new information--and no matter how educated you are, you’re nothing but a fucking moron.

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