Monday, January 10, 2005

The Dangers of Ignorance

In his ascendence to President, Bush ushered in a new era of fashionable ignorance. Educated, intelligent people became "elites," and the so-called "reality-based community" is now seen as worse at analyzing and making policy than the "faith-based community" who make decisions with their "gut" and wallow in their lack of qualifications or knowledge.

The perils in setting the course of the most powerful nation on Earth in willful ignorance are manifest.

The recent tsunami gives us an excellent example of the dangers of ignorance. You see, as noted on NPR the other day, when the water on the coasts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives, etc., suddenly retreated far beyond normal even for low tide, many inhabitants and tourists ran down onto the beach in amazement. Locals in many places began gathering up the fish lying around, left behind by the water's sudden retreat.

At the same time, wild animals were fleeing the coastal areas in droves. Why? They knew something the people didn't.

Had the inhabitants known that a sudden, large-scale retreat of the ocean from the coast is a sign of an incoming tsunami, many of them would have lived. Very few wild animals were caught in the tsunami because, through instinct or whatnot, they knew. And, through whatever wisdom passed down from generation to generation, native hunter-gatherer tribes on many of the small islands in the Indian Ocean survived, to the great surprise of the authorities.

What most disturbed me about this story was that I know the signs of a tsunami, from my time living in Alaska where tsunamis are a big worry, but that the people living on the coasts of these tsunami-vulnerable countries didn't. I couldn't help thinking that I could have saved some of those people had I been there...

But here we see where ignorance leads. Ignorance leads us down onto the beach, our eyes dazzled by the odd sight of the retreated ocean and multitudes of fish for easy taking. Knowledge, on the other hand, tells us to run from the beach as fast as we can before the tsunami arrives.

The Bush regime, in its decision to invade Iraq, was the people running down onto the beach. They saw an easy target, a bad guy who they could topple, control of vast reserves of oil, and revenge for Saddam's attempted assassination of the Bush the elder. Critics of the march to war were the people running inland. They warned of insurgency, protracted nation-building, and creating a breeding ground for terrorists.

Someone needs to take Bush and the rest of his regime to a local elementary school and reacquaint them with what every fifth-grader knows: Knowledge is power.

Because the unspoken corollary is: Power without knowledge leads to folly.


At 10:05 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

I have no direct comment about the details of your post itself; however, I do have strong opinions about the general topic of education, ignorance, and social expectations. I suppose I will take this chance to prattle some about it.

I do not think that the current White House administration brought this "appeal to ignorance" with it. This has been an ever growing part of American culture for quite some time, one which is beginning to anger me. We seem to be living in a culture that is so bent on achieving the laudable RULES OF THUMB "keep things as simple as possible", "be plain spoken", "avoid analysis paralysis", and "just do it" to absurd extremes.

First let's discuss communication.

Things are not always simple, they are usually complicated. Communicating complicated ideas in a simple way is by definition imprecise (and often inaccurate). The question should be: "How much precision/accuracy is necessary in this context"? Rather than this, we seem to live in a society where the operative question is: "How can I state this more simply?"

Simple words, simple sentences, simple explanations often confuse complicated situations. I believe in the idea that one should not communicate in a more complicated manner than is necessary (and that one should know one's audience), but the idea that you should always be able to describe any idea (no matter how complex) in three, short declarative sentences is just absurd. The act of communicating is a two-way street. There is responsibility on the part of the listner/reader as well as the speaker/writer.

People make fun of those who attempt to use correct grammar, who have a reasonable working vocabulary, who state their ideas with depth and precision. And this mocking has only gotten worse in my lifetime. More than poking fun, some people actually get angry if you use a vocabulary word with which they are unfamiliar. It is one thing if a neurosurgeon is using highly technical medical jargon to talk to a five year old boy about an illness, it is a totally different matter when I happen to use the word "otiose" in a conversation with other, college-educated adults. If you don't know a word, ask what it means (or look it up). [Gg]od(s) forbid you might learn something new.

Now let's move on to how one judges situations in order to come to an action.

The single greatest, most ubiquitous fallacy in our national arsenal seems to be the false dichotomy (in my opinion). For example: "We either needed to invade Iraq, or we let Saddam Hussein do whatever he liked."

Things are almost never black and white. Most important issues are complicated and require serious thought regarding the consequences of the various sides. To reduce issues to black-white, either-or propositions is to greatly oversimplify, is to throw out potential solutions, is to fail to think through the matter thoroughly; it is foolishness almost by definition.

Yet, it is common. Moreover, when one raises the complications with two-sided propositions, the response is often that things need to be made simple in order to avoid constant "over-analysis". While it is true that we lack complete knowledge regarding most complex issues, and simplification is often a necessary tool for making decisions, it is a meta-false dichotomy to assume that the only format for issues for which we can make a decision is the format, "Choose option A, B, or C." People are smarter than that, if they choose to be. Unfortunately, more often than not, people typically choose the shallow path.

All of this eventually leads to idiotic terms such as "over-educated." What does that even mean? We should be clear: There is nothing one can do without an education that one could not also do with one. One may wish to spend one's time and energy on some other part of one's life (and that is a perfectly reasonable choice), but if you've time and energy for both, you will be the better for it.

Becoming informed, educating oneself doesn't take anything away (other than time and energy), it only gives something.

When it comes to making decisions, informed decisions are always better than uninformed ones because you have something extra: information. Intuition is an important part of human discernment (ask any, very well educated, scientist and they will agree); however, when you have information, you have both. The question is about time and effort (really, it is about priorities), not which is better. Pitting them against one another (intuition versus education) is yet another false dichotomy.

This is one reason why I was so frustrated with some of the common reactions to Kerry's somewhat more complex positions than Bush's. While Kerry was not my favorite candidate (of all possible candidates), the fact that he held more nuanced positions was a positive trait, not a negative one. It showed that he was thinking, that he was conscious enough to realize that issues are complicated and sometimes require complicated answers. The Bush campaigns attacks on Kerry that were based around the complexities of his ideas should not have worked, but they did.

Americans love to be uninformed. We value the "man of action" motif to such an extreme that it has become a value that puts the "man of little thought" on a pedestal. We've taken the slogan "just do it" to a new and frightening level, one where "don't consider the consequences of your actions" is the only natural interpretation of the phrase as we currently use it.

I don't think Bush brought this mentality, rather I think his administration is symptomatic of the problem. We have elected a leader who typifies the American attitude: Everything is black-or-white, think little and carry a big stick, consider only the information that supports your position, etc.

To be totally honest, I don't think Americans really value education much in general. We value it only insomuch as it can earn us employment, but we fail to understand its true power as a way to help us make better, more informed decisions, as a way to make us broader, more intereating a capable beings.

Even our educational institutions themselves are being affected by this short-sighted utility: Science majors are exposed to less and less arts and humanities, humanities and art majors are being exposed to less and less science an mathematics. Even the very idea of a well-rounded person conversant in art, music, literature, science, philosophy, and mathematics is slowly fading away.

It is a sad fact of modern life. In this country, we judge it better to act without knowledge than to know without acting. Which is better, I cannot say. All I know is that both are possible -- and that is certainly best.

At 11:20 AM, Blogger mooglar said...

I don't understand what you're getting at. Your post was too complicated.


I agree that fashionable ignorance did not start with Bush's rise to the presidency. But, to me, in my anecdotal experience, it really seemed to kick into high gear with the start of the Bush regime. Certainly, the gulf between the so-called "reality-based community" and the "faith-based community" never was so large and its presence so obvious to me as it is now.

As to the black-and-white issue, I am in complete agreement. The law of the excluded middle is perhaps the most common reasoning error humans make. For instance, what is lost in the false dichotomy of "war or let Saddam do whatever he wants" is that sanctions were working! Saddam hadn't managed to reconstitute his WMD programs and was not a threat to the US or his neighbors. Sure, he was thumbing his nose at the US a lot, but saying that's a reason for war is like saying you really have to beat up the guy you are holding in a jail cell because he keeps mouthing off when you go by.

I agree that American society doesn't value intelligence or education. The guy who can throw a perfect spiral gets the hot girl and can be as much of an arrogant jerk as he wants. The smart guy just gets called a "know it all." I definitely think education is seen only as important insofar as it makes you money. When I read stuff to learn new things I am constantly asked "are you a student?" Because only students like to learn new things. When I tell them no, they ask, "Then what are you reading a book on Hitler/the Holocaust/WWII/Neuropsychology/Sylvia Plath for?" As if there is no reason to learn anything if you aren't learning it to eventually get a job.

When I was learning to make lightsabers and costumes my family kept asking me, "Are you going to make them to sell on ebay or something?" As if I couldn't learn to make them for myself or just to have a new skill. My grandfather remains obssessed with me winning a costume contest now, as if that will somehow validate or justify my time spent learning to make costumes.

Of course, my feeling this way is probably why I have so many unmarketable skills, but that's a whole other discussion...


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