Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Ignorant and proud of it

Way back in 1980, biochemist, writer, and polymath Isaac Asimov wrote something that is even more accurate today than it was back then:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been.  The strain of 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."

I remember the first time I ran headlong into the bizarre American "ignorant and proud of it" attitude Asimov describes, during the presidential campaign of George W. Bush.  Even Bush's supporters admitted he wasn't an intellectual; I heard one person say he was voting for Bush because he wanted someone in the White House who was one of the "common folk," someone he would want to sit down and have a pint of beer with.  I responded, in considerable bafflement, "Don't you want the president to be smarter than you and I are?  I know I'm not smart enough to run the country."

His response was that the intellectuals are out of touch, and don't understand on a visceral level the problems ordinary people face.  This, I have to admit, contains a kernel of truth.  Politics is a money game, and most (not all; I'm sure you'll find counterexamples) elected officials come from some level of wealth and privilege.  And it's true that this privilege can create a set of blinders.  People who have never been down to pennies at the end of a pay period -- as I, and many others, have -- don't understand what it's like for financial worries never to be far from your mind, twenty-four hours a day.

The problem, of course, is that while an "ordinary person" might empathize with the plight of other ordinary people, that doesn't mean (s)he knows how to fix it.  Experiencing a problem doesn't mean you have a clue how to solve it.

But as Asimov pointed out, the "we're equal as people, so my ideas are as good as yours" nonsense is woven deeply into the American psyche, and the result has been that increasingly you run into people who seem to be not only oblivious to their own ignorance, but actively proud of it.  I was just discussing this with my athletic trainer, Kevin, this week.  One of the points I made is that I know there are a lot of areas about which I am ignorant.  The internal workings of cars, for example.  I have only the vaguest notion of how automobile engines work -- which is why when something goes wrong with my car, I go down to my mechanic and say, "Car not go, please fix."  What I don't do is start blathering on to my friends and acquaintances about carburetors and alternators and fuel pumps, and getting all defensive when one of them tells me what I'm saying is bullshit.

This, surprisingly, is often not the approach people have.  Kevin told me he was at a party a while back, and someone was pontificating about how the problem with the COVID-19 vaccination was that it was a vaccine.  On the other hand, he said, he was fine with getting a flu shot, because that wasn't a vaccine, it was a shot.

Kevin said, "The flu shot is a vaccine, too."

The guy responded, "No, it's a shot.  COVID is a vaccine, which means it does stuff to your immune system."

A little goggle-eyed, Kevin said, "But... doing stuff to your immune system is what shots are supposed to do."

Undeterred, the guy said, "No, that's vaccines.  The flu shot just stops the flu virus from making you sick, it doesn't mess with your immune system."

At that point, Kevin decided that the guy had the IQ of a peach pit and gave up.

What gets me about this is not that some person had a goofy misconception about something.  We all have goofy misconceptions about some things, and a complete lack of knowledge about others.  But -- hopefully -- most of us know better than to broadcast our ignorance in front of a large group of people.

Or on a major news network.  Just a couple of days ago, Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, who is himself no stranger to broadcasting his stupidity, had a guest who made Carlson's own beliefs look positively Ph.D.-worthy by comparison.  The guy's name is (I'm not making this up) Joe Bastardi, and you'll get a good idea of his scientific credibility when I tell you that he's the author of a book called The Weaponization of Weather in the Phony Climate War.  (He chose this title when it narrowly edged out his second-favorite choice, which was 99% of the Earth's Scientists Are Big Dumb Poopyheads.)  But what he said went way beyond just claiming that "the climate's just fine, keep on burnin' those fossil fuels."  Here is a direct quote, which (once again) I swear I'm not making up:

I’ve been giving [climate change policy] a lot of thought today, because I had to drive from Iowa City all the way to Pittsburgh, and when I went by South Bend, oddly enough it hit me.  There are three possibilities here, in my opinion, just looking at this, okay.

First is, they’ve all got climate vaccines.  We don’t know about them, but unlike the COVID vaccine, they actually work, so whatever they do, they’re immune from it.  So that’s a possibility.  That’s a long shot.

The second, Tucker, is, that if bad weather stops air travel, and it stops car travel, if you can cause more bad weather, right, then guess what?  Everybody can’t drive.  For instance, next week, and the week after?  Watch how much bad weather comes into the United States.  It’s going to be the coldest, snowiest period around the Christmas time since 2000.  So we’re gonna see planes, and trains, and all these other things shut down.  So if you just dump all this CO2 in the atmosphere, your assumption is, hey, CO2 causes bad weather, if I could cause more bad weather, then guess what?  Other people won’t be able to fly, and we’ll have less CO2 emissions.

Or the third possibility, exactly what you said: it’s a phony climate war, it’s fraudulent.  When we talked back in July, we talked about how it’s going to get cold earlier this year across the United States, that has nothing to do with CO2, what it has to do is the natural cycles of the weather, and what happens is these people are taking advantage of people who fall prey to this, and this is what they’re doing.  There’s no logic or reason for it except they are trying to establish a caste system that destroys the greatest experiment of freedom and individuality, which is this country.

I have a few responses to this, to wit:

  1. How the fuck do you vaccinate someone against the climate?
  2. Winter is frequently the coldest, snowiest part of the year in the United States.  That's because we're in the Northern Hemisphere and that's how seasons work.
  3. So, what he's saying is that the environmental scientists have created the whole climate change thing in order to destroy the United States.  Even though a great many of them live here.  Because that makes total sense.
  4. Does he really think that somehow, the climatologists are engineering bad weather across the entire United States?  Simultaneously?  How are they doing this, using magical laser beams from space, or something?
  5. No, wait -- it's not magical laser beams from space, he says.  It's something way less plausible than that.  What we're gonna do is dump carbon dioxide into the air to make travel difficult, which will stop travel, which will cause us to emit less carbon dioxide. 
Now that's what I call a cunning plan.

And through the entire conversation, Tucker Carlson sat there, nodding sagely, as if what Bastardi was saying was nearing Stephen Hawking levels of brilliance, instead of doing what I'd have done, which is to say to him, "What is clear from this conversation is that if the government taxed brains, you'd get a refund."

Which explains why I am not a commentator on Fox News.

So.  Yeah.  For some reason, there are people who are abjectly ignorant, and yet who consider it critical that the entire world finds out about it.  It all brings back the well-known aphorism -- one of my dad's favorites --- that "it's better to keep your mouth and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it."


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