Thursday, 15 May 2014

Read, Learn, THEN Share

You've heard me on this topic before, but it has to be said again, before a very special blog post coming next week.

As you know by now (I hope), I am not formally educated. I left school at 17 with a handful of 'O' Levels, and that was that. 

I could easily have chosen, therefore, to leave my knowledge at that level. Many do. Apart from information they pick up more or less accidentally, they go through life with whatever they manage to remember from school. Plenty of people manage perfectly well like this. They hold down jobs, raise families, and in general "succeed" in life in a state of a sort of general ignorance, and it isn't a real problem. 

It only becomes obvious, in fact when they play Trivial Pursuit, or join in a pub quiz, or something along those lines. Or get into an argument online.......

You've met them. Nice enough people, basically literate, no problem there. Not actually stupid. They may even be wise as they age, in a very basic way. They may be good parents, and pillars of the community.

But they suddenly look very foolish when they say something like:

"I never knew Britain was an island."

Everyone tries hard not to do a "facepalm", but you can be sure somebody will call them an idiot. 

They are not idiots. You only know what you know, and if you've never taken the time to become familiar with what the world looks like (which doesn't happen in five minutes, and needs to be "topped up" regularly, not just because things change, but because you forget) then this sort of thing will happen. 

So, you see, I don't blame them really. I can be quite defensive on their behalf if they are insulted. Nobody knows everything. 

And...I don't think it's EVER helpful to insult somebody for their ignorance. It's not going to help them learn, and it's certainly not going to suddenly make them say "Oh dear! I realise I have many gaps in my education. I must put that right immediately!" It doesn't EVER work like that. It causes resentment, and just makes you look like a tool.

OK, so that said, it's a choice. In our western society at least. With the internet now, especially, nobody needs to be generally ignorant. So, with their schooldays ancient history, these folk have made the choice not to bother to learn much of anything outside their own particular interests. 

And sometimes it matters. Sometimes there is a piece of information, or an area of understanding that acts as a foundation to understanding another concept, which in turn is necessary to understand another concept, and so on.

Imagine a person had never been taught basic multiplication and division. Yes, I know it's unlikely but as an example, consider that. As a result of this they would not be able to learn how to do percentages. And if they can't do percentages, they could not understand probability. Without understanding probability, you would be hard-pressed to sell them insurance. You MAY be able to scare them into it, but it would be a very different process. It would rely wholly on them simply believing you.

Another example. If a person had never learned anything about basic biology, about cells and so on, it would be difficult for them to understand reproduction and growth. And not understanding how this happens they would not comprehend agriculture. Again, if you were persuasive enough you could probably convince them that they need better soil and irrigation, but this would rely on you being convincing, gaining their trust, convincing them you were an expert. There would be no real understanding.

This whole "never mind how, just take it from me" alternative to knowing how things work has actually been popular as a way of keeping the plebs down. When knowledge is an elite privilege it becomes a form of power. For this reason there are plenty of examples, both historically and right now in the developing world, of people fighting to get an education. Risking their lives to learn. Going to enormous lengths and great hardships to obtain information that many spoiled modern westerners simply don't bother with.

I happen to know that kids in Africa, Asia, and Central America are baffled as to why there is this laziness, because they've told me so. There are children no more than 12 walking for hours to get to a ratty dial-up internet cafe to do the Coursera (university level) courses I take. They stay awake long into the night doing assignments by stinky oil lamp. They struggle with English and yet......these kids are getting high 90s in their marks. They just don't understand how people in the First World don't want to be educated. They want it more than anything. They go without food to pay for their internet sessions.

And then, when they post about this on the forums at Coursera, and say where they come from, they come up against middle-aged North Americans and Europeans who have never even heard of their countries. Don't know which continent they are on, in some cases.

They don't want to just believe some white guy that dirty water makes them sick. They know that anyway. They want to find out what they can do to change it. They want to become engineers so they can fix the problems in their countries. So they learn, hungrily.

But the biggest problem with lack of knowledge is that it can lead to uninformed opinion.

If you are getting all your information from a few soundbytes on the evening news, not only are you getting biased and shallow editorial, you are probably sharing it around. Misinformation is everywhere.

I have commented in several places recently about the gluten-free trend. It's a new panacea, stop eating gluten they say, and all your health woes will disappear.

This is bollocks.

If you have celiac disease, then obviously you shouldn't eat gluten. At a lesser level, just as some people can have a senstivity to dairy products, some have a sensitivity to gluten. They need to avoid it too. Everyone else can eat it without a problem. Quite why there is a movement to blame gluten (which the human race has eaten with great gusto for about 10,000 years) for every ill we suffer, I don't know, but it's the latest in a long line of demonized food ingredients. I will entertain no argument on this topic, I've said my piece, and it is just an example.

The reason I mention it is that many (most?) of the people going on these gluten-free diets without any medical reason to do so have no clue what gluten is. They have deliberately chosen to be ignorant of that (it's not exactly hard to look up), and to believe those hawking the gluten-free diet without any good reason to do so, and not satisfied with this, they are preaching it to others.

Another example is in the climate change debate. Again, I'm not getting into that, I just want to use an example of a shocking ignorance I keep on hearing.

Various figures have been put forward as to how high the seas will rise if some/all of the polar ice melts. There is quite range of estimates, despite this being a measurable matter. But every damn time I read a new article on this, at least one person will comment:

"If the ice in your drink melts, the water level doesn't change"

And somebody points out that yes, this applies in the case of sea ice, but the concern in question is ice currently on land, pouring into the sea.

Now that comment "If the ice in your drink melts, the water level doesn't change" is being read, memorized, and repeated by ignorant people. They think they've found an "out" AHA! They say. Nobody has ever thought of THAT. Because, you know, nobody would have. All those squadrons of scientists studying the whole issue, and not one of them ever looked in his Pepsi and thought of that. Right.

(I invite you at this point to Google the Dunning-Kruger effect. I've mentioned it before, more than once, but it'll do you good to look it up. Think of it as a practice exercise.)

I've also mentioned before, but I'll labour the point, that evolution does not require belief, it only requires understanding. I am convinced that the reason conservative Christians don't want it taught in schools is that once you have been taught it, that's the end of the matter. It would take very powerful religious propaganda to convince you it's wrong, because it's so very simple, logical, mathematical, sound.

Here we often hear trotted out that old chestnut "It's only a theory". As if that makes any difference. Gravity is only a theory. Quite simply, ignorance and "belief" are what go together. Only if you don't understand something do you NEED to believe it.

Of course all of this has been references to science. Not everything is science, in the usual sense of the word.

If I was to tell you that there is a town called Marihanger, you would use science to find out if I was telling you the truth. And science would have allowed Marihanger to exist. But the existence of Marihanger is not science. There is social science of course, some history, some politics, and so on. But facts about life in Marihanger are not usually thought of as scientific study. Nevertheless some of the requirements of studying this place and what happens there follow a similar process - careful observation, measurement, and repeating work to ensure results are consistent.

It is just as important to avoid bias, and to avoid working backwards - that is to say you must test your theory, not begin with a result and then bend the evidence to fit it. If you believe there is corruption, human rights issues, and other atrocities going on in Marihanger you don't just spread gossip about it, you find evidence.

Perhaps something is going on in Marihanger that has been on the news so much "everybody" knows about it. Or do they? What if the stories coming out of Marihanger are gross distortions of the truth, or worse? What if it's pure propaganda, but so well circulated that it's taken as the truth?

And what if the truth is very complex? What if the history of the town is long, convoluted, emotionally charged, and sometimes hard to establish, so much so that the effects today actually look very different to the reality of the situation - and this is often the case, of course. There actually comes a point where most onlookers simply cannot sort it all out.

But they form an opinion anyway. Not only that, they share it. They are keen to share it, and they share it every chance they get. They share it with inflammatory language, with insults, and with threats. Instead of admitting they don't know enough to form an opinion, they jump on whatever bandwagon suits them, and then they shout it from the rooftops. LOUD, LOUD IGNORANCE.

There is no town called Marihanger, but there are whole chunks of the world like this, and next week I'm going to do one or more posts on one part of it, and I think you might find it interesting.

1 comment:

  1. Just for the record: I started writing comments, wanted to correct something and got frustrated because I was on the tablet, which I use most these days. It does not lend itself as well for active use. It is now a few days later and I can't remember what I wanted to say. The world and you can live without it.