Wilfully Ignorant?

Some time ago, I tweeted: “Ignorance is forgivable; willful ignorance is not.”

That about sums up what I want to say here. Willful ignorance puzzles me. Why do some people choose to be ignorant?

It’s well known that how you perceive things depends on your preconceptions. A simple example: show a group of people a sequence of letters, then an ambiguous character. Most will interpret the character as a letter. Show another group of people a sequence of numbers, then the same ambiguous character, and they’ll interpret it as a number. The same character is interpreted differently depending on the context. Depending, in effect, on your preconceptions.

That’s not what I’m discussing here. I’m talking about people who, for reasons of their own, refuse to believe well established truths such as: complex life evolved from simpler organisms; human activity is affecting the climate; the Earth is older than 6,000 years. What drove it home for me was a local story in which the old childhood disease, measles was making an encore appearance due to some parents’ refusal to vaccinate their children.

To put it succinctly, there are people who refuse to believe that science works. In effect, they refuse to believe that reality is, well, real.

1969 lunar landingThe fact is, science does work. The proof is all around you. Is that a mobile phone in your pocket? Remember the antibiotics you were prescribed for that fever? The manned space station? Those robots scurrying around on the planet Mars? The space probe that has gone beyond the edge of the solar system? Those things are real. Science made them possible. And the same scientific method that led to the moon landing in 1969 tells us, irrefutably, that evolution happened, that it’s as real as gravity. You can’t cherry-pick the scientific results that are compatible your belief systems and reject the rest.

To better address this, we need to improve the way in which we teach science to our children. Science is both a method and a body of knowledge. Too often, the body of knowledge is taught but not the method. That’s unfortunate, because the method is key. What am I talking about? Things like hypotheses, pilot studies, experiments, observation, measurement error, statistical analysis, peer review, replicated studies. This stuff isn’t particularly complicated. It’s not rocket science. But it’s fundamental to evaluating scientific data. The application of the scientific method is the basis for the information in the science textbooks you’ve used. And it’s important to you in your everyday life.

Why? Here’s an example. Suppose you read a new study demonstrating that eating at least 100 red grapes per day reduces occurrences of cancer and heart disease. (Note: I made this up.) Time to head to the grocery store, right? Wrong. (Really. Don’t go.) Where was the study published? A reputable journal? Was it properly controlled? Are there alternative interpretations of the data? Has it been replicated by several labs? Are the results generally accepted by the scientific community? Until these questions are answered, the study is vaguely interesting and nothing more. A possible basis for further work. Why is it on the front page of the newspaper then? To sell newspapers, of course.

Take evolution, which lies at the other end of the spectrum. First proposed in the 19th century, the evolution of species has been confirmed by countless tests in fields such as anthropology and biochemistry, and is generally accepted as, not only a fact, but a pillar of modern science. So, why would anyone doubt it? Wait though, isn’t evolution just a theory? No. Evolution unquestionably happened. Theories of evolution attempt to explain the detailed mechanisms of how it works.

And what about vaccinations? They are considered one of the greatest boons of modern medicine, having been instrumental in reducing or eliminating diseases such as polio. Climate change? The science here is more recent, but the fact is that climate change scientists collectively assert that human activities are adversely affecting the climate, this based on countless experiments and observations.

If you’re inclined to deny science, I would invite you to spend some of your energy learning more about how it works. Afterwards, when you can better see the world for what it truly is, you might find yourself looking about with new, wide-eyed wonder.


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