The Other Gap

The growing economic disparity in our country and the world is a problem that gets a lot of attention in the media. Justifiably so since history shows what happens when economic inequality grows unchecked. WWI and WWII are prime examples of the results of such economic shortsightedness. But the growing intellectual disparity in the U.S. and in the rest of the world is not an issue that seems to be taken as seriously. The gap between the cumulative knowledge of mankind and the knowledge base that drives individual behavior is leading us to collective disasters which are entirely avoidable. Non-rational thinking (by which I mean emotionally-driven, magical, unsupported, or contradictory thinking) poses a serious threat to the survival of mankind.

Exhibit A of how far down the rabbit hole we’ve gone is that there are people who want to see the end of the human race. And I am not talking about lone misanthropes like George Carlin who wanted an asteroid to wipe out humankind. A significant number of Muslims and Christians have been actively trying to bring about the end times so that Jesus or the Twelfth Imam will lead the righteous to heaven while condemning heretics (the Muslims if you are a Christian and the Christians if you are a Muslim) to eternal suffering. Some of the End Times Christians were very close to and influential in the Bush administration. Hence the irony of two news conferences in one week wherein ‘W’ first urged schools to teach “alternatives theories to evolution” and then days later announced to a fearful public that he was going to spend $7 billion dollars to prevent the spread of a mutation of the bird flu. Somehow, mutation is an acceptable word to fundamentalists while evolution is a lie “straight from the pits of hell.”

In 2014, the Houston government issued a subpoena for sermons of area pastors. The wisdom and constitutionality of this action is debatable, but I understand the city’s frustration. Churches want to be nonprofit, free from government organizations while sending out political messages and conducting political fundraising on a massive scale. They want to insert their religious beliefs into policy. In the case of abortion and homosexuality, as examples, they want the government to do their heavy lifting on the taxpayers’ dollar. Rather than trying to convince people of their “truth” through words and deeds, they want the police and courts to enforce their beliefs. A rising number of secular Americans resent the tax free status of churches who actively promote spending of tax dollars on issues that many consider matters of private conscience.

Atheists, like Richard Dawkins, have been leading a full frontal assault on religion and its believers. It is a Quixotic gesture at best, but it does encourage nonbelievers to come out of the closet or at least object to religion’s secular efforts. It is doomed to fail because it relies on rationality and logic; and these are not the guiding principles of most human behavior. My concern is that religion plays a major role in widening the knowledge gap. It is not the only culprit. Media, particularly entertainment, and advertisers play significant roles as well. Any group who misrepresents science and knowledge gained through science is guilty. Religion is guilty because on a daily and weekly basis it attacks the findings of evolution, geology, and astronomy as false. Media is guilty because they present preliminary scientific studies as facts that end up being contradicted by later studies. The media cares more about scaring the audience than in scientific accuracy which results in the public mistrusting science.

Science isn’t the only area where the gap between our cumulative knowledge and the individual knowledge base is widening. Education, parenting, economics, math, and civics are just a fraction of content areas in which we are collectively getting dumber. But I like science as a focal point because science has proven itself to be the best human tool for gaining knowledge and dispelling ignorance. Today, just convincing people that the things they think they know are wrong is a full time job. Four hundred years after the discovery of the connection between germs and illness a number of people still believe that wet hair causes pneumonia. One out of four people think the sun goes around the Earth and almost half believe Earth is less than 10,000 years old. People who are in power (and there are a lot of them) and believe in such nonsense are incapable of addressing long term problems such as global warming.

What we really need is a good scare … an emotionally gut-wrenching taste of reality that will cause people to start using their smart phones for something other than sharing nude pictures. I remember when the Soviets sent Sputnik up and Americans went out of their collective minds worrying about nuclear bombs raining down from communist satellites. Scientists and engineers became highly respected people. Schools started implementing curriculum that emphasized thinking skills over rote memorization (a trend that NCLB has reversed). Calling somebody Einstein was not an insult in 1960. And vaccinations were hailed as miracles by those who had seen so many children killed and crippled by polio, typhus, et al.

A life-threatening epidemic could do the trick of turning the majority of people back to supporting acquisition of useful knowledge instead of memorizing the details of the lives of the reality TV stars. Ebola has the fear factor going for it. It is a scary disease made more so by Hollywood and TV stations seeking ratings. Even North Korea is freaking out. But I don’t think it has staying power. It’s too hard to spread. Although that could change if evolution has its way. It also has a powerful built in narrative. On one hand we have Christians claiming that Ebola was sent by god to cleanse their countries of homosexuals, pornography and abortion. On the other we have doctors who say Ebola evolved in bats and if Congress hadn’t cut NIH finding so drastically, we’d already have a vaccine to protect us. Which story will America buy if Ebola gets out of control? How many will turn to religion to save them compared to how many will demand action from medical science? I think that if Americans start dropping dead in the streets with blood spewing out of every orifice, even Jenny McCarthy will be pounding on clinic doors demanding a vaccination.

It’s too bad it takes a crisis to shake us out of complacency. But that’s where we are on the evolutionary path. Maybe someday everyone will use reason to overrule their amygdala. In the meantime, those who already can separate the rational from the irrational must prepare to render service when called upon.  Otherwise, it will get pretty lonely here at the top of the food chain.