The Arrogance of Ignorance

“Why do we have to study these different religions, Mr. Parent? Everybody knows that Jesus Christ is our lord and savior.”

There was a stunned silence in the room as my eighth grade students pondered what the boy had just said. Then pandemonium ensued and I had to resort to my bag of teacher tricks to restore order in my social studies class. The boy had been home schooled most of his life by fundamentalist Christian parents. He seemed shocked by the reaction of the class. Once order was restored, I let the students explain to him that not everybody shared his beliefs or even his certainty in god and the afterlife.

I didn’t blame the boy and was relieved that the class took him to task rather than me. I knew his parents and had taught his older brother so I knew how sheltered he had been and how prickly his parents were about their religion. I didn’t want a repeat of the evolution kerfuffle. Unfortunately, after much argument, what he really seemed to take from the lesson was that we were all going to hell. No amount of facts could shake his belief that he was saved, we were not, and studying any religion except for Christianity was a complete waste of time. And in his circles, a lot of Christians were going to go to hell too because they didn’t have the right interpretation of, or even the right version of, the bible.

I was reminded of this young man recently while watching a segment of the 11/15/17 episode of Samantha Bee’s show, Full Frontal. In a field piece, a reporter went to the Tangier Island, Virginia to talk to locals about climate change and their rapidly disappearing homes. The residents of the island depend on crab and oyster fishing for their livelihood but their future is uncertain due to how much land the ocean was swallowing up. They blame erosion and scoff at the idea of climate change and rising sea levels. One waterman in particular, stood out to me: a cock-eyed, toothless, high school drop-out who claimed that climate change is “the biggest hoax in history.” He also said, with absolute certainty that the Rapture is going to occur any day as though that answers any questions about rising ocean levels. I’m sure he expects to be one of the chosen, floating up to heaven, leaving us evolution-believing heathen behind.

Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” It is the truth of that statement and the arrogance of science deniers that is creating so many of our problems today. It is also sending us down a slippery slope to insignificance as a nation. Imagine the reaction of these fishermen if a Wall Street banker came in and told them when to put out their crab pots, what bait they had to use, and where to fish. They would rightly claim that a banker knows nothing about crabs and should shut the hell up. And yet, these same people, who have zero scientific training or knowledge, claim to know the truth about global climate, evolution, and vaccinations. And they vote accordingly.

Americans have a particular fondness for the underdog. We love it when the experts back the losing team in a big game. We love it even more experts are wrong and common wisdom turns out to be right. It feeds our ego that, just as our votes count equally in an election, our opinions should all be equal to the experts in any field as well.It is an absurd position. Exhibit A is that pilots and surgeons are experts in their fields. When they make mistakes, it costs lives. Yet who do you really want holding the scalpel in the operating room or at the controls of the 787? Do you want an expert or someone who depends only on common sense? Most people want the expert in these scenarios. Anyone who says differently is either lying or suicidal.

But in matters that impact not only themselves but future generations, a significant number of Americans are turning their backs on knowledge, expertise, and science. People who fled the hurricanes in Texas and Florida, because of the warnings of scientists, ignore those same scientists who are telling us about the increasing ferocity of those storms due to climate change. Even worse, many of the ignorant are proud of their stance. Some are even convinced that God will either prevent a global disaster or will use it to punish the wicked, i.e. anyone who doesn’t share the exact same beliefs as them. People who display such a “good Christian attitude” can’t understand why fewer people go to church or look to religious leaders for answers.

America is running out of both time and experts. Instead of greatness, we are heading towards becoming a third rate nation. Knowledge or ignorance. The choice is up to each of us. And the first step is knowing the difference.