Ignorance is bliss in the U.S.

Ignorance is bliss in the U.S.

I recently saw a meme on social media: It was Santa Claus’ sleigh riding across the sky, and below it was written, “Santa has read your Facebook posts, and a lot of people are getting science textbooks for Christmas.”

For various reasons many people in the U.S. have come to celebrate ignorance. The evidence can be observed through the countless postings of disinformation on the internet and social media, especially Facebook. The topics include the pandemic, wearing masks, climate change and election integrity.

I cannot count the times I have read erroneous “talking points” about climate change posted on Facebook. My favorite comment is “how about that snowstorm? So much for global warming.”

The teacher in me often cannot resist commenting or sharing links to peer-reviewed data or discussing the difference between weather events and long-term climate change. I know in all likelihood, it’s a waste of my time.

We now live in a world where “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” Every day people rely on technology brought to us through scientific research. We use our microwaves, we drive our cars and we Zoom with relatives across the world. Yet never in the history of our country have the scientific community, doctors and nurses, and epidemiologists been so denigrated.

It is totally acceptable to disagree on issues and to construct a fact-based argument. This is the foundation of the “scientific method.” We are constantly tweaking our theories as more facts and data become available. No decent scientist will tell you they are always 100% correct. There are very few “laws” in the realm of science.

However, many people do not communicate using “informed arguments” supported by scientific facts. Instead, they cherry pick data from unreliable sources, and rather than consider alternate sources, they resist education and adhere to their beliefs.

In his book, "The Death of Expertise," Tom Nichols said, “The foundational knowledge of the average American is now so low that it has crashed through the floor of ‘uninformed,’ passed ‘misinformed’ and is now plummeting to ‘aggressively wrong.’”

As a retired educator, I sadly agree. While there are still informed citizens and bright, eager students enrolled in secondary and post-secondary institutions, in my 20 years of teaching I have witnessed the “watering down” of curriculum. Nichols points out several reasons for the decline of academic rigor in our colleges and universities.

You may have heard the term “participation trophy” used when it comes to sports. For many reasons we don’t do our kids any favors by rewarding all levels of sporting participation with a blue ribbon or a trophy.

We teachers also make this mistake when assigning grades for courses. Under pressure from deans and principals to pass every student, many teachers and professors just “give” out grades. The Bell Curve as we knew it ceases to exist.

At the post-secondary level, professors are often evaluated by the same students they are teaching. After a plethora of “bad student reviews,” a teaching contract could be in jeopardy. This puts untenured professors who are competing for a few jobs into a precarious position.

In the case of “for-profit” colleges, students are accepted with little to no proof of their ability to tackle college-level material. The lure of loans and grants often encourages kids to enter a world that is beyond their capabilities. I briefly taught at a for-profit college and was amazed at the failure rates in my science classes. I promptly left after being asked to “step down” the rigor of my coursework.

Mediocrity in scientific knowledge transcends the classroom and oozes into our local, state and federal governments. In 2018 I was at an Ohio EPA public meeting in Belmont County when the safety and health effects of a proposed plastics cracker plant were being discussed.

A member of the Ohio EPA staff told the audience a gas station had more toxic emissions than a petrochemical facility. At the same meeting, a Belmont County commissioner told the audience the soil in his backyard was more toxic than the air emissions from a plastic plant. Both are false.

Our country relies on politicians to formulate policy that will ultimately affect our lives. How can they do this when they themselves have no better grasp on science or research than a fifth-grader?

We have seen positions within major agencies of our federal government become co-opted by industry lobbyists and retired millionaires. Whose health and welfare will be considered when industrial foresters make decisions on the use of Ohio’s state forests or former oil lobbyists are deciding the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

The massive amounts of information available on the internet have not helped remedy our level of ignorance. Anyone can host a webpage and push their “experts and beliefs,” but this doesn’t make the data reliable.

This happens with climate science. We know the fossil fuel industry has spent millions of dollars spinning the science of climate change as being a “hoax.” Reliable webpages such as NASA use peer-reviewed research materials.

This brings us to another recent issue: How do we know who the experts really are? You may have seen the article in the Wall Street Journal asking Dr. Jill Biden to drop her title “doctor” from in front of her name. Social media blew up with criticism and disinformation about the use of the title.

I spent 13 years after my secondary education to earn my associate, bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees. Some doctorate degrees require several years of field research, and one might end up taking more than 10 years to complete the doctorate degree.

After the coursework is finalized and research is done, a dissertation must be written. This dissertation has to be reviewed and approved by members within your specific area of expertise. My research examined the effects of mountaintop coal removal, deer predation and poaching on nontimber forest products in Appalachia.

The topic of a dissertation is very specific, but once you are finished, you are considered an “expert” in that area and are indeed entitled to use Dr. in front of your name. Declaring “Dr. Jill Biden is not really a doctor” is false. She does indeed have a doctorate degree in education from the University of Delaware, and she studied improving retention rates at community colleges.

It’s time our fellow citizens, especially our politicians, step out of the dark ages and become enlightened.

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