Why Bad Ideas Spread

Why would anybody take seriously an offhanded, poorly worded statement from Donald Trump (who makes offhanded, poorly worded statements by the hundreds per month…you should know this by now!) about ingesting bleach? I doubt the statement was malicious, or even serious, but it was badly phrased by a bumbling buffoon, and some people have been stupid enough to take it literally. Others have blown it out of proportion as validation for their own deep partisan biases.

Medicine doesn’t have many answers yet about the Wuhan coronavirus. Meteorology can’t tell you why the tornado hit this neighborhood and not the one across the road, nor which neighborhood could be flattened next week. Yet incredibly, people demand such answers, utterly ignorant of the limits of science, and of uncertainty.

When scientists cannot fill a knowledge gap, charlatans rush in to fill it for them, to provide counterfeit certainty. It’s how disgraced, false-teaching “Christian” televangelist Jim Bakker can allow a snake-oil hack to peddle some silver solution as a coronavirus cure. It’s how a weather company can offer specific 40-day temperature forecasts, when there is no demonstrated skill in that whatsoever. I’ve heard this said first-hand to another meteorologist, seriously: “You can’t tell me if it will rain at my sister’s wedding next month? Lame! What kind of idiot weather man are you anyway?”

A fundamental problem exists in common between this bleach-ingestion situation and making insanely unreasonable demands on meteorologists. That problem is failure to understand uncertainty, and it’s rooted in a deeper one in education. Much of the populace has little concept of, nor tolerance for, uncertainty. Too many people think everything is certain, black and white. That’s preposterous rubbish. Medicine is not as simple as that, or the coronavirus already would be exterminated. And if meteorology were that easy, we already could tell you where the tornadoes will track on May 22nd, to within mere feet.

Yet the opposite people, who declare from their high horse of “nuance” that “everything is shades of gray”, have it terribly wrong going the other way, too. They attach a damned error bar to situations that have straightforward answers, and mile-wide error bars to others that are far less complicated in reality. They declare that there are no absolutes. That is equally preposterous garbage. [Next time you see someone write, “There are no absolutes,” or “Everything is shades of gray,” please call them out on that obviously and literally self-contradictory nonsense!]

Black and white, unambiguous factual answers really do exist to a lot of things. The sun rises in the eastern sky. 2+2=4. I love Dr Pepper. Direct contact with bleach outside the body will kill this virus (and maim your insides, maybe fatally, if you drink or inhale it). Tornadoes are made of air. Male or female you were made, dear reader, by genetics, before birth, by biological fact of a chromosome pair still found in all your cells. Simple answers to complex questions and problems really do exist in some cases. Ministers of the “nuance” pulpit fail to see this, and as such, will stay mired in gray ideological mud, missing out on a lot of clarity and vivid insight that absolutes can offer.

“The best answers are found in the middle.” Preposterous rubbish too! I’m not advocating the middle ground is always right, either. Sometimes, indeed I dare say often, alternative and out-of-mainstream solutions end up working amazingly well, saving lives, bettering society. Sometimes, just sometimes, even the ideological extremes are onto something (despite that, more often than not, they’re shrill, annoying parasites sucking intellect out of an issue). If you’re always straddling the middle, trying to stay comfortable in rigid “balance”, avoiding all extremes, taking no risk, and not seeing the benefits that can arise from the unconventional thinking, you’ll miss out on so much accomplishment, discovery and innovation. Your life will be boring as hell, too. If nothing else, pay attention to the extremes, so you can understand how to combat the 90% or more of their crap that is…crap.

The key is knowing when the middle is right, when the conventional wisdom and tradition yield optimal results, when an alternative way is best, when even the extremes are right, when an issue is clear-cut, when it is gray. How? Reasoned, critical thinking — to determine when, how, and why each approach is appropriate, situationally. Situationally!

Much as the science of medicine has lots of uncertainties regarding this coronavirus — how to reverse its severe rampages in some people, how much immunity to mutations you have after you’ve had it, when there will be a vaccine and how effective it will be…so does my science. We get questions like this astoundingly often: “Will it rain on my sister’s outdoor wedding next September 10th at 4 p.m. in Aurora?” Or, “I’m driving my RV from Chicago to Miami on November 3rd. Where will I hit bad weather?” [No way to know, too much uncertainty!] Or, “Can you control tornadoes with hyper-voltage electromagnetic beams?” [No, but the questioner won’t take anything but his own pet theory for an answer.]

What insanely asinine questions those are for anyone who understands uncertainty or has half a microgram of critical-thinking skills! Yet we get them. It’s not necessarily tied to educational level, either. Some of the worst weather-control lunacy I’ve seen has come from engineers and physicists, and even one physician (not any who are personal friends of mine!). Some of the most outlandish conspiracy theories I’ve heard have been proposed by people with advanced degrees. Ph.D. can stand for Phenomenally Dumb, when outside one’s own area of expertise. There are people who are so specialized, as an old instructor of mine once stated, that they, “Learn more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.

So why do far too many people, whether well-educated on paper or high-school dropouts, either blindly accept seeming authority without question, or reflexively reject it outright, or fail to grasp uncertainty, or think “alternative” must be bad, or think “alternative” must be best, or accept outlandish and thoroughly unreasonable crackpot ideas? Where is the ability in people to evaluate, to dissociate from emotion and other irrationalities, and to use facts, logic and reason to assess ideas and ideals independently and thoroughly?

I strongly believe it’s because critical, independent thinking skills have not been rigorously taught by both public schools and parents, as a whole, for at least 3 or 4 generations. My generation (X) is part of the problem, both on the receiving and teaching end. Parents and schools alike have failed here, miserably. Of course there are exceptions. I’m talking not about the exceptions, but the rule.

Critical thinking doesn’t lead to sucking down bleach, nor eating Tide Pods, nor snorting cocaine, nor partying with dozens of friends amidst a highly contagious pandemic, nor refusing vaccinations because some airheaded celebrity says it causes autism, nor taking essential oils to “cure” cancer, nor being a sucker to unscientific anti-GMO hysteria, nor thinking 5G makes coronavirus worse, nor HAARPing about “chemtrails”, nor sending money to that Nigerian prince who works for the IRS and Citibank and wants your credit-card number so you can pay what you owe and get rich quick.

Anybody with even the most basic critical-thinking skills would not take a verbally handicapped President’s offhanded bleach comment literally, nor a host of other dumb things said by celebrities and politicians of all stripes. Yet here we are.

Unfortunately the solution is hard: massively reform education away from the rote and toward understanding. Stop teaching to test. Don’t make students memorize; teach them how to think conceptually and critically. Stop teaching to feelings, “identity” and “self-esteem” — teach instead to logic and reason. Return to rigorous fundamentals of math, science, reading comprehension, history, and writing in education, including deep immersion in critical-thinking concepts in each of these basics. The results won’t bear fruit for another generation or two. But this is what’s needed. Until then, our society as as much at peril from a profusion of gullible suckers as from any disease.


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