The age of irrationality
You can't handle the truth
By David Bookstaber
There is one great lesson we could not have learned
before this Information Age: that even with all the world at his
fingertips, the average man wallows in ignorance. I used to blame the media for
our collective irrationality, but biases in news coverage are inevitable. The
skewed information we read and watch every day is at best a symptom of the
problem. After all, anyone who turns to the Op-Ed page of a good newspaper can
often find insightful and well-researched reactions to common knowledge and
accepted wisdom. There is no dearth of information. The truth is out there;
it's just that, for some reason, people can't discern it. This may stem from
simple ignorance, or from a willful disregard for the truthor even from a
fear of it.
Behind the ivy walls of Yale, it's easy to poke fun at the naïveté
of the masses. For example, a few months ago, the Navy tried to send millions
of gallons of napalm across the western United States to be recycled. By any
measure, napalm is much safer to transport than gasoline, which is regularly
shipped by truck and train. Irrational protesters, however, scared for their
safety, managed to stop the napalm trainonce it was more than halfway to its
destinationand send it back.
How about the outrage over food irradiation? Although it prevents food
poisoning and poses zero risk to consumers, many Americans are evidently unable
to associate a word with "radiation" in it with anything healthy. Fortunately,
Americans at least seem to have gotten over their fear of using scientific
techniques to improve crops, but Europe still harbors a hysterical revulsion to
genetically altered food. Prince Charles summarized the popular sentiment,
saying, "That takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone."
Don't tell the prince and his followers that it is radiation that lights their
homes and is shot at them by TVs, or that genetic engineering produces many of
the pharmaceutical products that save their lives.
The sad fact is, you don't have to leave Yale to find nescience of this
caliber. I kept a Yale Student Environmental Coalition table tent from last
semester that gave the following "Eco-Tip": "If possible, avoid throwaway
contact lenses in order to reduce packaging waste." As explained in
Consumer's Research (Sept. 1997), such consumer-side suggestions for
reducing resource consumption are literally not worth the paper they are
printed on. If these "environmentalists" were really interested in reducing
pollution and conserving energy, they would focus on things that substantially
pollute and consume. They would try to stop the waste of absurd volumes of
steam heating by undertaking an initiative to insulate Yale's buildings and to
install thermostats in every room. They might also encourage people to purchase
lighter, more fuel-efficient cars. They would focus on the mass industrial
processes that consume the majority of energy and generate the most waste,
where small improvements can have large environmental benefits. Of course, all
of this would require real thought, rather than just a weekly meeting in a
Silliman basement and suggestions that people "try not to use disposable
razors" in hopes that plastic consumption might drop a few ounces per month.
"Well," you might say, "we can't blame these enthusiasts for not being
omniscient, right?" This is true, at least insofar as they recognize that they
don't know everything. But consider a few examples where people know that they
don't know everything and still think that they can pass judgment: the
impeachment of Clinton, for example, or the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
In these cases, the public has fed on bits and pieces of the whole truth that
have been thrown to them by parties with enormous ideological axes to grind.
When the institutions of justice that support the country reach a decision
based on a complete picture that differs from what the ignorant populace has
concluded, popular outrage ensues. This outrage is irrational, based on
half-truths, speculation, and incomplete information. The public is not privy
to the entire investigation and legal arguments surrounding the impeachment of
the president, nor has it sat as a jury in the trial of Abu-Jamal. Popular
armchair justice is one of the most disturbing trends in our country today.
Of course, I can't hope to restore realism to the world with one biweekly dose
of rationality. But I know that at least here at Yale we all have the capacity
to think critically. I hope that we can each develop this evidently rare gift
and go forth, questioning and thinking for ourselves, as beacons of light and
truth in an irrational world.
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