This article first appeared in The St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 5, 2013 - “The trouble with ignorance is that it picks up confidence as it goes along.”
Convenient ignorance explains most of the folly in human affairs. The things we don’t know really can hurt us. Worse, the things we think we know are often wrong.
Once a misconception gains general acceptance, calamity is all but assured because the flawed assumption allows us to logically proceed to absurd results. Unquestioned belief, masquerading as common knowledge, provides a kind of lazy wisdom — it relieves us of the burden of critical thought while lulling us into the delusion that we’re in control of events.
Ten years ago, for instance, it was widely agreed that Saddam Hussein possessed a formidable arsenal of WMD. United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix was at the time derided as a stooge and a dupe for his failure to locate the nonexistent stash of lethal armaments. Despairing of the ineptitude of international supervision, the Bush administration took matters into its own hands and invaded Iraq. We all know how well that venture ended.
The pope recently had the temerity to suggest that the philosophical underpinning for the theory of trickle-down economics is basically a crock. It seems the holy father doesn’t believe the best way to relieve the miseries of the poor is to give more money to the rich.
Unfortunately, the pontiff’s rather obvious observation contradicts the popular conservative doctrine that free markets promote the public good by generating broad-based prosperity. His apostasy elicited a rebuke from no less a moral authority than Rush Limbaugh.
The Rush-meister accused Francis of betraying church tradition by advocating on behalf of Marxism. Apparently, the Mound of Sound was unaware that monasteries and convents have always operated as socialist communes and these institutions predate the birth of Karl Marx by centuries. Greed may be good on Wall Street, but that’s not the central message of the Sermon on the Mount.
Uncritically accepted “truths” can confound policy in foreign affairs and social justice, but when the discussion turns to science, the prevailing ignorance can often be appalling.
Contrary to what you may have heard in the popular press, a tsunami is not a weather event. It is a tidal wave generated by an earthquake — and neither earthquakes nor asteroids have anything to do with global warming. Yet all of these phenomena have been cited at one time or another by supposedly knowledgeable commentators discussing the issue of climate change.
A layman can be forgiven for a technical error, but you would expect a greater degree of accuracy in reports about a scientific expedition. A recent article in the South Florida Sun Sentinel told of a study intended to measure the rate of heat release within the Arctic Circle.
According to the piece, “… the heat release study provided insight into how fast the volume of polar ice is diminishing, a primary reason for sea level rise, a critical issue in low-lying Florida.” The interesting aspect of that statement is that it is exactly, precisely wrong.
The northern polar ice cap floats in the Arctic Ocean. Just as an ice cube melting in a glass of lemonade has no effect on the fluid level in the glass, the loss of the arctic cap would have no impact on sea levels.
To elevate sea levels, you’d have to either raise the ocean floor or increase the volume of the ocean, itself. Because the cap is already in the sea, its mass is part of the existing oceanic volume. Melting it will do nothing to inundate the good folks of low-lying Florida.
People with agendas often rely on the ignorance and apathy of the audience to advance their causes. The unspoken assumptions in their arguments often determine the course of their reasoning.
Locally, a group called “Better Together” recently announced its presence to an unsuspecting public. The self-described “grassroots” organization is staffed by a familiar cast of PR types mouthing familiar bromides about streamlining government and eliminating duplication. They intend to conduct a series of hearings over the next 16 months to gauge popular sentiment regarding some sort of city-county reconciliation.
Both Mayor Francis Slay and County Executive Charlie Dooley are members of the group. Though the mayor has issued a statement to the effect that no one is “prejudging anything in this process,” the group’s name would seem to suggest a preordained conclusion.
And the organization’s grassroots are also somewhat suspect. According to West Newsmagazine, “Better Together is sponsored — read funded — by a political arm of retired investor and political activist Rex Sinquefeld.” Or as the Beacon reported: “Some who have worked for Sinquefield-funded organizations or ballot efforts are involved with Better Together. And Sinquefield has funded the Missouri Council for a Better Economy – which is sponsoring Better Together -- in the past.”
So, a wealthy benefactor has quietly financed a grassroots movement called Better Together to objectively study whether the city and county would be better off together. Hmmm…
There are probably arguments worth considering on both sides of this issue. But before you opt one way or the other, you might want to set aside what you think you know and take the time to find out what’s really going on.
M.W. Guzy is a regular contributor to the Beacon Voices section.