Friday, October 7, 2011

Opinion vs. Knowledge

     Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge. - Isaac Asimov.
     Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992) was an American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University. A prolific author and editor of more than 500 books and 90,000 letters and postcards, his interests ranged from science fiction to popular science to humor, and are listed in nine of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System. Paul Krugman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, has stated that it was Asimov's concept of psychohistory that inspired him to become an economist.
     In my opinion, the above quote is one of the most incisive statements Asimov made during his lengthy career. Following are some well-known examples of popular opinions that are contrary to the facts of the situation.

     Climate Change – Millions of Americans believe the opinions of talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are just as good as the knowledge of tens of thousands of climatologists worldwide who have devoted their lives to a study of climate change. It's happening – check it out with people who know.

    Evolution – Some 60% of Americans believe that opinions coming from Rick Perry and the Texas and Kansas boards of education are just as good as the knowledge of over 93% of biologists concerning evolution. In addition, proof of its existence has come from the fields of genetics, biology, bacteriology, physics and almost all other branches of science. This opinion should not have been relevant since 1925, but it is.

     Vaccinations Cause Autism – In 1998 British Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a paper in which he attributed an increase in autism to measles, mumps and rubella vaccines. In spite of the fact that four independent studies have shown that there is no such link, and Dr. Wakefield's admission that he manipulated the data, the opinion persists. As a result, there has been a recurrence of these sometimes fatal diseases. Kids have died as a result.

     Congressional Health Insurance – In the opinion of a large segment of the population, members of Congress have wonderful free health insurance. The fact is that they choose their insurance from the same list of about 300 private plans, such as Blue Cross, Kaiser, etc., which is available to over 8 million federal employees, retirees and their families. The government pays up to 75% of the premiums. Congress persons, but not their families, are eligible for care at military hospitals, and are billed at rates set by the Department of Defense.

     Psychic Phenomena – Psychics, clairvoyants, astrologers, ghost hunters, etc., supposedly are able to converse with the dead, predict the future, control everyday events, cure illness or detect spirits of the dead lurking in all kinds of places. Of all the practitioners who have ever undergone investigation, not one has ever demonstrated an ability beyond normal probability to perform any of these marvelous feats. Yet many people swear by the existence of some or all of these charlatans. As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Demand it!

     This is a short list of popular opinions which, to the extent they supersede knowledge, tend to disrupt the fine-tuned functioning of democracy. Information concerning these and other wide-spread opinions can be found at www.snopes.com and www.factcheck.org.
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     My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.

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