Why is Ignorance OK?


Why is it in our technology-saturated, science-driven, geek-obsessed world that publicly displaying scientific ignorance of the first order is somehow not a cause of social embarrassment and general contempt? If a senior British politician chairing a House of Commons committee on the arts was publicly unable to grasp the difference between a melody and a harmony he’d become an instant laughing stock. But when scientific witlessness of the same magnitude is shown, everyone involved apparently just shrugs and moves on.

Regular readers (are there any?) may have already realised that I am referring to the recent performance of the members of the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, and in particular the chairman and paragon of disinterest and balance, Tim Yeo. Drawing large amounts of money each year from renewable energy companies, and thus as unbiased as a vegetarian chairing a debate on the merits of bacon, Yeo is also facing de-selection as an MP by his constituency party due to all-round uselessness. This did not stop him from throwing himself headlong into a discussion with Professor Richard Lindzen, the recently retired Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Yeo triumphantly declared that as the last decade is the warmest since instrument records began, it proves that global warming is continuing. Apparently the idea that the fact that a thing is warmer now than it was before says nothing about what the future temperature may be was entirely lost on him.

Lindzen, who did not appear familiar with Yeo and thus massively over-estimated him, clearly found this lack of reason confusing. As would anyone with a basic grasp of logic. Yeo seemed mainly concerned with ensuring he got a few pre-selected alarmist truisms into the Hansard minutes. He had clearly not stopped to think about whether his statements actually made any sense and could barely be bothered to listen to Lindzen’s patient explanation of his error. The look of smug satisfaction on Yeo’s face during this exchange demonstrated clearly that he remained blissfully unaware of his own incompetence. I suppose the truly incompetent always are.

Yeo compounded the mistake by referring to recent temperatures as the “hottest ever”, at a stroke displaying his ignorance of paleo-climatic records that clearly show the earth has been much warmer in the past (and at lower levels of atmospheric CO2), let alone the consideration that our planet started out as a molten ball of rock.

One would hope that anybody placed in a position of influence over an important area of public policy (especially one with so many economic implications as energy policy) would make some sort of attempt to educate themselves up to a reasonable standard of the basics of the matter in hand, but politicians seem to view themselves as a breed apart. Why bother actually learning anything factual (how old-fashioned!) when sticking to a stance that allows one to pose as a caring-politician-concerned-for-the-grandchildren also opens such deliciously fat purse-strings?

I suppose I should be over it by now, but I still get depressed by the ignorance of so many hangers-on that attach themselves to the Green movement. The classic example is the delegates at a UN climate change conference a few years ago, who eagerly signed a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide. Seriously, it’s the equivalent of asking fans at a One Direction concert to choose their favourite band member: John, Paul, George or Ringo.

I realise of course that art is far more intuitive than science, that people may hum a favourite song while doing the gardening but nobody sits down to do a bit of calculus just for fun. But going through life not knowing, for example, the difference between voltage and current is on a level with not knowing the difference between woodwind and brass. Some people even seem to take pride in this sort of thing. Unfortunately, working in science and engineering still seems to generate just as many sneers now as being in ‘trade’ did for the Victorians. Being a techy entrepreneur at the top of the tree is fine, as wealth is always in fashion. But the politics, media and economics graduates that fill the ranks of modern politics would clearly rather weather the scorn of those who understand how the world really works, rather than put in the effort necessary to find out for themselves. If we were only concerned with self-improvement I would say the loss was all theirs, but as they are the ones making the important decisions about other people’s lives it is sadly much more important than that.


One response to “Why is Ignorance OK?

  1. “Unfortunately, working in science and engineering still seems to generate just as many sneers now as being in ‘trade’ did for the Victorians.”

    Well certainly Scientists sneer at Engineers, or so is my experience!

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