Friday, November 09, 2007

Stupid South Africa

Okay, I’ve had a few hours to sit and digest the impact of the survey conducted by Sceptic South Africa. As upsetting as it is, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the results. Knowing that HIV infection rates are higher here than just about everywhere else is testament to the fact that South Africans, as a whole, are indeed colossally stupid.

I must qualify here that SSA’s survey was the first of its kind to be run in South Africa (as far as I can tell… please let me know if there have been any before). Being the first, and so far only, the results should be treated with a fair degree of scepticism. I haven’t inspected the protocol for the survey, so I can’t speak to its accuracy or lack of bias.

However, based on George Claasen’s writings he seems a competent sceptic, and I think it’s pretty safe to assume that he would be perfectly capable of designing and executing a reasonably impartial study with as diverse a sample group as is practical. And also to report the results honestly.

Even assuming a fair degree of possible error, the results are clear: South Africans have a tendency to believe whatever supernatural mumbo-jumbo they’re fed. This is, I suppose, not all that different to all humans, regardless of nationality. All other statistics of this nature that I’ve seen (particularly in the US) show a similar leaning.

Hide raised the obvious question this morning: why does it bother me?

This is why.

Considering that SSA’s survey was at least partially conducted via telephone, it is ironic, but not amusingly so, that so many respondents admitted to believing in a young Earth (less than 10,000 years old). Our knowledge of the fact that the speed of light is constant is one of the many scientific advances that have led to the development of technologies like the cellular telephone. That same knowledge has assisted us in determining the actual (estimated) age of the universe (around 13.7 billion years). These idiots are happy to rely on science for their everyday convenience, but deny its results when they conflict with dearly held ideological beliefs.

The reason why these sorts of ridiculous mistakes are made is not just sheer stubbornness, although that is probably a factor. I think a far larger factor is ignorance, specifically, scientific illiteracy.

Your average South African doesn’t know how a cellphone works. They’re happy to carry one everywhere they go, but probably don’t give a moment’s thought to the mechanisms behind this revolutionary technology. In fact, even if I were to attempt to explain the concept of a cellular communications network to an average South African, they wouldn’t have a clue what I was saying, because they wouldn’t have access to the scientific vocabulary necessary to parse the information.

In fact, I would be surprised if the average South African was even aware that the speed of light is known to be constant. Or for that matter, even of the fact that light travels at all!

Even those who have received high-school educations have largely obtained their matric certificate without ever having had the concepts of evolution properly explained to them (until now).

But why does it matter? What difference does it make to Joe Smith’s life if he plods through his daily existence unaware of the fundamental concepts of science? Why would Jane Jones care that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared?

If you had asked that question a century ago, or even a couple of decades ago, the answer would probably have been that it would, indeed, not have mattered very much. Despite the fact that they would have missed out on all the awesome beauty and sheer elegance of the natural world, their daily lives would probably not have been all that different.

But times have changed. In the 21st century it has become nigh impossible to navigate daily life without a basic knowledge of science.

An easy example is that of vaccines. Medical science has offered us a variety of medicines designed to defend against some of the most dangerous organisms known to attack humans with regularity. In some cases, proper use of vaccines has resulted in the complete elimination of these organisms, as was the case with Smallpox.

Despite these successes, there is a growing and vociferous movement of scientifically illiterate people who have cottoned onto the viral meme that Mercury contained in certain vaccines can cause autism in children. This sort of thing plays directly into the human cognitive tendency to believe scary claims, no matter how implausible they may be, because it’s generally safer to have a false positive than a false negative.

However in this case exactly the opposite is true. Not only do vaccines not contain any harmful Mercury compounds, but failing to vaccinate Junior could result in the illness and death of not only your child, but his peers as well. These people do not possess the necessary vocabulary to parse the medical literature, and are led entirely by specious claims and anecdotal evidence (which is not evidence at all) into believing this dangerous lie. By remaining scientifically illiterate, these parents are putting their children’s lives at risk, and setting themselves up for personal tragedy.

Then there’s the other example. The big one. Climate Change. Although there is much research that still needs to be done in this area regarding the exact causes and potential impact of Climate Change, it is undoubtedly a global issue. This is something we all need to be talking and thinking about, and figuring out what to do about it.

Without the necessary tools, average South Africans will waste their time on useless endeavours that have no impact on Carbon emissions whatsoever. And worse, could actually contribute to the problem by supporting environmentally harmful practices, like “organic” farming or using ethanol for fuel, because they simply lack the understanding to weigh their options effectively.

Only by possessing the necessary understanding, can we hope to engage in a meaningful and valuable discourse on this real and potentially dangerous anomaly. Our failure to do so thus far is probably what has resulted in this situation.

It may already be too late. For all we know, we may already have passed the point of no return, and our general stupidity may have set in motion a sequence of events that will lead to the collapse of our civilisation, or even our extinction, in the near future. That sounds alarmist, I know, and it is unlikely. But there is a non-zero probability that it is correct.

Of course there any many more examples I could cite, most notably the HIV issue, but I will save that for another post. I feel I have made my point sufficiently already.

It is an absolute imperative that we South Africans, and indeed all humans, become educated in the basic principles of science, to the point where we are able to make informed decisions on these and other important issues, as well as influence government policy in the right direction.

It is an absolute travesty that this is not already the case. A travesty we may yet pay for with our lives.