Uncommon Common Sense – December 2014


By Bill Frayer


Distrust of the Intellectual


Bill-Frayer-2010I have been struck by the irrational panic which has accompanied the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as individuals with the disease have arrived in the West.  In a small town in my home state of Maine, for example, a teacher at a public school was put on a twenty-one day paid suspension. Why? Because she had attended a conference in Dallas, Texas shortly after a nurse was infected by an Ebola patient. The conference was ten miles from the hospital! She was at zero risk of becoming infected.  I suspect the school officials in Maine understood this, but they were reacting to the fears of parents in the community. 

The science is clear on the transmission of Ebola. It can only be contracted by direct contact with the bodily fluids of a patient who is exhibiting symptoms. This fact would make it impossible for that Maine teacher to contract Ebola. So how can we explain this hysteria?

 In many ways, this example is not unique. The science suggesting that the earth climate is changing as a result of carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is another.  Many simply refuse to believe that the science is correct.  Many parents are no longer vaccinating their children for childhood diseases. This is, predictably, leading to a resurgence of these diseases. Similarly, patients are insisting that they be given antibiotics for viral illnesses. Fortunately, fewer doctors are complying with this request. 

I suspect that this skepticism about science is partly the result of a general disdain of intellectualism. Many people simply don’t connect with the intellectual class. Perhaps it goes back to being in class with the nerdy, smart kid who always had her homework done and seemed to predictably know the correct answer to the teacher’s question. Smart people are stereotyped as arrogant and aloof. 

 As a result, politicians often cast themselves as coming from “regular, common-sense, working-class” roots.  This is why many American voters disliked John Kerry and Al Gore.  To them, George W. Bush, with his mangled words and folksy manner, was someone they could relate to. 

 Alexis de Tocqueville expressed concern about the Americans’ tendencies to be overly materialistic, individualistic and anti-intellectual in his Democracy in America published179 years ago. In some ways, little has changed. 

 After all, basing one’s beliefs on cold science is not always easy.  Science is often seen as anti-religious because, in many ways, it is. The laws of gravity, physics, and thermodynamics are not always comforting. Many would rather believe that we are overseen by a benevolent God and that everything, good or bad, happens for a reason decipherable through faith. 

 Faith in the irrational and supernatural is not harmless. By eschewing intellect and science, we are blinding ourselves to the very real dangers we face as humans. As Jarrod Diamond points out in Collapse, ignoring rather obvious existential problems can lead to catastrophic outcomes.     

 Of course, life would be rather dull and meaningless without poetry, art, literature, and other non-rational diversions. As a poet myself, I see no contradiction between enjoying the arts and believing in science. It’s just that when facing a pandemic, an energy shortage, or an environmental threat, I’d rather consult a scientist than an astrologist. 

 Pervasive anti-intellectualism is a threat to our democratic values and perhaps even to our survival. The antidote to ignorance is, of course, a liberal education. We do not need to be taught what to think but how to think.  That’s the difference between religion and science.




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