The age of irrationality

You can't handle the truth
    By David Bookstaber

headshotThere is one great lesson we could not have learned before this Information Age: that even with all the world at his fingertips, the average man wallows in ignorance. I used to blame the media for our collective irrationality, but biases in news coverage are inevitable. The skewed information we read and watch every day is at best a symptom of the problem. After all, anyone who turns to the Op-Ed page of a good newspaper can often find insightful and well-researched reactions to common knowledge and accepted wisdom. There is no dearth of information. The truth is out there; it's just that, for some reason, people can't discern it. This may stem from simple ignorance, or from a willful disregard for the truth—or even from a fear of it.

Behind the ivy walls of Yale, it's easy to poke fun at the naïveté of the masses. For example, a few months ago, the Navy tried to send millions of gallons of napalm across the western United States to be recycled. By any measure, napalm is much safer to transport than gasoline, which is regularly shipped by truck and train. Irrational protesters, however, scared for their safety, managed to stop the napalm train—once it was more than halfway to its destination—and send it back.

How about the outrage over food irradiation? Although it prevents food poisoning and poses zero risk to consumers, many Americans are evidently unable to associate a word with "radiation" in it with anything healthy. Fortunately, Americans at least seem to have gotten over their fear of using scientific techniques to improve crops, but Europe still harbors a hysterical revulsion to genetically altered food. Prince Charles summarized the popular sentiment, saying, "That takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone." Don't tell the prince and his followers that it is radiation that lights their homes and is shot at them by TVs, or that genetic engineering produces many of the pharmaceutical products that save their lives.

The sad fact is, you don't have to leave Yale to find nescience of this caliber. I kept a Yale Student Environmental Coalition table tent from last semester that gave the following "Eco-Tip": "If possible, avoid throwaway contact lenses in order to reduce packaging waste." As explained in Consumer's Research (Sept. 1997), such consumer-side suggestions for reducing resource consumption are literally not worth the paper they are printed on. If these "environmentalists" were really interested in reducing pollution and conserving energy, they would focus on things that substantially pollute and consume. They would try to stop the waste of absurd volumes of steam heating by undertaking an initiative to insulate Yale's buildings and to install thermostats in every room. They might also encourage people to purchase lighter, more fuel-efficient cars. They would focus on the mass industrial processes that consume the majority of energy and generate the most waste, where small improvements can have large environmental benefits. Of course, all of this would require real thought, rather than just a weekly meeting in a Silliman basement and suggestions that people "try not to use disposable razors" in hopes that plastic consumption might drop a few ounces per month.

"Well," you might say, "we can't blame these enthusiasts for not being omniscient, right?" This is true, at least insofar as they recognize that they don't know everything. But consider a few examples where people know that they don't know everything and still think that they can pass judgment: the impeachment of Clinton, for example, or the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal. In these cases, the public has fed on bits and pieces of the whole truth that have been thrown to them by parties with enormous ideological axes to grind.

When the institutions of justice that support the country reach a decision based on a complete picture that differs from what the ignorant populace has concluded, popular outrage ensues. This outrage is irrational, based on half-truths, speculation, and incomplete information. The public is not privy to the entire investigation and legal arguments surrounding the impeachment of the president, nor has it sat as a jury in the trial of Abu-Jamal. Popular armchair justice is one of the most disturbing trends in our country today.

Of course, I can't hope to restore realism to the world with one biweekly dose of rationality. But I know that at least here at Yale we all have the capacity to think critically. I hope that we can each develop this evidently rare gift and go forth, questioning and thinking for ourselves, as beacons of light and truth in an irrational world.

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