by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
Ignorance and Stupidity, the Unbeatable Combination
There are many ways to answer, “What is the greatest threat to animals?” That’s also true if you substitute “the environment” or even “humanity” for “animals.” But I think the list may well be topped by the answer: Ignorance and stupidity.
They’re rampant. The problem I see is that the ability to think analytically is simply too rare, and perhaps too dependent on basic knowledge. Whatever reality attends to metaphysics — the stuff of mysticism, religion, spirituality, all of which may well have their valid place — we do live in a cause and effect world.
Polls show that about 75 percent of Americans can’t name a single branch of government and about half don’t know that each state is represented by two senators. To me the really shocking statistic is that 80 percent of U.S. families did not by or read a book in the past year. Even if that statistic is exaggerated, how can it be that any families don’t read books? And, relevant to this blog, does it matter?
It matters very much when people with aspirations to power display, proudly in some instances, woeful ignorance. American economist Bryan Caplan, in his 2007 book “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies,” points out that their ignorance of simple logic leads voters to expect impossible outcomes, such as severe tax cuts accompanied by continued social spending on things like security. It matters when Republican candidate Michelle Bachmann claims that as president she could bring the price of gas in the United States back down to two bucks a gallon (she could if she triggers a major worldwide depression, a cure far worse than the disease) or when another Republican presidential candidate, Rick Perry, thinks creationism should be given the same credibility as evolution. Remember, both these ignoramuses are already in positions of influence, and the real shame is that they even got that far in the first place.
The beauty of ignorance is that its opposite, in political terms, is so easily dismissed as elitism, or arrogance. Facts get in the way of wishes, and being factual makes you sound out of touch with the large percentage of the populace who are uninformed and unaware of what they don’t know. And since they are not analytical, they are comfortable claiming any failure among experts proves all expertise to be wrong.
Ironically, perhaps, Caplan sees the answer to be limiting voters to those who can demonstrate, via tests, understanding of economic principles. Not only have the economists been proved terribly wrong about many things, Caplan may be guilty of assuming that nothing trumps economic concern as important to the national interest.
My own lay interest is in another direction, the environment, and my own belief based on what I know and Caplan may not is that the foundation for everything, including economic growth, or even stability, is ultimately the environment. The point is not who is right or wrong, but that a certain degree of knowledge, and the ability to understand cause and effect relationships, is essential to understanding any position enough to engage in discussion, let alone debate.
All of this came to mind this morning when I read a colleague’s draft of a book she is writing on her personal involvement (as an ex-pat American) in that quintessentially Canadian animal rights issue, the annual East Coast commercial seal hunt. She writes of being at a meeting with colleagues in the advertising industry, where she then worked, when she heard of the collapse of the East Coast cod fishery. She was rightly in shock, and yet neither of the two men at the meeting “got it.” They failed to understand the importance of cods’ demise, not merely in terms of the economy of the regions involved, but as an indicator of society’s utter failure to prevent such a thing from happening.
Last week I wrote that I thought the extinction of the polar bear, while it won’t happen in my lifetime, or maybe anyone’s now living, seems inevitable as a result of global climate change too far advanced to be stopped in time to save that species. It’s a prediction, thus subject to error, but it is based on such facts as are now demonstrably apparent.
But whether we can slow climate change or not, we can’t do anything if we don’t understand why there is a problem — if we can’t understand clear-cut cause and effect relationships. As long as people such as Bachmann and Perry can even be in the race for leadership of the world’s still most powerful nation, I despair, and the worst of it is, they and their supporters don’t care. When the myths fail to sustain them they can always make up a reason detached from reality, and find support from among the army of the ignorant.