Posted by: bkivey | 23 November 2012

Unemcumbered By Facts

One of the transformative technologies, after fire, tool making, agriculture, and sanitation, is information dissemination. People started with language, then developed writing and reading, and moved on to mass information storage. All of our information tech today is just more sophisticated versions of clay tablets and knotted rope. While it’s true that not everything is on the Internet, if you’re reading this, you have access to just about anything you might care to know. Thus, the ignorance of simple facts is nearly beyond belief.

The prevalence of this sort of ignorance was brought home to me when looking at the comments on this article. The piece deals with a potential discovery made by the Martian Curiosity rover. While the article is primarily speculation, the arguments made in the comments using false information are astounding. We’re not talking about esoteric knowledge here, but an ignorance of basic, easily verifiable facts.

For example:

“I am afraid that the 50 degrees below zero, no water to speak of and almost no carbon dioxide would preclude any earth type plant life from living on Mars.”

[On the Martian atmosphere]

“More CO2 mean a greenhouse effect making the planet warmer and easier to terraform.”

Both of these folks seem to under the impression that there’s almost no CO2 on Mars. Way back when, in about the fourth grade, I learned that the Martian atmosphere was nearly all CO2. But let’s say you were sleeping in science class, or your rock star lifestyle has fried your brain. If you’re reading an article online, you’re already on the web! How the hell hard is it to open a tab, type ‘mars atmosphere’ in your favorite browser, and look it up?

I’ll tell you how hard it is. The very first result under that query is the Atmosphere of Mars article on Wikipedia. The very first sentence of that article, given in the result block, is

“The atmosphere of Mars is, like that of Venus, composed mostly of carbon dioxide though far thinner.”

You don’t even have to leave the damn search page. Don’t trust Wikipedia? The second result is from space.com, a reputable website for things extraterrestrial. Clicking on the link takes you to a page informing you that the atmosphere of Mars is 95% CO2. So if you think that there’s a paucity of CO2 in the Martian atmosphere, in under ten seconds you can find two corroborating sources telling you that this is not so.

This is just one example of the type of ignorance that’s way more prevalent than it ought to be. Ignorance is a normal part of the human condition, and no one can know everything, or even most of anything. Up until very recently, knowledge was hard to come by, and learning was, to varying extents, resource intensive. Now most people in the developed world, and a large percentage in the not-so-developed parts of the globe, have access to stupendous amounts of information. Why, then, do so many people insist on making public utterances unencumbered by facts?

My impression is that there’s a paradox at work. It seems the more accessible information is, the more people refuse to make use of it. Usually, the more plentiful a resource is, the more people tend to exploit it. Yet, the reverse seems to be true regarding information. I don’t know if the refusal to consult easily available information is a defense mechanism to avoid learning facts inconsistent with one’s opinions, but I suspect that this paradox has a general form, and that there’s a name for it.

I was talking about my blog with a client, and I mentioned that I may spend several hours researching my hypotheses. On occasion, I’ve discovered that some things I thought were so, weren’t, and I’ve either had to significantly modify the post, or discard it altogether. In the same vein, most of the blogs I read require your ‘A’ game in the comments, because if you say something ignorant, you’re going to look foolish in front of people whom you don’t want to embarrass yourself.

25 years ago it would have been understandable to be ignorant of things like the composition of the Martian atmosphere. Most people didn’t (and don’t) care, and finding out meant going to a library and looking up the information in a book. Now, there’s just no excuse for offering an opinion, especially an opinion online, without doing some basic research.

Word Watch

From a hip-hop website, I found the word ‘introspecting’. From the construction, it appears the word means the state of being introspective. So, let’s use it in a sentence.

“Yo man, where be James?”

“Check it, my brother. That mofo be stone cold introspecting.”

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