The importance of knowledge

(File pix) A culture of lifelong education for all must be inculcated. Courtesy Photo

IF you’ve kept your ears to the ground in recent years, you’d have noticed a rather disturbing trend amongst society. There has been an insurgency against various normal life practices for no other reason than because of lack of knowledge and common sense.

These include the anti-vaccination movement, racism-driven groups, flat earth societies, global warming deniers and a disturbing wave of support for fascist ideologies. These examples stem from a dismissal of a mountain of historical facts humans have already accumulated in establishing scientific and ethical truths. Truths such as the fact that vaccines do not cause autism, and the direct correlation between the rate polar ice is melting and global warming caused by humans. Anti-intellectualism is on the rise, and you would do well to equip yourself against it.

Educational institutions from kindergartens to universities are the bastions of defence against anti-intellectualism. One thing that has not changed from ancient Greece till today is the need to confer with experts then to gain more knowledge. This includes direct methods of acquiring knowledge such as studying under them, applying the Socratic method and reading materials provided by experts. Let us be reminded of Socrates’ horse-breeder analogy in which he states that only very specialised people such as horse breeders are able to positively influence the development of a horse whereas those without the knowledge would be doing more harm to the horses.

One of the lessons to take from this analogy is that you should only entrust an expert in a subject matter to impart knowledge. In a more modern vein, when applied to anti-vaccination movements, we must ask ourselves the source of the information and the research done to reach the conclusion. An afternoon of online searches does not equate six years of studies culminating in a doctorate degree. If you must use a search engine online to find an answer, ensure that you get it from experts.

Students these days are far better equipped to obtain knowledge on various subjects from many experts than ever before. The Internet is one such tool that can be utilised but it is unfortunately a double-edged sword. When using a search engine, the problem that arises is that both sides of an argument will turn up. In fact, if a person words their search in such a way that it merely seeks out one side of the argument, that is the only answer they will see.

For example, you could make the search inquiry “How do vaccines cause autism?” and you would likely get a hit on the infamous 1998 Lancet paper that implied a link between the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine and a “new syndrome” of autism and bowel disease written by Andrew Jeremy Wakefield, a discredited former British doctor who was struck off the UK medical register for unethical behaviour, misconduct and dishonesty in academia. One might accept his findings based on his former credentials as a doctor. It is a good idea to also read counter-arguments by other experts. In this case, a coalition of experts discredited him and more research found that vaccinations are in fact good.

Now let us step into greyer territory. Science is arguably easier to digest as it relies on facts that require replicable results through testing. One can test the hypothesis and if it is replicable, and the logic is sound, we accept the data until further testing is required due to a discovery of new knowledge pertaining to the subject. However, this is where we start having a bit of a problem with ethics.

Let’s take one of the most famous “thought experiments in ethics”, namely the trolley problem which states the following: “You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a lever that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track, and the five people on the main track will be saved.

However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two options, do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track, or pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. The question asks, which is the more ethical option?”

The paper titled Of Mice, Men, and Trolleys: Hypothetical Judgment Versus Real-Life Behavior in Trolley-Style Moral Dilemmas written by Dries H. Bostyn, Sybren Sevenhant and Arne Roets explored the trolley problem in real life albeit with mice instead of humans. Yet the results of that test cannot be replicated using self-reported surveys on the choice people would make in the trolley problem.

Perhaps we need a larger sample size to determine the results better but there is a larger problem at hand even if we bypass laws and ethical safeguards that prevent people from testing the trolley problem in real life. Just because more people decide it is ethical does not make it so.

Again, this is where being knowledgeable is important. Your views on a matter may change over time, and multiple times depending on the information you have acquired along the way.

I am not asking you to take my word that vaccinations are not detrimental to humans, that global warming is happening now and that any one race is superior over others. I am merely saying that education is important, and pursuing knowledge is a never ending process. The wealth of human knowledge pales in comparison to what we do not yet know of the universe; our only option is lifelong studies. But there is one thing I can say with certainty. Knowing more of this world is better than knowing too little, that it may do harm to ourselves and others.


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