Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Micro Story: Our collective ignorance


 "Good morning, teacher!" The small wooden classroom echoed with the students greetings, as the middle-aged lady looked at them smilingly.

Satisfied, the teacher turned to the board and began writing. "Good morning class. For today's lesson, we will talk about why it is okay to be wrong."

*****

We all thought that with the internet, humanity would reach another level enlightenment. That when information is made free and available to all, our collective intelligence would continue to improve, and where ignorance could finally be eliminated. After all, it was the availability of knowledge that led to some of the greatest revolutions in human history.

It was only logical to assume that if information is publicly available, people would educate themselves and make themselves wiser. But we never really ponder about how people would curate and use information. Far from being a neutral and an objective entity, information instead reflected the biases and intentions of those who create and use them.

We never anticipated that when knowledge flowed freely, it included all sorts of information. Myths, urban legends, rumours and pseudoscience. We incorrectly assumed that in a neutral environment like the internet, what' s true will ultimately prevail over what is false. We had too much faith in our fellow human beings. That people would be able to think logically and sieve out what's verifiable by facts and what's not. But just as the internet is able to spread knowledge, it is equally effective at spreading ignorance.

We could still remember how the end slowly began. Our forefathers had recorded all this down, in hopes that if we survive this, that we would not repeat their mistakes.

The Great Decline, that's what we call it. Humanity's downward spiral in the middle of the 21st century in our technological advancement and knowledge. It was ironically during this period when internet usage reached its peak. But far from a balanced environment, people became selective of the information they consume, mostly when it fitted into their worldview and values.

Ignorance suddenly became an epidemic.


It first started with the sudden re-emergence of diseases long forgotten, when a growing number of parents began to buy into the idea that vaccination is an evil ploy by big scary pharmaceutical companies to introduce harmful drugs into their children. While scientists tried to stem the fear by continuously publishing research findings that supported vaccination unto the internet, the information did a really poor job at reaching out to the masses.

In contrary, it was the poorly researched and fear mongering articles that went viral over the internet, reaching out the fastest to the majority of the population. In the end, support for the anti-vaccination movement grew so large that any politician who even remotely supported vaccination were voted out of office. The situation only grew worse when anti-vaccination groups began to lobby against any kind of medication, believing that humanity should be allowed to fight diseases naturally. Medicine suddenly was seen as interfering with the act of nature.

It did not take long before different diseases spread like wildfire and world organisations were ill-prepared to handle the crisis, a result that started with the anti-vaccination lobbies. Many died.

That was not the only crisis that gave humanity a bloody nose.

For the longest time, interested groups have been putting out information denying global warming on the internet to confuse the masses. Their intentions were never put forth clearly, but their campaigns worked wonders. While the sea rose and worldwide weather grew increasingly erratic, there were still those who argue that the increased blizzards were a sign of global cooling, not warming.

With enough support, these groups managed to control the population and politics, stopping any effort to reduce carbon dioxide output globally. They argued that it was for the sake of progress that the climate scientists were accused of fear mongering. This was despite the numerous findings put forth by the scientists, because the masses preferred the simpler information put forth by the climate change deniers. It turned out that people preferred instead to live in their own little bubbles of ignorance, projecting an illusion of safety, when dealt with uncomfortable information.

It was not long before the results became catastrophic.

Those were not the only events that lead to the Great Decline. Around the world, there was a dumbing down effect on the way humanity think. Politics and populism went in opposition with knowledge.

Those who espoused a narrative of hatred and exclusivity were increasingly voted in amidst the refugee crisis. Those who claimed that a specific religion, race or group was more powerful than the rest enjoyed considerably more support. Motivated by uncertainty and fear, the masses saw these figures as saviours.

Instead of diplomacy, these politicians relied on siege mentality and stoking war rhetorics to garner support. Those who tried oppose the politicians were immediately shut down, accused of being spies of the enemies. Before long, behind increasingly exclusive and hostile policies, nations started going after each other purely on the basis of ideology, race or religion. The US, for example, attacked China unprovoked because it thought that the Chinese were "taking jobs away from Americans."

All these happened amidst a backdrop where those who dared speak up were increasingly persecuted. In the end, majority opinion ruled.


What went wrong, exactly? We were once talking about conquering space but we regressed so much until our existence hangs on the balance.

Near the end of the Great Decline, a band of the last remaining intellectuals banded together and travelled far into the Pacific, settling on a chain of islands to escape the persecution and what they saw as the impending doom of humanity. There, they tried to figure out what went wrong, how we slid so much from the height of our advancement and how not to let humanity go through this again.

In the end, they put it down simply to six words: The power of an ignorant mass.

While the internet gave free access to information, people chose the information that they consume, preferring those that resonated with their beliefs, values or living style. It did not matter whether the information reflected what's really happening in reality. More often than not, it was the misinformation that appealed to the majority. And when a significant number of people believe in a misinformation, they could adversely move society according to their beliefs. The Great Decline proved this.

What makes the crucial difference, however, is the motivation behind the information seeking behaviour. One is simply to seek information to validate a pre-existing belief and the other is to seek information to determine what is the truth. What makes the both behaviour motivation different, is that if we are simply searching for information to validate a pre-existing belief, we are less accepting of information that goes in contrary in what we believe in, even though it may be the truth.

This was one of the primary reasons why despite numerous attempts to dispel the myths, people simply brush them aside or did not take them into serious consideration. To them, there was already a bias towards a certain position that makes them resistant to counter-arguments. In addition to that, there was also the tendency to link our beliefs to our identity and self-esteem, which is why changing their thoughts is made more difficult.

With this knowledge in mind, our forefathers set to change that. As the world smoldered, they hunkered down on the island, looking to shape society to their new ideal.


It has been more than a century since we first settled on this island. And we have been working actively to rebuild a better society in its place ever since. One of the very first lessons we teach our children is how it is okay to hold a wrong opinion. Proving oneself wrong should not be a painful experience. Instead, it should be something we should embrace in the pursuit of knowledge.

This was reflective of the principles of scientific theory, which once used to be prevalent in the past. Rather than just using it exclusively for a field of study, we sought to implement it as part of our daily lives. Where people can readily admit that they're wrong, without the need to feel hurt or devalued.

We have no idea how this would affect our society in the long run, but perhaps by doing this, we hope to ensure that humanity would not again see the dangers of ignorance.


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