Writing

The Cult of Ignorance: How I Became a Victim of the Isaac Asimov Phenomenon

Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.

Frederick Douglass

A few weeks ago, I was having a discussion via Twitter where the person I was talking to asked me what my opinion was on some current event in the news (I wish I could remember which one, but it’s escaped my memory as if it were never there to begin with). What I do remember from the conversation is that when I responded with my opinion, the person simply agreed with my statements and opinions, and then referenced their opinion based solely on said topic because they, “had read an article on Wikipedia about it.”

When I suggested that perhaps they had formed their own opinion based solely upon a single Wikipedia article, they simply replied with, “I know, right?”

The dumbing down of America is most often attributed to television and educational institutions. While these are certainly important factors, they aren’t alone in shaping public opinion. Public figures, such as politicians and celebrities, can also play an influential role when it comes to setting cultural trends. Many famous people take advantage of their platform to relay thought-provoking messages that expand our collective knowledge base, yet some have unwittingly fallen victim to something else entirely: The Cult Of Ignorance. This term was coined by Isaac Asimov, a prolific science fiction writer who feared for humanity’s future after witnessing great minds fall prey to ignorance.

Isaac Asimov

Is it better to know too much or too little? This question is often debated and sparks heated discussions, where each opposing party thinks that they know best. Author Isaac Asimov once quoted the ancient Greek scholar, Democritus, as saying, “The proper duty of man is to be happy; and since without knowledge it is impossible to be happy, it follows that knowledge is desirable.”

Yet, as many have discovered throughout history and as I found out firsthand, access to too much knowledge can lead to a drastic change in one’s life as well.

Asimov was very outspoken about not allowing societal status to influence one’s understanding of facts and history. He once made a remark regarding religious fanatics that is relevant here, “They cannot bear to live in a world which differs from their own.”

These kinds of people are often referred to as believers, but Asimov put them into what he called the cult of ignorance, which appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Science (1960).

Another author, Christopher Riche Evans would write a book titled Cults Of Unreason (1974), “a vivid and excitingly written account of the extraordinary religions and psychological cults”, based on Asimov’s cult of ignorance theory. (New Scientist, August 16, 1973, Page 405.)

To understand how Asimov came up with his cult of ignorance idea, you have to look at how he lived.

Issac Asimov was an American writer and professor of biochemistry at Boston University. He is responsible for some of popular science fiction works such as The Robot Trilogy (1987), Caves Of Steel (1993), and Prelude To Foundation (1989). His work is fantastic and what makes it even better is that he actually used to teach people about Biochemistry in between writing books about robots and interstellar travel.

For example, when asked if humans would ever colonize other planets, Asimov said, “no, because we’d be too afraid of things we didn’t understand and wouldn’t want to leave our home planet behind.”

Asimov also wrote an essay on why women aren’t suited for science fiction writing (which was later revealed to be tongue-in-cheek). In both cases, Asimov wasn’t trying to be offensive; rather, he revealed the belief that people should stick within their own cultures instead of exploring new ones.

“It is possible that we are the only truly intelligent life form, and all others in the universe are just dumb animals who will eventually be extinct.”

Carl Sagan

This quote by famous scientist Carl Sagan represents the common idea of our place in the universe. America’s greatest thinkers have constantly challenged the cult of ignorance that is so widespread in society today. Some of our most well-known scientists and philosophers including Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye strive to make science accessible to everyone.

By making science relatable through humor and honest examples, they shatter preconceived notions and encourage people to think critically about their own theories. With better education comes an increase in scientific literacy, allowing us to combat dangerous myths such as climate change denialism or anti-vaccination campaigns.

We can continue encouraging scientific literacy while exposing those who promote these myths for what they really are – unscientific dogmatists who seek nothing more than increased profit margins at the expense of public health. These beliefs represent not only a threat to our planet, but also demonstrate how far from reality many Americans have become due to years of misinformation from political leaders and corporations with ulterior motives.

In order for science communication efforts to succeed, there must be an active effort against pseudoscience and religious fundamentalism by both government agencies and grassroots organizations alike.

For me personally, my biggest disappointment was when George W. Bush ultimately canceled NASA’s Apollo program to return humans to Mars because it would, “cost too much money.”

I was 10 years old at the time, but was emotionally and mentally mature enough to understand the impact this decision had not only on society, but its perpetual unbridled and blatant disregard for the advancement of science.

My favorite example of why science communication is so important comes from Neil deGrasse Tyson. He has repeatedly pointed out that, “despite having some of the most educated people in history, we have also produced some of our most idiotic leaders.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson attributes that to scientific illiteracy which he believes has caused people to become more concerned with their own self-interests than those of society at large. This may be seen through things like climate change denialism or simply by refusing vaccines for your children because you’re afraid they will give them autism (which they won’t). So, how do we combat these issues?

In early 1995, celebrated astrophysicist Carl Sagan toured the U.S. to promote his book, Demon-Haunted World (1995). The main point he wanted to convey during that tour was that, “rational thought and the scientific method are vital in combating illogical fears and beliefs.”

His remarks were covered by an NBC news affiliate in Florida. During the interview, Sagan made some comments on religion, noting that, “an American politician would never make it if they revealed the degree to which they believe in the supernatural.”

He then challenged anyone who doubted his words to ask the nearest fundamentalist about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The following day hundreds of people called up TV station WKMG Orlando asking about this nonexistent question.

There is so much misinformation out there that everyone has their own version of what is true. When you add superstition into the mix, things get even worse. We have come full circle from Galileo Galilei being forced to recant his statement that, “the Earth moves,” by holding a stick over his head and stating that, “I don’t agree with anything my senses tell me because everything around me could be an illusion.”

As a society, we have reverted back to denying what our senses tell us just because we have been told not to trust them, or as has been perpetuated as vogue in recent years, we might offend someone, as if intellectualism and displays of intelligence are now considered obscene or offensive.

So many religious people refuse medical treatment unless their doctor or nurse wears a cross or because they believe that their blood will be tainted if mixed with pig blood (it won’t). But, when does fear stop being fear?

Science and religion have been in conflict for as long as they’ve both existed. It is an ongoing debate between those who believe that everything about science can be explained by science and those who believe that there are some things science simply cannot explain.

However, religion has provided not only inspiration for some of history’s greatest scientists, but also given many scientists a philosophical perspective from which to work toward achieving their next scientific breakthrough. Although religion and science don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on every subject, it would seem that with all we know about each other, neither side should be trying to tear down what everyone else worked tirelessly to build.

Albert Einstein once said, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind”, although he also later said that, “his faith in God was not compatible with scientific knowledge.”

While these two ideas appear contradictory at first glance, they represent two different ways of thinking. If I were to think back to when I was learning how to ride a bicycle, I would remember how exhilarating it felt. That feeling was because I trusted myself enough to balance my weight and make quick adjustments as needed while my young body became accustomed to new movements; before I knew it, my bike riding skills had improved significantly! I was younger then; perhaps around the age of six when my father purchased me my first bicycle and took me to Battery Park in New York City to learn how to ride.

Later on, my father, Dr. Harvey Slatin, wanted me to pursue a career in science. There was never any doubt in his mind that a career in science was for me; not just for my life’s work, but that it would be my chosen profession.

He told me as much from a very young age—no doubt due to his own personal fascination with science and his doctoral degree in Atomic Physics—and fostered an interest in all things related to science within me from an early age. Accordingly, my parents forced me to attend college, despite my objections. As I look back now, after leaving college decades ago, I held a successful career for decades, and am now retired and living life to the fullest; I realize now that college was waste of my time and resources. This realization ultimately made me resent my own parents for forcing me into attending college; something I never wanted to do.

Many people are pushed down paths they don’t want to take in life because some other entity, such as a parent, or society itself, expects them to do so. The worst part is that most people have no way out except by finding mentors or creating their own opportunities. An education undoubtedly opens doors that otherwise would remain closed, but an education isn’t required for one to be successful in life.

I attended a few years of college, but I didn’t finish. And yet, I had an extremely successful career as a Firefighter Paramedic Lieutenant. People often dismiss my career as insignificant and easy, simply because I was not required to finish college. I was more than capable of having a successful and rewarding career in the fire department without a degree. When people subscribe to such beliefs, they are ignoring what I actually did for a living and going off of incomplete information, subscribing to the guise of the irrational gatekeeping models of higher education.

My IQ is 178, which puts me at 99th percentile among Americans. My intelligence is higher than most people who graduated from high school, and higher than some who have completed college.

Since employers assume all educated workers will be smarter than their employees regardless of education level, it’s difficult to find work when you’re extremely intelligent without a degree. Only 0.3% of American adults have an IQ over 160 and only 2% over 140 (Herrnstein & Murray, The Bell Curve (2010), Pages 40-41). If I’m extremely intelligent but did not graduate from college, then how was I working as a Firefighter Paramedic Lieutenant? Because at the time, my job did not require a college degree.

The average student will spend about 80,000 hours studying in college. That’s the equivalent of three years if you were working 40 hours per week. If you do the math, that means students are spending roughly one-third of their lives working toward completing an often outdated educational model motivated by capitalism, and the industrial revolution that occurred more than 150 years ago. This is not to say education shouldn’t be challenging or fun, but rather we need to look at the concept of teaching differently.

College degrees don’t show a person’s intelligence and potential for the core understanding advanced topics like physics or literature. Instead, they simply show how much money a person can afford to spend on education. Society should not value educational achievement over practical ability and knowledge that could actually benefit society. We need to stop placing so much emphasis on useless degrees and start recognizing human intellectual potential as a whole instead of viewing intelligence through the lens of modern academia. The cult of ignorance is allowing useless degrees to pollute our educational system; we need to change that mindset.

Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and countless others who never attended college all contributed greatly to science and culture. If you want an example closer to home, take Steve Jobs who dropped out of Reed College after one semester due to financial constraints, yet still became one of history’s most important innovators in technology.

Colleges don’t make people smarter – colleges only perpetuate their own existence by promoting their worthless degree programs while marginalizing and discrediting those who would prefer a more hands-on approach.

In conclusion, there will always be intelligent people like me who will follow their own paths and face unique challenges in life. There will always be people that are born into wealth, whose education and credentials can be bought for the right price, and will never have to endure any hardships that come with being born into poverty. There will always be cultists of ignorance who, as Issac Asimov was eloquently quoted as saying, “[these are] people who ignore or belittle facts simply because they disagree with them.”

One can attempt to disprove their arguments as long as they’d like. But, if their argument doesn’t match up with their idealized perception of reality, then it is a meaningless pursuit – they’ll simply find another way to argue against your rebuttal. This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to politics either. There are those who refuse to believe in evolution, despite mountains of evidence supporting its existence.

People should have freedom of speech and the freedom to believe whatever they want, but they cannot rationally expect anyone else to take them seriously when they’re spouting off nonsense based on nothing more than the products of their own cults of ignorance.

Colophon
This article was inspired by recent events, along with a lackluster conversation I recently had via Twitter.
The image of Isaac Asimov in this article were sourced from the Internet.

Asides
Letter: Sagan’s 1995 Warning Proves Quite Prophetic | Arnold Toynbee | ‘Time Of Troubles’: Arnold J. Toynbee’s Twentieth Century | Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark | Letter: A Closer Look At The ‘Cult Of Ignorance’ | Road Trips | Carl Sagan [Advice For Those Buying A Used Religion] | Book Review: Carl Sagan: A Life by Keay Davidson | Daily Ramblings – Wisdom Wednesday – Isaac Asimov

5 Comments

  • Lolsy's Library

    My goodness I enjoyed reading this, what a life you have lived! My partners a teacher and we were talking about how if you’re not interested in a subject (at school), you just need to learn how to take the tests for that subject. You’ll more than likely pass, without learning anything. It’s kind of sad.

    • Thomas Slatin

      I have lived an extraordinary life, according to the opinions of some, but I generally consider myself to be an ordinary person.

      If you look around, you will see that everyone has their own special talents and abilities, yet we are all taught to focus on successes that can be measured numerically. Convenient. We all have struggles and we all fall down from time to time, but it’s how we get back up that makes us who we are.

      Modern education was a nightmare for me; I was simply not being challenged enough, and when it was determined that I was born intersex, everyone assumed that I was developmentally challenged, despite having a 178 IQ. Such antiquated thinking only perpetuates a critical flaw in the paradigm of human intellect—namely, that intelligence can only be measured or proven academically.

      Modern education prepares a person for the workforce, and as such, students graduate from high schools, or universities, and have no solid understanding of how life works. And yet, if someone has a degree, they become the first ones in line to get jobs, though I have known people who have obtained prestigious degrees yet failed in life.

      As a society we need to understand and accept that people are unique, and intelligence is often appropriated to specific types, and just because someone did not complete so-called higher education does not necessarily indicate that they are less intelligent or successful.

  • Karl Smithe

    When I went to college for Electrical Engineering one instructor walked into class the 1st day and said, “I am going to give out 2 A’s and 3 B’s.” I don’t even remember what the class was about, but that stuck in my mind. We don’t go to school to understand things, we go to memorize better than other people in class for a grade.

    • Thomas Slatin

      I too have had teachers do very odd things in class. I had one teacher in 5th grade who would stand on a desk in the front of the class whenever he mentioned something that was going to be on the next test; that was your cue to write that idea down. Of course, I’ve long since forgotten what the key points were, but regardless, I memorized the points he was making when he stood on top of a desk and disregarded everything else.

      Thanks for your comment!

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