Pandemic spawns spectacle of antiscience fatuity - Businesslive

13 September 2021 - Though I knew perfectly well that if I googled the cause of an acute pain in my right-hand index finger I would invariably find that it was caused by a rare form of cancer, I nevertheless went ahead earlier this year, and asked Google to identify the condition that manifested in a bumpy patch of soreness on the right side of my back.

Michael Morris
Though I knew perfectly well that if I googled the cause of an acute pain in my right-hand index finger I would invariably find that it was caused by a rare form of cancer, I nevertheless went ahead earlier this year, and asked Google to identify the condition that manifested in a bumpy patch of soreness on the right side of my back.

There was also, as it happens, a patch of soreness on my chest. That was something separate, though — I’d had a silly calamity on some wet steps, so the frontal condition was spoken for. As for my back, well, I had recently spent the morning working in the garden in the blazing sun without a shirt on, so whatever it was Google said it was, given all these obvious facts, was what it really was.

It is maddening, isn’t it, how easy it is to torture ourselves in this way. My doctor, when I eventually made an appointment to see him, listened with what I can only describe as heroic and unflinching impassivity as I spent the first five minutes of the consultation telling him exactly what was the matter with me. It was, as these things usually are, an unnecessarily long and detailed account, which I nevertheless felt confident would prove invaluable to him.

The second I had finished, he said: “Right, let’s have a look.” This was where we should have begun. All of a minute later he pronounced his diagnosis and, after a brief chat about dealing with the condition, I was on my way. My shingles had nothing whatever to do with a morning spent irresponsibly shirtless in the sun, or with my painful if comical episode on wet steps, or, expressly, anything whatever to do with what I had “learnt” from Google.

It was a lesson I honestly did not think I had needed — but, in the internet age it is a lesson that needs repeating until it becomes second nature to regard with suspicion every find that rings true. This is made pressingly obvious by the staggering spectacle of antiscience dim-wittedness spawned by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Everyone now knows everything about it. They have looked it up, watched the videos and hung on every word of Dr X and Professor Y. The whole thing is a conspiracy darkly devised by people we would not trust with our pets.

A dubious marvel of the age of unprecedented access to the best of science is that there are conceivably more dumb people now than before, simply because so many are satisfied merely to find their fondest certainties and fears confirmed and swear off all contradictions.

The internet is indifferent to our foibles. When we imagine we can dispense with scientists — whose authority, and the scope for allowing that they may be mistaken, dwells not in whim or certainty but rigour and doubt — the internet will oblige.

Late in 2020, Forbes published a trenchant piece on “antiscience myths we need to unlearn”, which featured this sage warning from Carl Sagan: “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: if we’ve been bamboozled long enough we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you almost never get it back.”

And that is the real risk: abandoning reason means abandoning doubt, and promises only a tyranny of idiocy.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2021-09-12-michael-morris-pandemic-spawns-spectacle-of-antiscience-fatuity/

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