Brexit. Vaccination. Climate change. Middle Eastern migrants to Europe (or are they refugees?). Islam and caliphs and Sunnis and Shiites. Quantitative easing. Janet Yellen speeches. Negative interest rates. U.S. gun violence. Vancouver’s housing crisis. Fat kids with fast computers. The sixth mass extinction event. Millennial job angst. Silicon Valley Disruption.
Where did all this stuff come from, anyway?
A mere few decades ago it seems we contented ourselves with, “Is God dead?” and, “Are UFOs real?” Somewhere between the TV era and iPhone 6s, things got really complicated. Just keeping up your reading (or Podcast listening) on a few of the above listed items can blow an entire day’s free time. And all around us, everyday there is evidence that people are doing just that. They run with earbuds or walk with cell phones or lounge about with iPads, gorging on information.
So, how is it that so many have such a facile understanding of the facts underlying any of the complexities we now have to live with?
Take vaccination. On CBC Radio 1, I listened for five minutes to a young Vancouver Island pediatrician describe how only about 70 percent of newborns now receive the full battery of vaccinations that modern medical science prescribes. Consequently, infections like Pertussis (Whooping Cough) are on the rise, and hospital cross-infections are becoming more frequent.
As a result, a start-of-life medical dilemma that was basically conquered in the 1950s is on the rebound. Pressed for reasons, the doctor speculated that the internet is awash with fallacies about the dangers of vaccination, and some parents are more apt to trust their Google search results than their pediatrician’s training. The price of this ill- informed, independent thinking can be death of a child.
Climate change is also vexing to the average citizen. “QUANGOs” (quasi-NGOs) have sprung up to ‘defend science’ and help you understand that climate science is trash, and the combustion of carbon is a natural good.
The Guardian newspaper recently ran an extremely long piece on how the Trump campaign stops have become gatherings of climate deniers, and featured the inane blatherings of a Trumpophile on chem trails that are supposedly being sprayed in the troposphere by the U.S. Air Force to change the climate. Viewed through this lens, climate change is all part of a Big Obama Government conspiracy.
Dare we also consider the internal dynamics of Islam in this investigation of complexities? Why not? Daily we are inundated by stories featuring Arabic words, religious concepts that transcend a literal reading of the Bible, and require a knowledge of the Q’uran. Deeper scholarship is required to comprehend the historic divisions of Islam into Sunnis and Shias, who in turn have evolved into many different sects. A nuanced understanding of the Islamic world at the time of Muhammad’s death in 632 CE is required to understand the roots of the Sunni/Shia division, and it really helps to have some Islamic faith friends to help you understand the complexities. Not all citizens have this privilege.
Perhaps more importantly, many don’t make the effort to expand their faith horizons. They just listen to the Donald or Tea Party cable TV or their favourite UKIP or National Front spokesperson to form quick and hard opinions.
“Why dig deeper,” they ask, “when (insert your favourite Mansplainer or xenophobe ideologue here) makes it so obvious?”
And that is what frightens me. There really are no shortcuts to understanding complexity. You have to do your research. You have to think hard, and often reconcile logical inconsistencies and exercise critical thought.
It helps to have cross-cultural insights and a basic understanding of Anthropology. It is a real asset to understand the scientific method and the peer review process. You need to know how to frame questions and exercise rigour. All of this is difficult and takes time.
Paradoxically, Trumpian certitude and the internet appear to save you time. They seemingly admit you to the world of the knowing, without many knowing that it is a world of false promise. Trump is not rigorous and the internet is not peer reviewed.
Caveat emptor, baby.
Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.