Don’t Call me Stupid

Don’t Call me Stupid

November 12, 2011 Diary 0

As I sit here in my room and write my project proposals, I cannot help overhearing my mother. She is watching a news channel outside and is not exactly quiet about it. She jeers, in a high pitched whine, about how the former president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, is taking advantage of her sickness to get out of the Philippines and escape judicial scrutiny.

My mother chides GMA’s lawyers for making excuses about their ward. She groans when the news reminds her that just last night, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Supreme Court (SC) were battling over a TRO that the SC took out on a watch list order issued by the DOJ. Even I was glued to the TV last night as the executive and judicial branches of the Philippine government engaged in a legal boxing match.

Today, my mother watches all of the footage from last night, and she still grinds her teeth in anger.

GMA did not get to leave the country. My mom still laughs at how GMA was stuck at the airport terminal, trying to get past a crowd of photographers and reporters. GMA will try to leave again today, the news anchor announces; my mother groans again, but vows to watch the news and wait for more coverage of a now desperate ex-president trying to claw her way out of the country.

I cannot help comparing my mother’s reactions to those I found on Twitter and Facebook last night. Some people were frustrated with the Supreme Court, and how GMA’s appointees’ wallets were probably fatter after they formally handed down a TRO – hours after she posted a PhP 2 M cash bond. Others were declaring their compassion, saying that GMA needed to be treated abroad for her spinal injury. Still, others were calling people stupid for not knowing enough of the law: the Supreme Court’s decision had to be upheld, regardless of who was involved.

It is that last group of individuals to whom I direct this next sentence.

Do not call people stupid.

I used to be a bench scientist, and in my training, I had unknowingly picked up the idea that people who don’t know any science are stupid. I had been taught that all that people needed was a dose of good science so that they could make good decisions. Without science, the world was dumb.

As I shifted fields, however, I found that I was not smarter than everybody else. I was simply arrogant. I didn’t know everything; science didn’t know everything. Science is, by nature, uncertain. Knowledge changes every day, and new techniques and instruments can render yesterday’s truths but poor approximations of today’s findings. Science might be the search for truth, but it is not the be-all and end-all of existence – it is not the single source of knowledge.

I also found that many bench scientists were arrogant. I could hear it when they spoke amongst themselves, when they called “ordinary people” a “stupid bunch” of “anti-intellectuals” who simply needed “good scientific knowledge” in order to live “better lives.” They were catchphrases that I had once taken so much pride in, and that shamed me then. They still shame me now.

Many scholars – bench scientists, social scientists, lawyers, professors of other fields – act as though the non-scholarly public is stupid. They speak as though everyone else has a deficit of knowledge, and that filling in that deficit would make things better. They think that filling in that deficit would change behavior, improve society, re-engineer people’s brains, and overhaul entire cultures.

This assumes, however, that everyone else is illogical, and only scholars have logic. Now, see, a few years ago, I would have loved that kind of reasoning. Today, I cannot help sneering at it.

There is no such thing as the logical thing to do. There is no such thing as the single source of trustworthy knowledge, the only place to go for the tools to make a decision, the only way to employ logic. This assumes that all people need only brains so that they can make a decision, and disregard emotion, culture, values, faith, and other factors that all play into everyday life.

People are not automatons. They are not robots who must simply be given a set of commands in a knowledge base or data library in order to function. People have their culture and their values, their religion and their beliefs.

People are complex. They are not stupid.

How would you like it, Bench Scientist, if you were told that you are just a number? If you were told that you were just a statistic? How would you like to be part of just another equation? People are not bacteria that you can handle and manipulate at will. They are not mathematical puzzles that you should solve because they’re so simple.

People, and society, are complex. Deal with it. Embrace it. Be proud that you’re part of a complex,, mysterious universe that invites you to exercise your curiosity as a scientist – and that often tells you to humble yourself because there is much that you still have to know, and much that you will never know.

Don’t claim that you know everything. The more you claim it, the less I believe you. The more you claim it, the less credible you are as a scientist. When you start believing that only you have valid knowledge, then you’re no different from a narrow-minded intellectual bigot who has no other person to talk to but the stranger in the mirror.

How would you like it, Lawyer, if you were told that you were stupid? I do not claim to have your knowledge of the law, but I do know that when people react the way that they did last night, they were not being stupid. They had a basis for being angry with GMA. They employed their own logic, and invoked their own values as they assessed whether or not she had a right to leave the country.

GMA became rich as she stood on the backs of the poor, as she sucked our coffers dry. She placed people in high, important positions to protect her self-interests. She posted her cash bond hours before her TRO was handed down. All her appointees to the Supreme Court voted in her favor. She was in a hurry to leave. She was offered another entrance at the airport so that she didn’t have to go through the media frenzy, but she still chose to go through the entrance and into the media storm. There might not be cases formally filed against her, but she was also allowed to leave even when there are oral arguments scheduled for next week.

Now, tell me: Am I being illogical when I think that her actions speak of someone who wants to leave the country for good?

Am I being over-emotional when I believe that she wanted to show off her neck brace and acting skills to elicit sympathy?

Am I being stupid when I see how a supposedly urgent departure and health case is paraded in a media storm – when the said case was given the option of a quiet entrance?

Do I lack objectivity when I think that GMA should stay in the country and get help from doctors here while her case is pending?

I can be objective. But I am not blind.

I am not discounting the importance of education or communication, nor am I discrediting scientific knowledge. I will be the first to say that we need to improve our educational system. I will be the first to advocate for better communication programs that are designed on the basis of good theory. I will be the first to say that if research is done well, then it might yield good, reliable results.

But to simply think of knowledge as the single tool to educate or communicate? That’s naïve. That’s bullcrap.

That’s the sort of mentality that leaves our educational system and mass media in the dark ages. Education is not simply about force-feeding students with supposed facts. The media are not there to hold peoples’ heads underwater at the Font of Knowledge. The educational system and mass media have to operate beyond this knowledge-only basis. They need to strike a balance amongst factors such as culture, values, design, knowledge, and language, among many others.

I also recognize that simply handing people a vat of knowledge won’t make them intellectual drunkards. I know that simply communicating science won’t turn everyone into scientists. I have seen how supposedly smart scientists and communicators fail because they relied on knowledge and information to see them through. I have also seen supposedly savvy scientists and communicators fail because they put in bells and whistles that made knowledge pretty and palatable, but which were nothing in the face of the culture and values of their audience.

People have their own thoughts, beliefs, cultures, and values. I think we all need to respect them instead of knocking them down and attacking them with science, law, or any kind of knowledge. If you want to engage in social engineering, try your theories out on a society of bees or ants – but recognize and respect the complexity of people.

I’m not stupid, and neither are you. The only time you actually get to be called stupid is when you think you know everything.

The only time you actually get to be called stupid is when you start being blind.