Such is our world that, on the very same day, we can come across examples of the utterly crass and the sublimely clear, in the very same place.
Yesterday, I found both on Facebook.
The first example I noticed was the crass one, posted everywhere:
According to all known laws of aviation a bee should not be able to fly. Its wings are too tiny to get its fat little body off the ground. The bee, of course, flies anyway, because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible.
Sometimes a statement is so gigantically stupid that it leaves the thinking mind breathless. I don’t know if it was devised by a deeply ignorant person or by someone who knew precisely what they were doing but wanted to make a little mischief. Perhaps it was both: a mischief-maker egging on the profoundly ignorant, in order to laugh at them from a distance.
What exactly is so stupid about this statement?
Well, first, it isn’t true. There is no scientific theory that says a bumble-bee should be unable to fly. This is a canard invented by an ill-informed British journalist writing for a trashy tabloid magazine in the Seventies, and I apologise for the tautology of that statement.
More significantly, it illustrates the extraordinary arrogance of the ignorant. Apart from a person who knows nothing, who would refer to the “laws of aviation”? Going on from that, who but a complete fool would talk about “all known laws of aviation”?
The laws of aviation have to do with the proper regulation of pilots and flying. I suppose they meant the laws of aerodynamics, but when you’re appealing to the lowest common denominator, these distinctions are of little relevance. It sounds important and that’s all that matters to the empty-headed, blustering bombast.
It looks like a tiny experiment in flattering the Great Unwashed. Give them the illusion of knowledge. Give them a little spurious scientific justification and let them loose on whatever you want to attack. They’ll go out spouting your nonsense because it makes them feel slightly important for perhaps the first time ever, even though they have not the slightest idea what any of it means.
This is how to whip up crowds, and though it’s only a small thing, it reveals precisely how to mobilise the ignorant. It’s very clever: make them feel informed while keeping them in the dark.
On the bright side, I came across a wonderful website called Ask a Mathematician / Ask a Physicist, which attempts to answer questions about existence clearly, with honesty and with humility. The language is clear, the explanations are lucid and when a question is too hard, they admit it. What’s more, unlike the proponents of ignorant certainty, the folks behind this site are motivated by knowledgeable bafflement.
If the speed of light is constant, how can it slow down?
How do executive ball-clickers work?
What’s an axiom?
How can you be certain of anything?
These are the kind of questions asked — some silly, some profound. And as I’ve said before many times, because scientists are trained to always admit when they might be wrong, the answers are refreshingly honest. Sometimes they amount to little more than We don’t know.
This is a million miles removed from the ill-informed foolishness behind All known laws of aviation.
And that, my friends, is the difference between absolute intolerance and open-minded, thoughtful acceptance.
In the years to come, I think these distinctions will become very important for our society.