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Geoff Johnson: COVID denial and stupidity: Is education to blame?

Slow, dull, dim, brainless, boneheaded, choose your own euphemism for stupid, but the anti-vax, anti-mask, COVID-denial crowd has moved us past the time when we need to be tap dancing around the term “stupid” lest we offend.
Protesters gather around the Independence Stella monument during a protest against mandatory vaccinations, in Riga, Latvia, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. Some thousands of people took to the streets of Latvia's capital, Riga late Wednesday to protest mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations for staff in education and some other sectors. (AP Photo/Dmitrijs Sujzics)

Slow, dull, dim, brainless, boneheaded, choose your own euphemism for stupid, but the anti-vax, anti-mask, COVID-denial crowd has moved us past the time when we need to be tap dancing around the term “stupid” lest we offend.

There’s been a lot of talk in certain circles about the origins, nature and persistence, even the blatant celebration of stupidity.

Carlo M. Cipolla, a professor of ­economics at UC Berkeley, in his essay “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity,” defines the “golden law” of stupidity as being personified by “a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even ­possibly incurring losses him/herself.”

In the same essay Cipolla cautions us that “non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals.”

“In particular,” writes Cipolla, “non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances, to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake” adding that “a stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.”

That’s not to imply that stupid people set out to deliberately cause harm to others.

The mindless tendency to favour ­theories of conspiracy over peer-reviewed science compares with the drunk driver who feels he/she has slipped the surly bonds of any sense of being a potentially lethal l­iability to everyone else on the road.

Given that at the time of writing the total number of confirmed COVID cases in B.C. was 158,919, including 1,785 deaths with new cases emerging at the rate of more than 500 per day, the emergence of evident stupidity on behalf of COVID deniers, anti-vaxers and anti-maskers at every level of society is a timely topic of conversation both socially and academically.

Given a human tendency to look for ­someone or something to explain the current COVID situation, we could turn to sociologist Peter McAllister, author of Manthropology, in which he claims we are no longer ­evolving, but instead are devolving and are not as smart about the preservation of life and how to conduct ourselves in general as were our ancestors.

The question that puzzles educators, especially in a time when curriculum can’t keep up with cultural change, is whether or not public education bears any ­responsibility for what more and more is the ­transition from harmless, even amusing public ­stupidity to the kind of me-centred toxic ­stupidity reported in the media every day.

Can public education be blamed at all?

Probably not.

Stupidity, say people such as philosopher and Time magazine opinion writer Steven Nadler, is not just a lack of knowledge, but instead it is a refusal to learn.

Being stupid, Nadler advises, doesn’t mean being ­uneducated, ignorant, foolish or unskilled.

Rather, says Nadler, “a stupid person has access to all the information necessary to make an appropriate judgment, to come up with a set of reasonable and justified beliefs and yet fails to do so. The evidence is staring them right in the face, but it makes no ­difference whatsoever.”

Other writers point out that stupidity involves not retaining or analysing information, just passing it along no matter the source of the information. This alone rules out learning about anything as a cure for stupidity.

To make matters worse, stupidity does not accept that as the science of epidemiology struggles to keep up with a rapidly ­spreading “catch me if you can” virus, ­science is hindered by its inherent obligation to base knowledge on fact rather than the theories of the tinfoil-hat people.

James Hoggan, author of the best seller (in certain circles) of I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up, explains:

“The most pressing problem we face today is not climate change. It is pollution in the public square, where a toxic smog of adversarial rhetoric, propaganda and ­polarization stifles discussion and debate, creating resistance to change and thwarting our ability to solve our collective problems.”

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.