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Who is Ignorant? Homo Rationalis and the Rest of Us

Grimot NaneOutside mainstream economics man is not assumed to omniscient because he lacks the capacity to be such. Man has the capacity to learn things competently, but the faculties for such are limited by innumerable factors. Even when a man has learned something his memory can fail him completely. Conflation has often betrayed many that are learned or well-informed. Our ability to judge things is often biased by preconceived notions invalidating the powers of discrimination and objectivity we otherwise inherit or acquire. We can, therefore, say that all men are ignorant but in varying degrees, that is, from the outright ignoramus to the encyclopaedic polymath.

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Ignorance by simple definition is a lack of knowledge, understanding, or education. The incidence of ignorance can be general and encompassing for a given individual, or specific and narrow for another. Put another way, a peasant in Africa may not be able to comprehend the dynamics of HIV infection because he or she is ignorant of the existence of microbes and their activities while a Cambridge-trained African physician of high standing may be ignorant of the existence of a new report highlighting the risks associated with a certain medicine he prescribes frequently.

Nevertheless, ignorance is very subjective and can be abused or misused as an instrument in the characterisation of certain groups of individuals by other groups of individuals. The first thing for a group self-appointed to do the characterising is that they make ignorance objective through the creation of “Homo Rationalis” and his exceptional criteria. Homo Rationalis (created by New Rationalists as a conformist to free-market supporting science and atheism) like Homo Economicus (created by neo-classical economists as a perfect decision-maker in the free market) possess an Olympian rationality based on abstract assumptions of complete information and perfect knowledge. However, while Homo Economicus as purported by its advocates “cannot” be ignorant, Homo Rationalis as promoted “should not” be ignorant. Regardless of this difference, ideologically they are isotopes of each other. Interestingly for all the rationality of the New Rationalists, Homos Economicus and Rationalis are non-realistic abstractions.

The other task of the self-appointed group is to denounce anyone or anything that does not meet their “omniscient criteria” of rationality by way of systematic chauvinism. “Nonsense!” would be their reaction to such a claim, hiding behind Popperian falsifiability, the fact they too learn every day and that they are open to new scientific discoveries. Their intolerance and chauvinism is very thinly veiled and their message is crystal clear – you are either with us (accept our version of free market compatible science and atheism) and be accepted as rational (even superior) or you are against us (and be condemned to having the inclination towards pre-Galilean thought with the necessary inferiority).

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Take a look at Sola. A British-Nigerian, she studied a degree in microbiology at a Top 20 UK university and has a master’s in medical microbiology and PhD in cell biology from Top 10 UK universities. She has worked for many years in a medical laboratory at a major UK hospital, at a laboratory with a world leading pharmaceutical company and currently works at the cutting edge of cancer research. By training and work experience she is a scientist, well-educated and knowledgeable. However, she is neither a “genuine scientist” nor “genuinely rational” in the eyes of New Rationalists. Why? Firstly, she is totally against GMO foods, not based on suppositions and speculated fears but from her knowledge of working in cell biology at leading institutions for two decades, excluding her education in the subject. Secondly, she is opposed to nuclear power, she knows the damage alpha and beta particle emissions do to plant and animal cells. Thirdly, she is a staunch Catholic who believes in God as portrayed in the scriptures and attends morning mass daily.

Also, take a look at Dafe. Also a British-Nigerian, he never studied beyond high school and was a very poor student. However, he was and still is a devout fan of Greg Morris as “Barney Collier,” the African American electronics whiz kid in the TV series “Mission: Impossible.” Though he has no head for academic science, he is self-taught electronics technician with high competency. He is a science-technology lover and believes in a future paradise on planet Earth created by the wonders of science and technology. He supports anything scientific be it GMO foods, nuclear power, hail canons, stem cell medicine, human microchip implants, electronic tagging, etc. He argues fervently that there should be no ethics of science; science should speak for itself. He stopped believing in God when his mother died and claims his atheism was reinforced by watching “clips on YouTube.” He would be accepted as a genuine technician and genuinely rational in the minds of the New Rationalists.

Looking at the two individual portraits presented, it is clear in the world of the free market and the new rationalists that the possession of knowledge or the lack of it is by itself not a serious criterion for earning the characterisation of being ignorant or learned. It is what a person believes in or conforms to that makes the person rational and superior. Again New Rationalists would deny this. However, what do they mean (regardless of training and profession) by “genuine thinker or knower” and “non-genuine thinker and knower?” Is someone not allowed to be sceptical about free market supporting science?

Nihilism is not the same as rationality. Rationality again is simply defined as the quality or state of being reasonable, based on facts or reason (Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary). The man who falls in love with a woman does not because of such lose control of the facts of science he has learned and applied with strict and ethical professionalism daily; how rational is love? And New Rationalists are not alone. Every field of specialisation has its overlords. There are, say, pianists who have got degrees in Jazz music, played only at Jazz music venues, have all their music sold in Jazz sections of music shops and only lead combos of strictly Jazz musicians, but they are not recognised by the more purist musicians and fans as practitioners of Jazz music. What is such a stance called no matter the field?

When I look at Nigerian society, I wonder if there are people in it who would qualify as genuine scientists (or certified professionals) or can be genuinely rational under the objective criteria of the New Rationalists. Most Nigerians believe in God and/or traditional worship (animism) as well as juju, curses, witchcraft, incubus, succubus, etc. A lot of the spiritual stuff is not only truly irrational but absurd. For example, I once wrote a blog article about a guy who claimed to have contracted gonorrhoea by way of having sex with a witch in his dream while sleeping yet taking antibiotics to cure it (Spiritual Infections, Physical Cures: http://wp.me/p1bOKH-1P).

From another perspective, it is not uncommon to find a highly published Nigerian science or mathematics academic that has not been to his home town for the past 20 years for fear of witchcraft. It is also commonplace to find a Nigerian doctor (e.g. a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons) who says intense prayers with glossolalia in the theatre moments before carrying out a surgical procedure on a patient. The question thus arises: does a chartered chemist who has trained thousands of chemistry graduates or a leading robotics engineer become ignorant because they believe in God? Whether we like it or not there are missionary schools and universities that produce very competent scientists and technologists.

Some New Rationalists have even said that the level of development in Nigeria and Africa as a whole is backward due to the absence of genuine thinkers and knowers, besides those they can count on their fingers. But the New Rationalists are a more aggressive bunch; they will go after any one in any society that they see unfit for the status of knowledgeable and rationality with a chauvinism that will make religious fanatics and those sceptical of what they do not know proud. So I ask “who is ignorant?”

  • Dr. Nane is an errant scholar and economist. Follow him on Twitter @Grimot


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