IGNORANCE

In a Facebook group in which I participate, a question was recently posted to elicit thoughtful comment: “What’re you most afraid of?”

This is a good question, and one that is most pertinent to ask in today’s crisis-saturated world. What do we fear?

I’d love to be able to align myself with the thinking of Franklin Roosevelt who once assured this nation that, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” But at present it is not “fear itself” that I fear. What I fear even more than fear itself is ignorance — wanton, unreflective, unjustifiably confident ignorance which makes fun of sensible precautions and facilitates the spread of infections.

Today I read a posting asserting, among other points, that the simple act of wearing a mask “reduces oxygen up to 60%,” and “increases the risk of CO2  poisoning.” (I think they intended to terrify us with a warning about CO poisoning.) The picture also included some reasonably accurate concerns, such as masks can promote increased face-touching, but the premise appeared to be that no one would think to practice basic hygiene.

But this sort of hairy-scary hype against the wearing of masks is just ignorance on parade. For instance, masks are not, of course, impermeable to gasses. They are intended to permit nearly normal breathing. While it is possible that some reduction of O2 could happen from the effect of the mask, it certainly could not be 60%. A person who experiences a drop in O2 saturation of 20% — that is O2 saturation of 80% — is dangerously near death. If a person had an oxygen reduction of 60% — that is O2 saturation of 40% — they would be dead. No one has yet been recorded to have died simply from donning a mask.



Too, CO2 poisoning, while not an impossible condition, is astonishingly hard to achieve in any space that is even poorly ventilated, and requires a concentrated source of CO2, such as blocks of dry ice. Therefore I infer the reference was actually intended to have been to CO — carbon monoxide — which is indeed deadly in relatively small concentration, (> 35ppm) and which is a byproduct of our very own metabolism. However, the concentration of CO present in our exhalation is sufficiently negligible as to be safely ignored; even a gas-impermeable mask would not cause a person to die from CO intoxication.

By making frightening claims, and by asserting neatly precise numbers, the author of this deceit aims to have the appearance of “Science.” Of course, they are clearly ignoring medical, scientifically informed practice that has been in place for more than fourteen decades. But ignorance delights in attacking generally accepted practice as some sort of conspiracy against the ignorant. While there is every good reason to question common thinking, and to examine conventional wisdom, it is neither scientifically valid nor logically sound to immediately declare a premise false simply because it is widespread.

Despite the fact that we live in an age of ready access to vast volumes of reasonably reliable information on every subject from Science to History and vastly beyond, there seems to be a concerted effort to convince people to retreat into the “certainty” of their own fears, doubts, and personal inclinations, and not to disturb the lovely comfort of certainty with intrusive facts.

Writing in Newsweek, 21 January 1980, biochemist and writer Isaac Asimov observed, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” Wishing a thing to be so does not, of course, make it so. Ignorance is not neutral. Ignorance is not benign. And when ignorance becomes aggressive, people die.

What am I most afraid of? Humankind’s deadliest affliction: Ignorance.

— Jamie Rawson
12 May 2020

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