I recently met a man named Dick, who, before he retired, worked for the World Health Organization. However, he told me, the WHO had recalled him to duty to help with the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Did he have a background in medicine? I asked. No, his field was communication. I wondered how a person good at communicating could be useful in turning back an epidemic. Dick explained that many villagers fear and mistrust the government so much they don’t believe officials when they say things like “Don’t touch that body! You’ll get sick!”
During the 2002-03 SARS epidemic that began in China and spread to 37 countries, Dick was part of a team that developed a communication model that was useful in conveying information on how to disrupt the spread of the disease. A similar model, Dick told me, would be used in West Africa to help control the spread of Ebola.
Not long after Dick left for West Africa I watched a Frontline episode documenting the efforts of Doctors Without Borders to treat Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. Among other things, the program reinforced Dick’s premise. Indeed, many people got sick during funeral ceremonies during which it’s customary to touch and even kiss the body—ensuring contagion. In some cases villagers hid from healthcare workers, fearing contact with them was equal to a fatal diagnosis. Most striking to me was the city dweller who insisted Ebola was a hoax perpetrated by the World Health Organization to steal people’s blood.
It would be easy to dismiss these instances as examples of third-world ignorance, and insist that contracting the disease was merely the logical result of ignorance. Yet ignorance isn’t confined to the third world. We have plenty of it here in the first world, and not just about Ebola.
Ignorance, by definition is a lack of knowledge, understanding, or education. The use of the word “or” (instead of “and”) implies that a person may be lacking in any one of these qualities and still be ignorant. For example, a person could be highly educated in, say, physics but lack an understanding of—and therefore ignorant of—the intricacies of international banking.
Wisdom, according to my copy of Merriam-Webster, is “knowledge that is gained by having many experiences in life; the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand; and knowledge of what is proper and reasonable, good sense or judgement.” Synonyms of wisdom include discernment, insight, and perception. It seems reasonable, then, to further define ignorance as a lack of wisdom.
With the first diagnosis of Ebola in the United States we saw an immediate outbreak of ignorance as displayed by many politicians and the usual media blowhards calling for quarantines and travel bans. A political activist from South Carolina, on Twitter, went so far as to call for the “humane execution” of anyone testing positive for the disease.
Epidemiology is the branch of medical science that studies the spread of disease and how to control a given disease once it infects a population. At first glance, travel bans and far-reaching quarantines (never mind euthanasia) may seem reasonable and in good judgment. Yet, those who have studied the spread of, and have treated, Ebola for years say travel bans and unwarranted quarantines are ineffective and may do more harm than good. Clearly, such measures are unwise.
Even though the Obama administration and other authorities (i.e., experts in the field) have repeatedly made their case, a poll taken in October indicates that more than 70% of U.S. citizens support a civilian travel ban into and out of West African countries with Ebola outbreaks. How can this be? Fear is one answer. It’s human nature to fear what we don’t understand. But it’s more than just fear. It’s fear incited by pundits and politicians who, for their own base reasons, spread ignorance instead of wisdom.
Controlling the spread of ignorance is, it seems to me, as monumental a chore as controlling the spread of Ebola. And even if there is not yet a vaccine against Ebola, we do have wisdom as a vaccine against ignorance. Yet wisdom seems in such short supply. For instance, where is the wisdom in arming teachers to combat school shootings? Where is the wisdom in poisoning our aquifers so that we may extract every last drop of oil from the earth? Where is the wisdom in intentionally working to make sure a large part of our society remains economically poor, poorly educated, and in poor health? And, although it may help win elections and keep the privileged in power, disenfranchising thousands out of fear they will vote for the opposition party does not seem wise to me.
The fellow in Sierra Leone who insisted Ebola is a hoax is no more ignorant than those who insist climate change is a hoax perpetrated by scientists so they can get more grant money (or any number of other reasons). Nor were those villagers who mistrusted the authorities more ignorant than those of us who mistrust authorities who say vaccines don’t cause autism.
There is no crime in having a lack of education, knowledge, or understanding. These qualities take time and the right conditions to develop, both within the individual and throughout society. But when leaders—political, social, religious, business, and so on—willfully spread ignorance and work against creating the conditions for wisdom to flourish and society to prosper, that is a crime.
Why so many of us continue to believe, vote for, and otherwise support such people is beyond me.