When it comes to deciphering science from pseudoscience there is, says Russ Swan, more than one kind of idiot and its important as election time looms large once again that we can tell them apart…
It's easy to be intolerant of idiots and, in the run up to the UK general election, we're likely to be reminded of that on a daily basis.
But there are idiots and there are idiots. I reckon there are actually four levels of ignorance that can be applied to any given person on any particular topic.
The first is one we all exhibit at some point: ignorance through innocence.
Did you ever, as a child, believe the characters on television were little tiny people living inside the box? I know I did, and I remember looking around the back to see if I could see them from the other side.
It's funny now, maybe even charming, and you can't really blame a child for their innocent misunderstanding.
But what about flat Earthers? Were you born with the knowledge that our planet is more-or-less spherical? Unlikely. It's something we have to learn. The vast majority of us do so pretty quickly and, as with the mini TV people, and that's the end of it.
Others seem to struggle, either because they are genuinely incapable of the imagination needed, or because they think it is somehow cool to be, or to pretend to be, a rebel. I'm an independent thinker, they proclaim.
Second level idiots Independent thought is a good thing. It led us out of the dark ages, and it underpins the scientific method. But people brandishing their wilful ignorance do not deserve the tolerance we might direct to the genuinely innocent.
These wilfully ignorant are second level idiots. Once presented with an explanation that is simpler to accept than to deny, any who continue to distort reality are closed minded fools who deserve little other than contempt.
The third level of ignorance is reserved for those who have the knowledge they need, but are honestly not convinced by it. Moon landing deniers are figure prominently here. We might think they are the same as flat Earthers, but their thought process has to be rather different.
Everybody has daily evidence of the round Earth, but for anybody aged under about 50 the moon landings are a story they were told, about events long ago. It's odd but true that anything that happened after you were born feels much more real than anything that came before, whether you were involved in them or not.
Moon landing images and footage are easy to find, but so are superhero and witchcraft tales. We have grown up in an age of extraordinary technological progress, so it might be understandable to assume that the 1960s and 70s were too backward to accomplish those extraordinary feats.
Some understanding required The fourth level is those who are confused and misled. I was a young parent when the MMR scare first broke, and I can tell you from personal experience that my faith in vaccination was tested. Which science should I believe – the years of experience of vaccines and the reassurances of the pharma industry, or the then-recent peer-reviewed paper in The Lancet that indicated a problem? Criticise parents who are nervous all you like, but until it's your baby that you might be harming, some understanding is necessary (they got the jabs, of course, but I it was not an enjoyable position to be in).
So, when the doorbell rings and a rosette-wearing hopeful asks for your support, consider what type of idiot they are and make your choice accordingly.
Unhappily, many of our politicians seem to manage to be all four at the same time. This seems especially the case regarding the climate emergency, where world leaders can be simultaneously too stupid, too stubborn, too convinced of their own cleverness, and too trusting of the wrong messages to take to action needed. Four kinds of idiot for the price of one. One planet, that is.