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Ignorance is not bliss

"I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts." - Bill Gates

How ignorant are we? According to "Perils of Perception", a survey by the Ipsos Mori Social Research Institute taken between August 12 and August 26, 2014, we are quite ignorant. When asked to estimate basic facts about population and social issues like immigration, aging, and unemployment, over 11,000 adults in 14 democratic countries generally got the answers badly wrong.
    Here is an overview of the questions Canadians were asked: What percent of our population is Muslim, Christian, immigrants from another country? Of eligible voters, what percent voted in the last election? What percent is unemployed and looking for work, and what percent is 65 or older? Is our crime rate rising or falling, and finally, what percent of Canadian girls between the age of 15 and 19 give birth each year?
    Canadians were the seventh most ignorant, Italy most (14th), Sweden least, and the USA was 13th. What are the actual numbers in Canada compared with what we believe? Two percent of the Canadian population is Muslim; the average Joe guessed 20 percent. Sixty-nine percent are Christian; the average Joe guessed 49 percent. Twenty-one percent are immigrants; Joe guessed 35. Sixty-one percent of eligible voters voted in the last federal election; Joe guessed 51. Fourteen percent are 65 or older; Joe guessed 40. Seven percent are unemployed and looking for work; Joe guessed 23. One percent of teenage girls give birth in any given year; Joe guessed 15. Finally, crime rate has dropped for the past 23 years while Joe's convinced it is going up. The average Joe is dramatically wrong.
    Ignorance isn't bliss, it's dangerous, and becoming more so. In 2010 the Canadian government ended the mandatory long-form census. In its wisdom, the government also placed restrictions on Federal scientists to freely disseminate information, and severely cut or eliminated critical data gathering agencies in the country. As a result, we are, individually and as a nation, destined to become less well informed, and therefore, more ignorant.
    It is impossible to make good governmental decisions without data, and good data doesn't come from uncle Bob or the latest tirade from your favourite talk radio host. It comes from hard, cold, scientific research that is replicated and confirmed by other scientists everywhere. If such replication and confirmation is not forthcoming the data is discounted.
    Without reliable census data, and forced to rely only on public opinion as reflected in the Ipsos Mori survey, the government is liable to make serious mistakes. For example, if they believe that 15 percent of teenage girls get pregnant when it is really only 1 percent they could unnecessarily spend millions on programs directed at teenagers about abstinence and condoms. Similarly, as misplaced concern about immigration reaches epidemic proportions, the government—with no hard data to dispute it—will make incredibly dumb and harmful decisions. And despite the decline in actual crime rates we may continue to waste money pursuing a boogey man who doesn't exist.
    There are other examples of havoc that could befall us if politicians rely on an uninformed public or their own personal biases to sway policy decisions. The 2015 Climate Change Performance Index ranks Canada second worst (58th) when it comes to climate change issues. Our poor showing is not surprising considering: (1) the government's disdain for facts about climate change, and (2) its muzzling of Federal scientists and scientific agencies.
    Surely we can be a prosperous oil producing country and at the same time make every effort to comply with efforts to reduce our carbon footprint. The way it is now we're embarrassing ourselves by placing state controls on science and scientific information dissemination. Our denial of environmental issues is similar to North Korea's denial that it bans the internet and Russia's denial that it's tampering with Ukraine sovereignty. Canada can't be one of those countries that fears and hides the truth. Our enemies do that. Changing or hiding the data doesn't change reality, it makes it difficult to adjust to reality.
    Data provides information, information gives us reliable knowledge, and knowledge eventually leads to wisdom. But data is the foundation. Without data, without the highly trained men and women whose research ferrets out the data, we're lost, eventually forced to make decisions without facts. You wouldn't drive while blindfolded, nor would you fly to a busy airport without radar and air traffic control. Seek factual data, make it available, don't fear it, and live well between your ears.
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