My Turn: In this new year, let’s try to break free of ignorance

For the Monitor
Published: 1/19/2020 7:16:08 AM
Modified: 1/19/2020 7:15:10 AM

Several times in the last month, I’ve bumped into people who have opinions about something they know nothing about. And because they know nothing about that thing, they get all whiney and/or grumpy and/or offended and/or audibly ignorant and inevitably cause harm to others.

Having an opinion on something you know nothing about is not the same as understanding that thing and having wisdom about it.

I think that building false belief structures out of opinions that are based on smoke is something human beings tend to do. I’ve noticed that once people have those foundationless opinions in place, you can’t budge them. You can’t convince them. You usually can’t even get them to re-examine the topic.

Years ago, when I was a newly hatched traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, I worked at an office associated with a hospital whose CEO was on the cutting edge of a new trend whereby Western hospitals and docs encouraged Western medicine and alternative medical practitioners to work together.

He welcomed us other folks – massage therapists, acupuncturists, naturopaths, etc. – to apply for hospital privileges. He encouraged the doctors working there to make appropriate referrals to us, and to let patients request treatments from us while they were in the hospital.

This worked really well for the other practitioners, but we Chinese medicine types seemed to never get requests; or when we did, they came the day the patient was scheduled to be discharged. What, we wondered, was going on?

Eventually we found a friendly doctor and asked if it was true that no patients were asking for treatments from us.

“No,” she replied, “lots of patients are asking. Are you not getting the requests?”

No, indeed, we weren’t.

Turns out that all in-patient requests had to go through the hospitalist – and he didn’t believe in Chinese medicine. I hustled over one day to ask him about this.

“It’s voodoo,” he said. “It doesn’t work. It’s dangerous. I’m not going to process those requests, so you can just forget about it.”

Have you ever tried acupuncture? I wondered. No, he said.

Do you know anyone who has? Only those foolish patients who believed it would be good for them, he said.

Did you read anything about Chinese medicine safety and efficacy? No.

Not even the World Health Organization’s recommendations? What did they know?

So your opinion is based on . . .? I just know, he said. It’s obvious. It has no scientific basis. If it did, it’d be part of Western medicine.

Can I give you a treatment so you can see what it feels like and explain how it works? Are you kidding me? I’m not going to let you touch me with those needles!

You do know they’re sterile, right? I don’t care! This is the end of this conversation!

We eventually talked to the CEO, came up with a work-around, treated some patients in the hospital in spite of the hospitalist, no one died or became ill and some improved a lot, and the hospitalist didn’t change his opinion. Didn’t want to, wasn’t going to, wouldn’t do any research on it. He knew what he knew.

Koop’s story

Years later, but still long ago, Dr. C. Everett Koop, who had been the surgeon general of the United States, used to tell a story on himself, and he told it to me in person once.

When he was a young surgeon, the United States and China opened up to each other again after the long time when China had gone dark. During this time, there was a government program by which Western-medicine-trained doctors in China came to the United States and were partnered with U.S. doctors in their same specialty to catch up on advances that we’d made in the West while China was dark.

Koop was partnered with a young Chinese surgeon who was about his age, and they had a lot in common: their children were the same ages, they’d been married about the same length of time, they had similar interests otherwise, and best of all, the Chinese doc spoke English. They became great friends.

After Koop’s friend returned to China, they wrote to each other and once in awhile made an expensive phone call; when the internet became functional and long-distance calls were more reasonable, they talked often by email and phone.

One day, Koop told me, he was thumbing through a medical journal and happened upon an article written by his Chinese buddy, describing how, in China, they were using acupuncture to cure something considered incurable here in the West. “Yeah, right,” he thought to himself, and fired off a quick email to his friend that essentially said, “Ha, ha, ha, do you really expect me to believe that you can cure with acupuncture something we’ve been trying to cure for 20 years and have had no luck?” Then he forgot about it.

In the middle of the night, his phone rang, and he jumped out of bed to find out what emergency he’d need to respond to. Instead, on the other end of the line was his really pissed-off Chinese friend.

“Do you think I’m stupid?” his friend shouted.

“No, of course I don’t. You’re one of the smartest people I know!”

“Do you think the Chinese people are stupid?” More shouting from China.

“No, no, of course not!”

“Then do you think we’d stick needles in each other for thousands of years if it didn’t work?” More shouting.

At that point, Koop told me, he had a revelation: Just because he didn’t understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

After he told me that story, Koop asked me to teach him to insert acupuncture needles, and we had a long talk about Chinese medicine theory because, even though he was retired, he was still curious, and interested, and willing to learn.

Learning to learn

Here’s the thing: The hospitalist, in spite of being highly educated, was ignorant and was determined to remain so. Koop was also ignorant, but he was able to break that limitation and allow that he didn’t know everything there was to know about medicine. And he tried to learn.

The hospitalist was like a lot of people – afraid of stuff he didn’t know, unwilling to see or admit his ignorance, unwilling to learn.

Those of us who, today, are climate-change deniers, who believe journalists can’t be trusted, who hold unchangeable opinions based on something we feel, or read on the internet or hear from equally ignorant friends are just like the hospitalist.

You may confuse yourself into believing that you’re educating yourselves when you listen to half-baked theories or opinions from other people who are ignorant about whatever topic they’re adamant about, but you aren’t getting educated that way. And in your ignorance, you’re hurting not only yourselves but other people.

The hospitalist, it turns out, had been in a bad accident several years before and lived with chronic pain that Western medicine was incapable of controlling. By choosing ignorance over education, he condemned himself to pain that we might have been able to ameliorate or even eliminate. He also hurt all the in-patients who requested our treatments, who didn’t get them because he didn’t believe in our medicine.

Yes, there are people pretending to be “alternative practitioners” whose alternative has no basis in anything; but just because those people exist doesn’t mean Chinese medicine, for example, doesn’t work.

Those of you who don’t believe in climate change and aren’t scientists who study the subject are, in spite of your beliefs, ignorant – and you’re acting on that ignorance as you vote, or pollute, or otherwise diminish what needs to be done. This harms you, your neighbors, your children and your grandchildren. You can argue all you want, but your arguments are built on smoke. You don’t know what you’re talking about, plain and simple.

Yes, there are scientists who aren’t climate scientists who are also ignorant; and yes, there was a time when the evidence wasn’t clearly compelling. But that doesn’t mean that our climate isn’t changing, that the evidence isn’t now compelling, and that we don’t need to do everything we can, urgently, about it.

Those of you who believe that you can’t trust journalists, and have never been one, are ignorant about what actually goes on to investigate and report a story, to ensure it’s accurate, to present it properly. Your opinion is based on smoke, and it’s incorrect.

Yes, there are people out there who pretend to be journalists, who can’t be believed. On rare occasions, a real journalist will make a mistake and the system won’t catch it. But that doesn’t mean that journalists can’t be trusted.

If you’re reading or listening to stuff from established, respectable sources, you can trust it, whether you like what’s being said or not. But if you choose instead to go with your ignorance, you’re harming yourself by staying uninformed or incorrectly informed. And that ignorant stubbornness will lead you to think unrealistically, to promote to other people incorrect information, to act on untruths. You’re doing harm.

In this new year, we need to be brave. We need to face our ignorance and be like Dr. Koop. We need to learn to distinguish actual fact from nonsense.

It isn’t as easy as it seems.

(Deb Marshall lives in Wilmot. She blogs at

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