Friday, October 08, 2004

Relevance of Ignorance

In an email response to the "Ecology of Ignorance," (posted below) an old college friend mentioned the fate of the great library of Alexandria, where "the wisdom of the ancients was burned for heat because the authors failed to make the knowledge relevant and the burners saw no value in the knowledge. The modern twist is that today we have agents who intentionally turn the scrolls into firelogs before marketing them to the cold and hungry."

Bill Thompson, who is currently counseling factory workers in a dying plant in Hamilton, Ontario, recalls this interpretation of what happened in Alexandria from Carl Sagan's TV series and book, Cosmos.

According to Sagan, Alexandria was a city devoted to knowledge, beginning with its founding by Alexander the Great in 300 B.C. The library was "the brain and glory of the greatest city on the planet, the first true research institute in the history of the world.... The Alexandrian Library is where we humans first collected, seriously and systematically, the knowledge of the world."

The library reflected the city's zealous commitment to books. Ships in port were searched, not for contraband but for books: in those days, prized handmade and often unique repositories. When found, the books were seized, copied and returned to their owners, and the copy became part of the library's huge collection.

But it was more than a repository of the known or proposed: the library contained "ten large research halls, each devoted to a separate subject; fountains and colonnades; botanical gardens; a zoo; dissecting rooms; an observatory; and a great dining hall, where, at leisure, was conducted the critical discussion of ideas." Among the community of scholars were Euclid, Ptolemy and Archimedes, and lesser known names like Herophilus (who first located the thinking functions in the brain), Dionysius of Thrace (who defined the parts of speech and "did for the study of language what Euclid did for geometry,") and Heron of Alexandria, who invented gear trains and steam engines, and wrote a book on robots.

Alexandria was the cosmopolis, where people of all nations came, lived, traded, studied: Greeks, Egyptians, Hebrews, Persians, Italians, Arabs, Iberians, Syrians...This amazing city and its library thrived for six hundred years. Yet we know almost nothing about the library, because it was totally destroyed by a mob composed of the city's own citizens. Not a single scroll out of thousands survived. Because many were rare or unique, that destruction meant the complete loss of the works themselves, in mathematics, physical sciences and the arts. All the works of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles were there, and most were lost forever. Of the 123 plays Sophocles is known to have written, we have but seven. A three volume history of the world by a Babylonian author was lost entirely.

The Christian/Catholic Church is usually blamed for the library's destruction, and indeed it was the Archbishop of Alexandria who inflamed followers, leading to the murder of the library's last great scholar, Hypatia, and the burning of the library itself. The Church was trying to obliterate rival "pagan" beliefs and practices, and it was here that learning and science became identified with godlessness and specifically paganism.

But even though Carl Sagan saw what we would call fundamentalist religion as a perennial threat to science, he did not attribute the loss of the Alexandrian library, which set the human race back centuries, only to the Church. By this time Alexandria was under Roman rule, and there was slavery. As to why this library and its knowledge were destroyed, Sagan writes (in the book version of Cosmos) "I cannot give you a simple answer. But I do know this: there is no record, in the entire history of the Library, that any of its illustrious scientists and scholars ever seriously challenged the political, economic and religious assumptions of their society. The permanence of the stars was questioned; the justice of slavery was not."

"Science and learning in general were the preserve of a privileged few. The vast population of the city had not the vaguest notion of the great discoveries taking place within the Library. New findings were not explained or popularized. The research benefited them little."

Sagan sums up: "Science never captured the imagination of the multitude. There was no counterbalance to stagnation, to pessimism, to the most abject surrenders to mysticism. When, at long last, the mob came to burn the Library down, there was nobody to stop them."

There are three points here: the scholars did not involve themselves in the issues of the day that affected the whole society; they did not explain their work in ways that people could understand; they made no practical applications of what they learned that would benefit people.

The third point is complicated in our time, for science certainly does lead, rather too quickly at times, to practical application. It's the nature of those applications (along with the honesty of the science leading to them) that is the public issue of our time. Carl Sagan's own career showed how seriously he took the first two points: he was perhaps the greatest popularizer of science of his generation and since, especially in translating and transmitting his enthusiasm and wonder. And he was foremost as well in applying science to political issues, notably nuclear weapons.

Though his comments on mysticism were problematic at times, and his faith in science perhaps excessive, the lessons Carl Sagan drew from the burning of the Alexandrian library are pertinent to our time. If we are suffering through a period of decline marked by a sappy cynicism personified in every television commercial, part of the ecology of ignorance is the gap between those in the academies of knowledge, and those who are not. If we are to truly learn from history, we ought to recognize that as different as our world now is, the relationship of the academy to society and to other institutions has roots and echoes in Alexandria.

Yes, we have many scientists and journalists who popularize science with great conscientiousness and skill. There is probably more quality work available than ever before, especially with the addition of video. But beyond stars and dinosaurs, genes and brains, what fields of knowledge are popularly explored? There have been fine efforts in ecology (like David Suzuki's tv series on the web of life) and environmental issues that call for political response. But what about the intersection of economics and ecology that society finds most difficult to deal with? Here the science as well as the communication are the problems. The same is true in another crucial area, psychology and society.

Within academia a variety of points of view is one thing, but self-referential confusion and inner directed concentration on careerism and academic politics is another. In some instances, clear communication would reveal mostly the essential confusion and irrelevance in the discipline itself. Only obscurant vocabulary and self-consistent but dubious systems of analysis mask it.

For in the end, ignorance does go both ways. The cubicle worker may be ignorant of academic concerns, but there's trouble too when the academic is ignorant of the cubicle worker's life, let alone the lives of the struggling families at the frayed and jagged edges of the self-sustaining middle class, or black children who have few elder men in their lives because so many black men die young in America.

Then there's Bill Thompson's additional point: "that today we have agents who intentionally turn the scrolls into firelogs before marketing them to the cold and hungry." There is the echo of the old Church in the fundamentalist right's insistence on ignorance of everything that they interpret as not being part of their revelation. But academics who get apoplectic on the subject of religion, are missing the bigger picture (and obscuring potential allies if they don't differentiate better.) The politicians who serve and are served by the rabid right (in its fundamentalist or other true believer mode, or simply in its strategic guise of dogmatism) are also in thrall to the corporate faith in the obscuring power of public relations, advertising and marketing. These are the primary tools of dominance in our day (apart from the often less successful military and economic oppression) and they require an audience that is satisfied to be ignorant.

We have some evidence at the moment that when reality impinges too painfully on the carefully constructed shared fantasy, people get restless. Right now they are watching the presidential/vp debates in uncommon numbers. The Bush campaign is throwing everything it has into attacks that have less and less to do with reality; not only the reality of Iraq and the economy, but specifically the reality of what their opponents said or did. Whether enough voters see through these lies and resist their comforts will determine the election, which will determine the course and speed of the evolution of ignorance.

We have new voices out there, using knowledge to focus issues and choose solutions. Voices like Dale Mahharidge, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Homeland, who gets his views on the social consequences of today's economics from talking in depth with real people where they live, beyond the platitudes and badly informed generalizations. Yet his research has focused and inspired broader ideas. For instance, he advocates what others have called the next industrial revolution, in renewable energy technology, specifically embodied in the new Apollo Project.

Voices like Robert Kennedy, Jr., who in his book, Crimes Against Nature, brings together environmental science, politics, corporate power and law as they combine to affect the lives and health of people---including the health of his own children. Long an environmental advocate in the courts and in his community, he seems to have concluded that it is time for him to become more involved in national politics because corporations keep nullifying his court victories against pollution by having the law changed. In a Kerry cabinet, he would be a dynamic Environmental Secretary who could very well make a dramatic difference.

People like Maharidge (a university professor as well as author) and Robert Kennedy Jr. make their case by honestly gathering and applying knowledge, and clearly articulating its relevance. Perhaps restoring faith in the honesty of knowledge, and its relevance, can help to restore it to cultural value. While we continue to create new ways to communicate knowledge in ways that develop a sense of wonder and an abiding fascination, not just in specific findings but in the activity, the pursuit. Ignorance may lose some of its cache, as well as its distracting and destructive power. Maybe Alexandria is due for a comeback.

No comments: