COLUMN: What makes you so smart?

Sorting fact from fiction in the Age of Information

Maybe we love to rebel against authority.

Perhaps we feel we’re our own experts, empowered by the ability to search any topic online.

Or it could be the role of social networks, where some folks trust anything their Facebook friends tell them but refuse to believe a newspaper report.

Whatever it is, too many of us seem too quick to distrust the scientists, experts and other traditional leaders of our society.

Don’t get me wrong. Critical thinking is a good thing. Evidence, data, decisions and policies should be challenged. You have to be your own advocate.

But it strikes me as an insult to doctors who invested years of study when we try to out-think them, armed with a quickie diagnosis from Dr. Google.

Physicians, of course, weren’t the only ones fighting an uphill battle against the over-informed masses in 2011.

Economists who said B.C. would be wise to keep the Harmonized Sales Tax found their advice ignored by the majority of voters.

Astronomers were still rebutting a viral email hoax that’s circulated for years, claiming a rare celestial event will make Mars appear as big as the moon.

Pollution experts struggled to counter YouTube and Facebook posts claiming to expose the “real” radiation levels B.C. was receiving from Japan’s nuclear disaster.

Granted there are situations where scientists disagree, or may be aligned with opposing stakeholders. The debate over Metro Vancouver’s garbage incineration plans and the possible role of fish farms in the decline of sockeye salmon spring to mind.

In the case of the Fukushima disaster, nearby Japanese residents were right to disbelieve almost everything they were first told.

For the most part, though, I worry for our future if too many of us engage in knee-jerk cynicism.

India’s prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh (a doctor and a politician, pity him) said it well last month: “Rampant distrust of all authority imperils the foundations of democracy.”

I’d say it imperils our health as well.

When too many vaccination rebels refuse to get a shot to help keep serious diseases at bay, we are all put at greater danger.

We saw this two years ago with the H1N1 flu vaccine refuseniks and more recently with parents holding chicken pox parties rather than have their kids submit to Big Pharma and the needle.

Besides a failure to filter and intelligently assess the glut of information now at our fingertips, we seem to have a related problem: an inability to realistically assess risk.

As a result, we have a low-level insurgency against BC Hydro’s wireless smart meters, despite the fact every square inch of the Lower Mainland is blanketed by wifi and cellphone signal networks.

We have schools ringed with parents’ cars because of the pervasive fear that lurking pedophiles will snare our children on the walk to class – despite the fact nearly all molesters and abductors are known to their victims and families.

We worry about “the big C” and how to avoid it because cancer rates are rising – never mind that’s largely because we’re living longer and not dropping from heart attacks as early.

And we have the public’s intense fear of crime, despite generally falling crime rates, that the Harper government is exploiting to impose U.S.-style justice reforms that many experts fear will be a costly failure.

I’ve run out of space, but I suspect the 9/11 conspiracy theorists, moon landing skeptics and Holocaust deniers have already tuned out.

For the rest of you still with me, thanks for reading.

I trust you didn’t believe a word.

Jeff Nagel is the regional reporter for Black Press in the Lower Mainland.

Twitter: @jeffnagel