Absent Amandla: Is South Africa Anti-Intellectual?

A spectre is haunting South Africa, the spectre of anti-intellectualism, and it cuts through every ray in our ragged rainbow.

What would South Africa look like if it didn’t value education? Textbooks would get lost in logistics and bureaucracies; educators of all stripes would go undervalued, underpaid, and undertrained; our parliament would be dominated by the loudest vessels, and its discourse hyperactive and coarse; its leader proudly unlettered and secure aboard his Ship of Fools; we’d see corruption and high crime rates and dirty money accrued behind a thin screen of business-as-usual, the criminals protected and citizens hustled; there would be a superficial and unsustainable ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality that implores unique snowflakes follow their dreams “no matter what” in a brand-blinded world of materialism and money lust; supernatural beliefs would go unquestioned and celebrated; divisive racial tensions would be exacerbated by fear and frustration; virulently idiotic demagogues would make irrelevant political statements by senselessly slinging excrement at statues; the practice of taking responsibility in public positions would be riddled in legalities, delayed, excused or forgotten; and dogmatic moral relativism would run despairingly amok. Unfortunately, we need not close our eyes to imagine this harsh and painful thought experiment, only open them ever so slightly to see these phenomena, and copious others of a similarly irrational ilk, repeatedly paraded before us in vivid ignominy.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” — Evelyn Beatrice Hall on Voltaire

As a young democracy we are failing to fully think about the real threat poor quality education poses, especially in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as well as philosophy. Science, in particular, is not simply a subject to be passed or failed in school (assuming — naïvely, for argument’s sake — there were adequate facilities and properly trained teachers to begin with) so much as it is a way of thinking about the world and how it works. The trouble is that science simply isn’t a big enough part of South Africa’s social discourse. We don’t value its proven track record and we struggle with its consequences. We see it as something other countries and groups pursue; perhaps even, and this would indeed be terrifying, as a white/ European Thing: a rancid post-colonial evil still affecting “true” African identity and traditions. Promoting science education will curb such intellectual cannibalism, and so shift the continents’ consciousness for a far more promising future.

Is it imperative Africa painfully evolve from its colonial past, or can we burst through this historic husk on eco-friendly jetpacks powered by the sun!? — “MADE UNDER AFRICAN SKIES”. In the same way that we must not be afraid to learn lessons from any past civilization, we should avoid prematurely discarding any previously acquired knowledge for superficial reasons. While China’s heavy investment in Africa might be a generally positive trend, let’s ensure we are, in fact, knowledgeable enough as nations and individuals to know what future we want and how to negotiate it. By failing to critically scrutinize this and other new arrangements, the continent could well find itself exploited again.

Why are we so confident that we are putting the best characters in power when it is clear that our education standards are generally poor, and a large number of South Africa’s population and leaders aren’t properly literate or sufficiently schooled? Is it difficult to acknowledge that we don’t yet have access to all the relevant information to make the best possible decision? And is it such an outrageous thought that a generation’s lack of education in the past doesn’t always result in the right choices being made in the present? We either truly value education and acknowledge that this entails acquiring new knowledge and ways of thinking that constantly challenge our core beliefs, or we continue to view education as a sterile economic activity: something that simply helps get you a job, to buy things, consume. Is this the African Dream?

Investing in science education will raise the floor for our poorest communities, empower individual minds with the wealth of human knowledge (i.e. making them responsible agents in South Africa’s powerful young democracy), and could fuel the pan-African agenda with its value-free pursuits of objective truths. Science is the single most unifying venture humans can embrace. Why, then, is South Africa, in particular, still saying no to this endeavour? Is the socio-historical identity of any one group more important than the universal pursuit of maximizing human well-being? Of course, the choice is usually not black and white, but in South Africa’s case we can justifiably say that education is of a troublingly low standard, and it shows in almost all areas of society. What are we doing about it?

The scientific method has built into it a rigorous way of trying to understand the nature of the universe and is constantly challenging its claims and models of reality as new information comes to light. It is hardwired to prevent untenable beliefs and irrationality from gaining momentum in our decision-making processes. In other words, it calibrates our bullshit detector. Science is neutral in this sense, without bias or an inherent ideological agenda. By ignoring the critical-thinking skills embedded in its methods and means (and so not fully understanding science’s value and function in the 21st century) we play dice with the democratic process and risk further darkness by failing to rally behind mankind’s greatest achievements and hopes.

“Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. What if someone says, ‘Well, that’s not how I choose to think about water.’? All we can do is appeal to scientific values. And if he doesn’t share those values, the conversation is over. If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove that they should value it? If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument could you provide to show the importance of logic?” — Sam Harris

What should we expect when Thuli Madonsela provides evidence of questionable practices when it is presented to a nation that doesn’t value evidence? “Firepool”: “Add” or “Ignore”? Acknowledging this dire reality, how can we convince a society that critical thinking and healthy scepticism is something desirable? Anything worth having is often challenging, and if it were easy everyone would be reading and thinking critically and rationally. We would all, to use Daniel Kahneman’s term, be thinking slow about serious matters that concern our current and future well- being — even if the conclusions and truths we reach disrupt our current worldview; in fact, especially if they do so.

A nation that does not appreciate evidence and logical enquiry is an opiated and coarse one that willingly inoculates itself against the fruits of history, destined to wallow in divine shadows and ancient authorities. Those who admit to faith in the supernatural claim to have knowledge beyond what can be known objectively and without science’s robust methodologies and checks (e.g. double-blind studies, clinical trials, control groups, placebos, and so on). Such claims should immediately raise serious epistemological doubts, and those who persist in positing purely subjective access to special knowledge are variously prone to severe intellectual and moral stagnation, or decay, if not all at once. South Africa, sadly, provides something of an exquisitely ignoble exemplar in this regard.

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” — Bertrand Russell

Science, mathematics, and philosophy form the foundations for logical and sceptical inquiry, as well as serve to enrich and empower those who realise they are collectively considered means and not merely ends. As a democracy with hopes for a future, we should surely seek to promote these subjects and the philosophical values that guide them. Rationality and healthy scepticism are essential foundations for learning (as young minds so often remind us), particularly in the informationally overloaded 21st century. It is, therefore, an absolute imperative to equip and encourage our students and culture to discover science and mathematics (alongside and through philosophy) in a new light: as something accessible, fascinating, immediate and powerful.

As we speak, our own Milky Way, so we know, is on a collision course with the Andromeda Galaxy. Before that, however, our dying Sun would have made life impossible for us primates to continue here on Earth. That is, provided we don’t soon finish the job ourselves. Africa is uniquely positioned to benefit from this new global consciousness around climate change: economically, socially, and politically, but will we?

Do you want to build a better South Africa for all? What if that meant giving up something you feel deeply defines you and yours? If you answered no to the first question (i.e. you only want a better future for yourself, your own race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, region, firepool party members, etc.) then please kindly identify yourself in the comment section below. For the second question, the point is to be conscious of the line we draw with our beliefs and ideas about the world when they are properly challenged. If a challenge to our belief system comes in the form of valid and reliable evidence, we are compelled to consider and adjust those beliefs, or risk cognitive dissonance, hypocrisy, and anti-intellectualism. By refusing to allow new facts to influence our worldview we degrade human conversation and celebrate intellectual stagnation.

The difference between criticism and bigotry isn’t the level of offensiveness; it is that the latter aims to impose its views on others (often violently, in some shape or form, with little or no call to reason), while the former righteously challenges any overzealous zeitgeists for good. It is in no way important, nor of any consequence, if, for example, you feel offended by the Theory of Evolution and its logical consequences. A democratically responsible citizen should be just as wary of adopting incredulity to remain cognitively comfortable, as he or she should credulously accept any claims to truth that demand obedient acceptance despite insufficient or even nonexistent evidence, as is often the case with religions or supernatural beliefs.

“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” — Mark Twain

Inviting criticism means not being afraid to see our own mistakes, past and present, and asks that we muster the courage to learn from them. Criticism is healthy, and it matters that we are aware of its power and form, and realise how little we all know about the world and each other. The point is never to attack the person, the classic ad hominem fallacy, nor to dismiss an argument simply because we don’t understand it or because it runs counter to our current beliefs, culture or sense of self. Instead, we should always attempt to address the idea or issue at immediate hand, and so avoid lazy thinking by defaulting to prejudices and ignorance.

It is also important for progress that we are aware of how susceptible the human mind is to error. Prejudice and bias invariably arise when we communicate with and think about ourselves in relation to others. However, by bravely challenging our diverse surfaces we start to value the entire spectrum of emergent identities. Imagine, truly, the possibility of a towering new African Babel free from phantoms, divine intervention, and impoverished worldviews revealed through free and fanciful navel-gazing. Part of understanding what it means to ‘think scientifically’ is acknowledging how overconfidence in subjective or dogmatic claims to knowledge are inherently unconvincing in mankind’s quest for reliable models of objective reality.

“It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” — Carl Sagan

Cognitive dissonance arises when conflicting worldviews are not critically resolved. This is usually the result of ignorance (lacking knowledge) and an unwillingness to think about and challenge our belief systems, our claims to truth, as well as how we know what we know (epistemology). How is it possible that our president is a rich protestant with five wives? Is African Zionism a viable (or wanted) synergy with Christianity, a revealing comparative mythology, or just plain false? Do we really believe spiritual healers are ‘above and beyond’ the scientific method? Our answer to this last question is particularly important given the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in South Africa where around 50% of the population consult some form of traditional healer before a mainstream health practitioner. These are some hard questions and criticisms that South Africans must tackle for lasting transformation. Magical thinking and belief in scriptural claims to knowing are incompatible with the 21st century scientific way of thinking, and are soon exposed under the pressure of scientific rigor.

“Any time scientists disagree, it’s because we have insufficient data. Then we can agree on what kind of data to get; we get the data; and the data solves the problem. Either I’m right or you’re right or we’re both wrong. And we move on. That kind of conflict resolution does not exist in politics or religion. It does not exist in so much of what we do as human beings on this Earth that it’s almost tragic.” — Neil deGrasse Tyson

There is no single book of science as there is, for example, with the three major monotheistic religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity), but instead a community of trained sceptics are constantly fighting to tease truths from reliable observations and models of our universe (see Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s “The Grand Design”). The scientific way of wondering doesn’t claim to have all the answers and challenges those who think they do. Many are confused on this point, and often misrepresent science’s position as authoritarian or even as a new religion. Consider the answers Ken Ham and Bill Nye gave to the question “What, if anything, would ever change your mind?” at the end of their historic debate at the Creation Museum in 2014. Ken Ham said “[N]o one is ever going to convince me that the word of God is not true”, after which Bill Nye (“the Science Guy”) answered: “We would just need one piece of evidence”. Religious dogma, on the other hand, is arrogant and fixed. It claims to know something others do not, something outside the knowable universe, and it does so doggedly against cutting edge technology and our imagination.

A couple of months ago, a young Christian man on a local online radio station said, rather causally, that his god appeared to him (“like you’re sitting here now”) and had encouraged him to help educate others. In any other version of this delusion we would label him as psychotic, but instead he visits some of South Africa’s schools in the name of his personal — and, as Isaac can testify, capricious — celestial dictator. If you were in a taxi and a young woman started having a conversation with someone you couldn’t see, and when you asked her about it, says, “I’m talking to God”, what would you think? Would you ask her to put in a good word for you, listen to her teachings, or slowly move away? If someone reportedly came back from the dead at their funeral today in Zimbabwe, how sceptical would you really be that the laws of nature were momentarily suspended in such dramatic fashion? What prevents us from using scientific standards of evidence, employed so successfully to expose extraordinary events from the past, to assess outlandish contemporary ones?

“The purpose of education is not to validate ignorance but to overcome it […] Lack of comfort means we are on the threshold of new insights.” — Lawrence M. Krauss

There are no arguments from authority in science (“Leave our president alone!”), only giant insights on which to stand and survey a possible future. Ideas may be proved wrong as our understanding and experiences of reality expand, but such is the wonder and freedom the sciences and philosophy demands. Science needs be — unlike holy commands and authoritative supernatural traditions — falsifiable. It realises that through failure(s) comes a greater understanding about the world we live in that can and has helped increase human well-being (see Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” for a detailed Big History of this phenomenon).

Only a fool would now ignore or deny our collective history of ideas (of science, philosophy and art), perhaps as something “Jewish”, “White” or “African”, and to promote science in Africa we will have to exorcise this shadowy dimension of post-colonialism in the current pan-African identity drive, and remember Sagan’s words when he said: “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge”.

By ignoring the intellectual toolkit enabling critical thinking, we are depriving future generations of the ability to successfully navigate the borderlands between reason and nonsense with valid and reliable coordinates. The most important part of any serious empowerment programme should unequivocally be directed towards education, the most powerful and precious pursuit a generation can use to economically and intellectually elevate itself, and concomitantly the ones that follow. In developing a culture of healthy scepticism and rationality, we liberate young minds, pure and simple. For the time being, we are — unnecessarily, South Africa — trudging through the marshes of myopic moral relativism on such a grand scale that we greatly risk our rainbow.


By: Christopher Wheeler (Writer); Ryan Rutherford (Editor); Anthony Hodge (Illustrator)