Throughout history there have been many individuals whose statements have made an impact on the lives of those around them and on the world. A person may say something out of impulse that sounds bizarre, but when others realize what was said they begin to feel moved. Alexander Pope once said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” (Phrase Finder) This essentially means a small amount of knowledge can cause people to think they are more expert than they are and consequently make unwise choices. An individual’s confidence of being an expert on a subject when in reality he is not can be a hazardous state of mind and has never been more apparent than in the twentieth century.
The nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in New Jersey illustrates the validity of Pope’s statement. “On Sunday afternoon, while Carter was still there, Victor Stello found the proof he needed. They discovered that Mattson and his team of consultants had been using the wrong formula to determine the risk posed by the hydrogen bubble.”(Roger Mattson) This clearly shows that the wrong information used in the calculations for the reactor caused the whole project to fail. The scientists were hooked on the fact that they were using the correct formula that they did not make sure that it was correct in its entirety. The carelessness of the scientists resulted in millions of dollars spent for clean up and contamination of land and water. This contamination could be lethal to individuals and is all because of a very simple mistake. If the ego of the scientists had been smaller the entire disaster may have been avoided.
Pope knew that little knowledge can cause people to act based on rumors which is exemplified by the destruction of Merrill Hall. Merrill Hall was destroyed by ELF (Earth Liberation Front) arsonists who said that Toby Bradshaw’s study of tree genetics was causing harm to the environment. (McCormick p.1) However, what the arsonists said and what actually happened are two different stories. “I have never genetically engineered a tree, much less released one into the environment.” he [Bradshaw] stated. “These “transgenetic” samples are purely experimental and never leave the lab.”(McCormick)
The forestry professor estimates that, since 1995, he has worked with 80 transgenetic tissue samples compared to about 15,000 poplar seedlings bred traditionally. The work that Bradshaw is doing does not have an effect on the environment in any way. His studies are strictly for research and cause no harm to anyone. The ELF may have had good intentions, but they destroyed a very expensive building based on untrue facts about what was going on inside of the building. Incidents like this are capable of being avoided if people take more time to examine the situation and act with certainty.
A more subtle example of when little knowledge proved be a dangerous thing was the use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers on agricultural produce. “More and more people are making decisions that affect agriculture without having the necessary educational references to benefit society in the long run. Many people no longer know where or how their food originates and really don’t care, assuming it will always be available when needed. Many also assume that farmers recklessly apply pesticides and they react with alarm to media reports filed by equally uninformed reporters.”(Causley) This excerpt explains that people do not know anything when it comes to the origin of their food. It also gives an explanation why mistakes that could be avoided are not. People do not care what is done to their food assuming that everything that is put into it is safe. DDT, a toxic pesticide used to kill grasshoppers feeding on crops, was one of the biggest killers of bald eagles in the United States.
It also was shown to cause birth defects and premature death. Nobody wants to have poison in the food he or she consumes, but it cannot be taken out or spoken against if people do not realize that it is present. “The time is right, it seems, to provide children with special opportunities: that of witnessing the germination of a seed, tasting a newly picked strawberry, or marveling as baby chicks emerge from eggs. There will be a myriad of other experiences necessary on a day-to-day basis to carry their learning into adulthood. Children tend to reach the goals set before them–so if there is to be a strong agriculture in tomorrow’s world, the foundations must be laid now.”(Causley) Children’s attitudes are easier to change than adults. If a sense of care is engrained into a child’s mind at a young age there may be a chance to change the careless actions of the world into carefulness.
Perhaps the most apparent truth regarding Pope’s statement is the genocide that took place during World War II. Almost the entire Jewish community living in Germany was massacred. This is because the Germans believed that the Jewish people were to blame for their problems. The German people believed that killing the Jews was the right thing to do. They based their beliefs on speeches by influential leaders and on propaganda. The people doing the actual killing of the Jews were told lies and cover stories to make them believe that they were helping their country. The executioners acted based on little knowledge they were told by biased sources. They were, in a way, brainwashed into believing that murder is acceptable. None of the major religions in the world teach that murder is good, yet the Nazis who killed millions of Jews believed that maybe in some circumstances it was accepted. Over 6 million Jews were killed under the command of Adolph Hitler. (Gurdus) The charisma of Hitler is most likely higher than that of any leader in history.
The German people believed every word that came out of Hitler’s mouth, and it is because of this that the Jews were persecuted. Hitler told the people that the Jews were the cause of the economy failure and that they were responsible for Germany’s poor condition. He promised to make Germany strong again. Many people who were still confused after World War I bought into Hitler’s claims and followed him. He became very powerful and used his power to get Germans to slaughter the Jews. The Jews were blamed for the downfall of Germany, but in reality it was the unwise decisions of the leaders. The Jewish people could not have been the cause for the defeat in World War I, but Germans believed that the Jews were at fault because of lies preached to them. The Jews were not just killed, they were tortured.
Many of the Jews were burned alive, which is very painful. Others were forced to inhale toxic gasses causing internal bleeding and organ failures which led to death. (Herzstein) Also, every Jew had to wear the Star of David on their clothing so everyone would be able to tell if they were Jewish or not. The cruelty of the German people is almost unbelievable and is due to the ignorance that they did nothing about. The fact that many of the Germans could have simply said, “no” is what makes this tragedy even worse. The Germans believed everything they were told and took millions of innocent lives because they felt that what they knew about the Jews was truthful and that they were doing what was best for mankind.
A person attesting Pope’s statement might exploit the people who knew little medical information but because of training they were able to help out another. A little bit of knowledge on how to care for someone who has been cut badly or has a broken bone may help save that person’s life. Simple knowledge on how to properly clean and dress a wound can prevent infection, amputation, or even death. (McClarty) When a person knows techniques that can help save lives, their life and the lives of those around them are at less of a risk.
This argument is valid except that it does not cover the main issue at hand. If a person knows how to dress a wound then their little knowledge can be good, but if that same person thinks they can perform a heart transplant because of their wound healing abilities then they may cause someone else to die.
Believing that one is an expert in a field they have little knowledge about can deeply affect the world. Having a high self-esteem is a good thing, but when it becomes too high and a person believes he is capable of things he is not then the high self-esteem turns into chaos. People specialize in one particular field of study so they can help others. It is impossible for everyone got a PhD in every subject, so becoming an expert in one field is the best way to organize society. Doubting the truth also is acceptable sometimes, but doubting the truth and acting when you are not sure of the truth is when trouble begins. A little learning can spawn an appetite for a greater knowledge, but acting before obtaining the amount of knowledge necessary for proper engagement is a dangerous thing.