Ignorance is One Thing, Anti-Knowledge Another

I’ve run across several columns/posts recently focused on a distinction–one that is gaining in importance–between Ignorance and anti-knowledge, or what we might call intentional or stubborn ignorance. In the aftermath of yet another presidential debate, the distinction merits consideration.

As Lee McIntyre put it in last Sunday’s New York Times,

We’ve all heard the phrase “you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” Opinions are the sorts of things about which we can take a poll. They are sometimes well-informed, but rarely expected to be anything other than subjective. Facts, on the other hand, are “out there” in the world, separate from us, so it makes little sense to ask people what they think of them. As the comedian John Oliver so aptly put it… “You don’t need people’s opinion on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking: ‘Which number is bigger, 15 or 5?’ Or ‘Do owls exist’ or ‘Are there hats?’”

McIntyre distinguishes between skepticism–withholding belief because the evidence does not live up to the standards of science–from denialism, which is the refusal to believe something even in the face of what most reasonable people would take to be compelling evidence.

At Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton has a similar rumination on the phenomenon he calls “virulent ignorance,” and quotes from an article by former congressional staffer Mike Lofgren:

Fifty years ago, if a person did not know who the prime minister of Great Britain was, what the conflict in Vietnam was about, or the barest rudiments of how a nuclear reaction worked, he would shrug his shoulders and move on. And if he didn’t bother to know those things, he was in all likelihood politically apathetic and confined his passionate arguing to topics like sports or the attributes of the opposite sex.
There were exceptions, like the Birchers’ theory that fluoridation was a monstrous communist conspiracy, but they were mostly confined to the fringes. Certainly, political candidates with national aspirations steered clear of such balderdash.

At present, however, a person can be blissfully ignorant of how to locate Kenya on a map, but know to a metaphysical certitude that Barack Obama was born there, because he learned it from Fox News. Likewise, he can be unable to differentiate a species from a phylum but be confident from viewing the 700 Club that evolution is “politically correct” hooey and that the earth is 6,000 years old….

Anti-knowledge is a subset of anti-intellectualism, and as Richard Hofstadter has pointed out, anti-intellectualism has been a recurrent feature in American life, generally rising and receding in synchronism with fundamentalist revivalism…

 To a far greater degree than previous outbreaks, fundamentalism has merged its personnel, its policies, its tactics and its fate with a major American political party, the Republicans.

Buttressing this merger is a vast support structure of media, foundations, pressure groups and even a thriving cottage industry of fake historians and phony scientists. From Fox News to the Discovery Institute (which exists solely to “disprove” evolution), and from the Heritage Foundation (which propagandizes that tax cuts increase revenue despite massive empirical evidence to the contrary) to bogus “historians” like David Barton (who confected a fraudulent biography of a piously devout Thomas Jefferson that had to be withdrawn by the publisher), the anti-knowledge crowd has created an immense ecosystem of political disinformation.

I think it is this support structure that is most worrisome, because it enables what political psychologists call “confirmation bias,” the tendency we all share to look for evidence that confirms our pre-existing opinions.

Thanks to modern technologies, any crank or ideologue can create the “evidence” we desire–at least, if we aren’t too fussy about what constitutes evidence.
There’s nothing wrong with genuine ignorance; it can be corrected with credible information. Intentional, stubborn, “faith-based” ignorance, on the other hand, will destroy us.


  1. Each morning, after I have fed the cats, I play three (quick) hands of solitaire on the computer. If I win on the first or second deal, I quit. This exercise helps me orient myself to the day, sort of calisthenics for my brain. I confess I have added a new exercise. I have read Ms. Kennedy’s blog for several years. (One value of Paul Ogden’s blog is the blog roll on the right-hand side of the page.) I also have read the comments in response to the previous day’s blog. In recent months, I have read Gopper’s comments. The comments section grew. Now I scroll through the comments, find comments by Gopper, in my mind I imagine the comments of others whom Gopper takes to task, and look back to see whether I was correct in my interpretation of how he or she (Gopper) bastardized someone else’s outlook. She or he (Gopper again; she or he uses an alias, after all) quotes correctly. The guano interpretation and the labels she or he applies to whomever the other person might be are where the fun begins. Occasionally his commentary is accurate, usually it is in a different realm. I try to ignore the anti-Semitism and other signs of bitterness. Then again, this is America, and I am a Groucho Marxist-John Lennonist. Ah! But now I am awake!

  2. It’s a pity to watch reactionary, contagious, cultural waves of limbic dementia inhabit such a wide swath of fearful, contankerous, extremists from either far ends of the libertarian/ authoritarian continuum. Rhetorical hostage taking, fraudulentm distractive nois and free thoughtful speech are antithetical. It is only toleranted in measured doses. Our symbolic communication sets- divisions are now as vituperative as the decade approaching the Civil War. Our destructive powers and potentials make that nearly unthinkable, but the tension is not a creative one. It’s legalistic, rights oriented rather the responsibilities oriented, ignorantly and dangerously so.

    Fortunately we have resistant as well as creayive, productive, alternative models, a capacity to engage them and multiple avenues in which to do so. Too many are not taking this wave as seriously as I percieve it to be. I’m torn between thinking surely it must collapse of it’s own blather and that it’s too late, the damage is done and semi-permanent as we continue militaristic acts and responses which are increasionly proven inept, massive economic displacement of a vast majority of citizenry and lumbering snails paced institutions slow to adapt to our increasing disorganization and incoherent policies toward power and rescource distribution and utilization.

    Rather than coolly or warmly discuss it here, which does have value as exploratorium and partial respite ( my gratitude to SSK) it’s in wider venues and more specific organized actions that citizenship is needed, defined not only as voting, or service work but becoming informed and willing to participate at higher levels of ethical responsible leader or mentorship. I’m sure many here work at it and yet we can improve.

    When everyone is a writer/publisher the cacophonous din is overwhelming and yet I’m hopeful that quality content and organizational shakeout, and thoughtful, steady temperaments will effectively engaged and prevail. I’m not at all sure it’s our political institutions that will lead us to a less self destructive path. Most business as practiced currently does not inspire me.

    It’s education, storytelling, creative cohesive narratives of purposeful communities of respect and work that sustains me. Human interactions of mutual goodwill rather than stulted, immature, kneejerk slogans of liberty or freedom used to manipulate and divide that are really intended to weaken and disallow threat to the status quo I find disturbing. Moderation means to me mixed economies and encouraged, educated, empowered, compassionate citizens in general agreements of mutual wellbeing.

    Freedom without responsibility is freedom to be a jerk. Legalistic, rigidly theocratic, and/or unyielding attempts to impose upon, rather than compose with– prevalence will not take us home, only a large nod to civil, ethical and moral cooperation as well as rights in balance will.

  3. Freedom without responsibility is freedom to be a jerk. Legalistic, rigidly theocratic, and/or unyielding attempts to impose upon, rather than compose with– will not take us home, only a large nod to civil, ethical and moral cooperation with competition as well as rights in balance will.

  4. This is what happens when a government or media system dedicates itself to propagandizing a large swath of a society. You end up with that large swath in agreement on ideas and concepts that are total fallacies. Not only that but you encourage extended flawed ideas based on the perception that these fallacies are fact. The end result is a culture that sees truth in fantasy and lies in fact.

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