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.

55 thoughts on “Ignorance is One Thing, Anti-Knowledge Another

  1. I’ve been feeling that Fox and all its many ‘friends’ are a threat to the survival of the country as we know it for the very reasons you discuss. And now we find ourselves at the stage where ‘news’ has been neutered as an important part of the political process and replaced with ‘polls’ by the whole industry.

  2. And I don’t think it is a threat to survival. Saudi Arabia is surviving, right? It is, however, a threat to all that is good. The Saudis have created the hell hole to which we should be pointing and saying, “faith will lead us there.”

  3. One Republican said something like:
    “We need to stop being the party of stupid”
    That man is running for the nomination as their Presidential Nominee
    He is getting almost NO support from his party
    Maybe they need to go all the way down…. Hit their bottom
    Or maybe there are enough devoutly stupid folks to keep them going
    I sure hope not.

  4. To me, the term “ignorance” translates to the lack of information/knowledge/facts to make a decision or take an action. “anti-knowledge”, in my mental dictionary translates to stupidity; having full information/knowledge/facts but choosing to ignore them and make decisions and take actions to reach their personal goals.

    The anti-knowledge or stupidity of the Republican party has reached psychotic/sociopathic levels; knowing right from wrong but deliberately making wrong decisions and taking wrong actions to get their way by depriving Americans of their civil and human rights. This is what we are subjected to daily by the GOP, supported by Congress, backed by SCOTUS and we are inundated with their decisions and actions and future goals 24/7 in the media. All in the name of their God and supported by their version of Bible verses, primarily taken from the Old Testament…which takes us back to “Religion and Hostility” on yesterday’s blog. “The Donald” has now announced that, if elected, he will demand everyone say Merry Christmas. So much for the 1st Amendment in it’s entirety.

    Guess I’m still hostile!

  5. A few months after 9/ll I was with Neal Conan of NPR at a benefit dinner for the public radio station here in Jacksonville. He asked me what was really going on in the country. And I explained to him, it’s very simple: “It’s the stage managed, re-creation of the hatred of Nazi Germany by the Extreme Right in order to destroy American democracy.”

    Neal had no trouble with that answer. At this point of time, anyone who can bypass his cognitive dissonance shouldn’t either.

  6. There is evidence of good news. Like the fact that the studies Sheila points out exist. “Anti-knowledge” and confirmation bias are words you can find if not often at least they’re out there. We’ve named this devil.

    When the Tea Party first started eating at our soul I was appalled at the high ground we ceded immediately without defense: “freedom”, “Constitution”, “founding fathers”, “government “, the flag, patriotism. What were we thinking?

    Now America’s enemies, purveyors of ignorance, are debating on media pretending to be qualified for President. Donald Trump? Ben Carson? Ted Cruz? Really?

    It’s time to move on and we are. Our mistakes are regrettable but not fatal. “To err is human” as they say. The only fault to ignorance is feeding it, sustaining it.

    We need a political Jonas Salk. A vaccine that would train our immune system to entertainment based politics and reject it before it multiples. Because we aren’t likely to find such a vaccine we need to train ourselves and others in the science of critical thinking; real skepticism, knowledge based progress.

  7. I was really hoping that the internet would destroy the right wing thinking. Instead, it’s fed their anti-knowledge at the cost to this great country. Fox is banned in my part of Europe. That means I missed the parade last night and couldn’t even tape it while I slept. No great loss I guess.

  8. Here’s the complete intellectual content of last night’s debate.

    Government is too big. Our military is too small. Taxes are too big. Business is too small. There are too many pages in our law books. We need to lock down the country. The past is perfect but the future is to be avoided. We are simply not smart enough to save the planet for future generations.

    Here’s the evidence given in support of those statements of faith:

    The entire display of real knowledge on stage were the three journalists with their backs to the audience. They won the debate.

    I w

  9. Pete,

    “A vaccine that would train our immune system to entertainment based politics and reject it before it multiplies.”

    The new strain of the “Hitler Virus”has already multiplied many times over. The religious based politics were there long before the entertainment based politics. To quote Marshall Mcluhan: “The Medium is the Message.” In this case the MEDIUM has been the PULPIT.

    For many reasons we have had a disastrous “propaganda and psychological warfare gap” on the Progressive side in America.

    It better be closed now or you can forget your “good news.”

  10. The GOP is of course in the worst political bind conceivable. 8 years of Cheney/Bush followed by 7 years of Obama. That would be a nightmare scenario for any party.

    They’ve invested the last 7 years demonstrating daily that all politics can be dysfunctional and damaging all of the while selling the idea that Democrats are every bit as bad as Republicans are.

    Now they are running for office in the institution that they’ve portrayed as completely inept and destructive – the “logic” being that winning will allow them to kill the host, government and country, to save us from themselves as well as democrats.

    Fortunately modern culture has created the perfect symbol for occasions like this.


  11. Pete,

    You’re right. What a mess.

    What we should do is vote for either Trump or Carson or something worse to save ourselves from the worst elements of the Theocratic/Racist Republican Party. That’s logical. Isn’t it?

    The Democrats will only make things worse. Right?

    Unfortunately, that’s the growing logic of more than a few of my friends. I don’t agree with it. But I can understand it. I’m just not ready to commit suicide. However, It might be a valid alternative down the line,.

  12. Thanks for the recap Pete. My browsing through the web today says that “We are Being PAID TOO MUCH!”
    bwahaaa haaaaa

  13. Climate change did come up briefly. After all, the debate topic was economics. What does climate change have to do with economics other than it being the most significant economic challenge the world faces today.

    The response was basically that we can’t afford the future. Future Americans are just going to have to accept that jobs today in an obsolete field are more important than affordable taxes for them.

  14. After viewing four Republican debates it’s clear that none of them want the job. Why? They claim that our major challenge is creating jobs and the only way that business can do that is in the absence of government. No taxes or regulation. So, being patriots, why would they want to preside over government rather than over a business?

  15. The “Republican Debates” contain no Republicans and little debate. I’m sure most of you have seen the movie “One Flew Over The Coocoo’s Nest”. What you are seeing are those fruitless therapy session moderated by Nurse Rachedd; they are all overdue for medication, no prognosis for any of them and their responses to questions offer no clue that they are aware of their actual situation in this life. My favorite character in the movie is Chief; the most intelligent of the group and he kept his mouth shut. We can also compare them to the part in the movie when Jack Nicholson stole the bus…and the patients…at took them on the trip of their lives. I’m sure that is true for most of these presidential nominee wannabes with “The Donald” at the wheel of the busload of escaping mental patients.

  16. The point about Fact Resistant Humans (FRHs) is that they are not persuadable. So, if you want to avoid the damage they cause, you must get those who agree with you to the polls. The local and state Democratic organizations have done a terrible job at this. A recent exception was Joe Hogsett’s GOTV effort. I don’t know who put it together, and I got tried on the phone calls on election day, but the vote totals showed the result.

  17. These good idea bad execution debates are based on an old political strategy. I’ll say today what you want to hear because by tomorrow you’ll forget what I said.

    Last night’s message? We will give you government for free so you’ll have more to spend on entertainment. We’ll do that by eliminating all expenditures that give your money to someone else and that’s a much better deal than business where they always give your money to someone else but in exchange for a trinket (Sort of like the purchase of Manhattan from the Indians)

    And included in that government for free offer is world leadership and unlimited power and glory.

    Who could not possibly want that?

  18. Pete:
    I mentioned a week ago or so that I thought the republicans don’t want to win the presidency, based on the candidates vying for the nomination. The democrats have their own problems, but at least their candidates are capable of communicating with intelligent life forms. The republicans hate Obama, taxes, immigrants, poor people, pregnant women not necessarily in that order. What about governing?

  19. “Free markets” are lovely things like old English countrysides of pretty gardens and thatched roof cottages. Happy, satisfied, perfectly informed customers and merchants merrily exchanging value for value with children and bunnies playing nearby.

    Who ruined that? Merchants in pursuit of make more money regardless of the cost to others always challenging the legal boundaries in search of killer advantage over customers and competition. That’s the reality behind virtually every law and regulation on the books.

    Certainly they want life free of taxes and regulations just like foxes want free range chickens!

  20. An addition to the climate change in last night’s debate question addressed above:

    In an interesting, I thought, purely political effort to package Republican denial of science, one candidate (I just don’t remember which) took an all of the above stance claiming Democrats favor shutting down all fossil fuel sources tomorrow.

    Of course nobody sentient has proposed turning off all lights and staying home until sufficient sustainanable energy is installed but I thought that it was an interesting political way to say we were wrong without saying we were wrong.


  21. As Pete commented earlier, we have ceded the high ground to the extreme right. I got very angry when confronted with someone who questioned my patriotism due to my support of a Democratic candidate. I decided to take that high ground back by embracing opportunities to demonstrate my love of country, whether it is displaying the flag, honoring vets for their service, actively supporting candidates of my choice or engaging in public conversations about policy. Unfortunately, there are many others of my acquaintance who are, indeed, willfully ignorant and actively resist any discussion of facts. Their response is almost always that they do not believe the facts. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says often, “science is true whether or not you believe in it.” I think the same is true of demonstrable facts of any kind.

  22. Here’s a link to an article about what I just posted about last night’s debate re: fossil fuels.


    It was Rand Paul who tried to pretend that Obama is anti fossil fuel rather than anti catastrophic consequences.

    The Republican stance is to accept the problem rather than propose a solution. No wonder they think that government is inept.

    In another revealing exchange he accused Rubio of not being “conservative” enough implying “conservative” means right. Of course it does mean ideologically pure to the right of the political spectrum but he tried to capture the high ground by implying it was correct too.

    Of course that’s the mark of the intellectually lazy who need one size (solution) fits all to avoid thinking for themselves.

  23. Speaking of attacks on knowledge, it’s almost like Sheila went out of her way not to discuss the disgrace occurring at the University of Missouri. This, though she works at a university.

    It will take the academy a long time to recover from its capitulation to censorship, bullying and anti-intellectualism at Mizzou, with scarcely an academic voice in opposition to the activist hooligans destroying the titular academic purpose of that school.

    Were I Governor of Missouri, the loudmouths would have been thrown off campus as trespassers and their enrollments in the school cancelled. The Football team would be shown the door a bit quicker.

    A “professor” of media (that requires a degree?) with a phony Ph.D. actually called for “muscle” to throw reporters off campus.

    This Marxist loser was told to resign, and good for whomever gave Melissa Click that order.


    Unsurprisingly, she’s from the East Coast. I wonder how her personal relationship with Jesus is?

  24. Did any of you hear about even one workable plan mentioned in last night’s “debate”? I remember the yelling and posturing, but a plan, no, I don’t think so.

  25. Think of the possibilities if what happened in Missouri was the model for corporations. Executives served at the pleasure of employees. If they got overpaid or underperformed at the expense of employees they’d get canned.

    Talk about a revolution!

  26. Betty, do you think Melissa Anne Click’s actions were consistent with Sheila’s above desired goal of knowledge? Do you think Click violating the First Amendment as a public employee is consistent with the Constitution?

  27. Questioning a scientific theory and/or demanding proof is hardly being “anti-knowledge.” In fact, it is the exact opposite of being “anti-knowledge.”

  28. If one can manufacture facts, then one can manufacture solutions – never mind that both are made up and in the realm of fantasy. Republicans can’t lose these days: just don’t believe the facts and that’s the end of it. One of the dangers of not accepting facts is that valuable time is lost in trying to solve situations that inevitably arrive later due to our either real or pretended disbelief of underlying facts. Like, what about the melting of Greenland and an Antarctic expanse which are beginning to have an effect on the relative salinity effect of our already polluting oceans, especially on our east coast? If we just say it isn’t happening and go back to our nap, what happens then to attempts to head off the problem(s) which we have chosen to ignore as the damage to our environment, economy, or democracy (take your pick of one or all) continues to accumulate while we sleep? Must we always wait for “emergency status” before acting, or are we already in an emergency status with our land, air and water which we haven’t yet recognized due to seduction by corporate flacks who want to keep the good times rolling for the corporate profiteers until the last possible moment (if then)? One part of the solution to fact deniers is, of course, to elect candidates who accept fact as fact and proceed to do something about it in the course of passing remedial legislation and favoring tighter regulation of polluters and profiteers and those who would destroy democracy in their myopic pursuit of profit. If we succeed, then the irrational can go back to sleep; we have work to do and a democracy to save for another day.

  29. Paul, questioning scientific hypotheses is what scientists do. It’s not a job that amateurs are qualified for.

    You should demand evidence for anything that you believe. Sometimes amateurs can understand the evidence, sometimes not.

    On the other hand a scientific theory is a hypothesis that professional scientists have accepted as overwhelmingly supported by irrefutable evidence.

  30. Ben Carson is certainly one who exemplifies Anti-Knowledge. He believes in a “young earth” along with the pyramids in Egypt were built as a gigantic grain storage bin. He whirls around the Big Bang and tries to discredit it by saying science does not know everything about it. That is the critical difference between science and religious belief. Science has not answered everything. However science continues to seek answers, but religion does not have to answer anything.

    I feel rather confident that none of the Republican Candidates could say in public they believe in evolution.

  31. With nothing of substance the topic presented, Gopper changes the subject. Classic politician’s maneuver.

    Read Gopper’s posts in Archie Bunker’s voice. It works!

  32. Interloper; I have come to the conclusion that Gopper is not a person, it is a group or organization of like-mindless entities who came together to respond to Sheila’s daily blog…and argue with Pete. No one person can be so totally, categorically, off-the-wall wrong on every issue plaguing this country today and state their collective views with such dedication to deter us from their lack of common sense.

  33. Pete, you’re getting really desperate. Paul shouldn’t question scientists? That’s rich.

    You’re getting really pathetic.

  34. The difference, Paul, is that those with nothing on which to base their doubts, question replicable scientific evidence and conclusions because they do not want to believe the results. Questioning and testing hypotheses is what scientists are required to do. Ignoring results or skewing them to suit your own beliefs is sure to be challenged by reputable scientists worldwide. Attacking them is very different than attacking their conclusions without testing and replicating the results. Those who deny human cause in rapidly changing climate worldwide are ignoring the explosive increase in human populations and the resulting increase in waste of all kinds. As I have stated before, ask any farmer who raises animals what happens when they have too many grazing in too small a space. The results are degradation of the land and its water. We are seeing the results worldwide as has been shown repeatedly by scientists on every continent.

  35. Hopefully everyone realizes that anti-knowledge is different than ignorance.

    First it’s fraudulent. Someone purposely misleading others for personal or corporate gain.

    Second it requires an egocentric audience who believe that they are entitled to knowledge beyond what they’ve earned.

    Ignorance is a human condition. We all are limited by it but it’s a choice that we make.

  36. Interloper:
    In Archie Bunker’s voice? Hey, it works! It’s like he’s reading a script from the program.

  37. Whenever you see Groper address someone, just think “Meathead” and hear Archie Bunker. Just perfect.

  38. Whenever you see Groper address someone, just think “Meathead” and hear “Arch”. Just perfect.

  39. Just a small question to ponder here– if we demean those who disagree with us and pay no attention to what they are saying; or if we don’t care to understand why they believe what they believe or what they think, could that become a means of anti-knowledge? Who is at risk here?

  40. Elaine, most of us are more than willing to listen to those who disagree with us. In our favorite troll’s example, however, he/she doesn’t just disagree. S/he demeans, insults, disrespects and contributes nothing worthwhile to the discussion. Today, for instance, s/he chastises Sheila for not writing about something when usually his/her complaint is what she does write about. That’s why s/he doesn’t deserve our attention.

  41. Elaine, everyone here has their own style and their own opinions. I personally see this as a place for people to take positions relative to the topics that Sheila presents to us and what happens from there is individual. I try not to censor anyone but I’m always ready to defend what I’ve chosen to write.

    I’m sure that you have your unique way of seeing things and presenting your thoughts. You’ll find whatever that is it will resonate with some and rub others the wrong way at least some of the time.

    Sheila’s email tag line is ““If you can’t annoy somebody, there is little point in writing.” Kingsley Amis”

    Seems like good advice to me.

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