What We Don’t Know Is Hurting Us

There’s an old saying to the effect that it isn’t what we don’t know that hurts us, it’s what we know that isn’t so.

Misinformation, in other words, is more damaging than ignorance.

I agree–with a crucial caveat. The adage is only true when we are aware of our ignorance–when we recognize what information or skill we lack. As research continues to demonstrate, however, there’s a high correlation between ignorance of a particular subject-matter and ignorance of our own ignorance. (It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect.)

That’s why lawmakers’ allergy to data and preference for evidence-free policy pronouncements are so maddening.

A while back, I read a column making the point that data is inevitably political. The government collects data in order to inform policy decisions, because in order to address issues, it is essential to understand the facts involved, to have a handle on what we academic types like to call “reality.”

The column that I read (and no longer remember where, or I’d link to it) considered the consequences of the Reagan Administration’s decision to stop collecting data on corporate market share. Without that information, policymakers have no idea how large the largest corporations have become. They lack evidence on the degree to which companies like Amazon, Walmart, et al can dominate a segment of the economy and effectively set the rules for that segment. It’s likely that this lack of data is a significant factor accounting for diminished anti-trust enforcement.

The problem goes well beyond economic data. For a considerable length of time, the United States has been mired in one of the nation’s periodic and damaging anti-intellectual periods, characterized by scorn for expertise and empirical evidence.  (Another troubling manifestation of that scorn is the reported evisceration of Congressional staff–the panels of employees with specialized knowledge that advise Congressional committees and individual Representatives on complicated and technical issues.)

Instead of evidence-based policy, we get faith-based lawmaking. Ideology trumps reality. (And yes, I meant that double entendre…)

Last year’s tax “reform” is a perfect example. It was patterned after Sam Brownback’s experiment in Kansas–an experiment that spectacularly crashed and burned. As NPR reported

In 2012, the Republican governor pushed reforms through the state Legislature that dramatically cut income taxes across the board. Brownback boasted the plan would deliver a “shot of adrenaline” to the Kansas economy.

But the opposite happened.

Revenues shrank, and the economy grew more slowly than in neighboring states and the country as a whole. Kansas’ bond rating plummeted, and the state cut funding to education and infrastructure.

You might think that Kansas’ experience would inform a similar effort at the federal level, that it would at least be taken into account even if it wasn’t considered dispositive, but clearly that didn’t happen.

It’s that same dismissive attitude about “facts” and “evidence” and “data”–not to mention science–that is the largest single impediment to serious efforts to slow the rate of climate change.

Some lawmakers who deny climate change ground their beliefs in religious literalism (making them ‘literally” faith-based), but most do so on the basis of the same free-market ideology that led them to dismiss results in Kansas, and oppose even the most reasonable regulations. (There’s a highly convenient aspect to that ideology, since it keeps campaign contributions flowing…but it would be a mistake to think everyone who subscribes to it does so only as a quid pro quo.)

If the country doesn’t emerge from this “Don’t bother me with the facts” era, we’re in for a world of hurt.

And speaking of literalism, the whole world will hurt.


  1. I don’t think it’s a mistake to connect the dots from a politician or the media to its source funding. It identifies the motivation of those individuals and organizations. Especially in a society that worships money first and foremost.

    But my empathic response is people are just responding to our culture and systems.

    I worked with a pediatrician in Southwestern Indiana known as asthma alley because of the coal-burning plants in the region. This region also has a much larger percentage of infant-mortality deaths. She has written papers linking high levels of mercury to infant mortalities.

    She’s presented her findings to the IMA and went to the statehouse (the people’s house) to address our “elected representatives” and they turned off her microphone. Then-governor pence gave a high-tech data gathering firm $500,000 to study our excessively high infant mortality rates. We’ve heard nothing since.

    IDEM is notorious for limiting the number of air and water monitoring devices even though Indiana has always been a Top 5 polluter or dirtiest state. Now, why would the “elected representatives” in the dirtiest state want to limit the collection of air and water samples negatively impacting the citizens they serve?

    Religion or money?

    I vote for two names: Duke Energy and Koch Corporation.

    Everything else is propaganda or public relations. The media cooperates for obvious reasons.

  2. “Instead of evidence-based policy, we get faith-based lawmaking. Ideology trumps reality.”

    Sheila’s statement above reminded me of an Emile Zola quote, “Civilization will not attain its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest.” We are not seeking perfection but a return to democracy, Rule of Law, the separation of church and state…better stated as a return to sanity in this country. I had to laugh as I watched MSNBC’s “First Look” this morning and saw that Trump is now considering a former President George H.W. Bush appointee as his new Attorney General. Maybe sitting in that group of Presidents at the funeral gave him an idea of using former President G.H.W. Bush’s death to his advantage. But the long memories of the Democratic party, as well as the Republican party, brought out Barr’s own statements to work against him. Can the Attorney General appointment be stalled till after the first of the year? How much damage can Trump and the sitting Republican Congress accomplish in these 3 remaining weeks of 2018?

    Speaking of what we don’t know that is hurting us; an article in the Star’s daily USA Today insert on November 28th, “Changing times create big trouble for recycling” is relevant in this context. How many of us were aware that our recycled cardboard has been shipped to China to be recycled into boxes and shipped here for use and sale? Or that, “Earlier this year, China, which for years has been America’s go-to for processing recyclables into new boxes, started rejecting all but the cleanest, purest loads.”? “China’s decision left recyclers without a market, causing recyclables to pile up and prices to plummet.” This is also part of Trump’s tariff war with China and effecting America’s push to recycle to aid in our environmental cleanup.

    In 2015, Republican Mayor Ballard tried to push through a contract with the company Covanta which said it could recycle from the trash and garbage pickup by our local Waste Management company. Indianapolis had already fallen behind the required annual tonnage amount of trash/garbage and had paid over $2.3 MILLION in fines since 2008. Our lack of knowledge and not knowing we don’t know this fact is costing us millions at local levels as well at the federal level. What else do we not know but are paying for?

    “It’s that same dismissive attitude about “facts” and “evidence” and “data”–not to mention science–that is the largest single impediment to serious efforts to slow the rate of climate change.”

    That old adage, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” is now an international financial issue, how many are aware of that fact?

    And today is December 7th; a time to reflect on many things we have gained and lost since that date 77 years ago. We need to question if we have advanced or digressed in our own government and in the eyes of the world at large.

  3. Since the Republicans gained seats in the Senate, bad choices for agency leadership will continue. The Republicans have taken the long view and set themselves up perfectly to destroy America as we knew it. Meanwhile, the Democrats haven’t said a word about winning the Congress by the largest vote margin in history. Dems aren’t very good marketers. That’s the lesson they really need to learn.

  4. “Another troubling manifestation of that scorn is the reported evisceration of Congressional staff–the panels of employees with specialized knowledge that advise Congressional committees and individual Representatives on complicated and technical issues.”

    It’s not merely “reported”, it’s true, and another of Newt Gingrich’s enduring gifts to the body politic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/11/newt-gingrich-says-youre-welcome/570832/

    I wish there were some formatting controls available to pretty this up…

  5. First of all > How soon we forget! I have had TV on all morning and have not heard one word about today’s being an anniversary of the Pearl Harbor catastrophe and the subsequent war, one in which I happened to have participated. TSK!

    Back to topic > Sheila rightly calls our attention to information, disinformation and political use of information today and what we don’t know. There is, of course, too much information out there to know it all, and even Einstein complained that going to physicists’ conclaves was no fun anymore because physics had become so specialized that he didn’t understand some of the jargon. Thus it is not just the totality of information available but how it is sliced and diced that impedes general understanding, even among such celebrated physicists as Einstein.

    I, unlike Trump, who tells us he “knows more than all the admirals and generals,” am constantly aware of what I don’t know, even within my own profession. We are now in a position of gathering information we used to have to read or hear lectures about and giving it in annotated form to Google for further distribution on call. I suppose that’s the best we can do, though its use and disuse presents ever new problems both legal and commercial, especially in areas of personal privacy.

    As Sheila suggests, huge corporations have so captured the market that it seems antitrust enforcement is impossible, and with the flurry of mergers and acquisitions continuing unabated both vertically and horizontally, we may be headed toward the ultimate – One Corporation, a possibility I blogged about a few months ago, a possibility in sync with the fundamental “expand and devour” aspect of capitalism.

    So we now know that information is not only subject to political disuse but economic disuse as well since there is a lively market in the exchange of personal information about you and me stored here and there. Thus there are people and firms I don’t know about who know the color of my eyes, that I like Buicks etc., and who knows what else these information pirates may have on you and me in re medical, divorces etc.? I fear the genie is out of the bottle and that you and I will have to live in a world where the word privacy is set for removal from Webster’s tome, given that it has little relevance to the passing scene.

  6. Yeah take a look at the current independent audit of the Dept. of Defense. Pentagon just uses the national treasury as a bottomless slush fund to fund their personal ready cash. We are screwed.

  7. In Jared Diamond’s disturbing book, “Collapse”, the common threads between all the collapses of great societies was the discarding of problem solving techniques and the total embracing of religion or mysticism. Once the Aztecs and Mayans, for example, stopped trying to re-engineer their water distribution systems during a prolonged drought, and started the human sacrifices and internecine wars, they were finished.

    We can see similar goings on these days with Republicans and so-called conservatives avoiding facts and science and reverting to religion and religion-based ideology. This applies to other nations as well as our own. How many shooting wars do we have going on these days? 30?

    Capitalism is compelled to ignore anything that upsets profits. For capitalists to ignore climate change science shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. We now have a brain-dead president who eagerly rejects science, first, because he is too godammned lazy to learn it, and second, because his “base” loves him for it. Next thing we’ll know is Trump tearing the hearts out of reasonable progressives and throwing their bodies off of a Trump Tower somewhere.

  8. Ignorance is not bliss. I wonder how many Republicans were in boy scouts or girl scouts. We went camping in my troop and were taught to leave it like we found it. My grandfathers were farmers and knew that if they did not take care of the land, it would not take care of them. Monsanto does not think the way my grandfathers did nor other businesses of agribusiness.

    It amazes me that climate deniers don’t think about the grandchildren of their grandchildren. Obviously the human race is still dominated by the drive for short term gratification and fails to take the long view on how to create a sustainable global economy.

    The lust for money is destructive but even more destructive is the lust for power.

    Gerald thank you for your service to our country. I too am dismayed by the lack of remembrance that this is Pearl Harbor day. All those who served in WW II saved us from the Nazi/Fascist lust for power.

  9. Gerald @ 9:11 am , just curious if you ever read the book, Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath, by John Toland. The book in essence presents the case that the Pearl Harbor attack should not have come as a surprise.

  10. Thank you, Robin, I went to Day Camp as a Brownie and as a mother, my family camped during the 1960’s. People always cleaned their camp sites before leaving and it was safe to leave our camp sites to hike or visit nearby historical sites. Those days are no more.

    Cree Indiana Prophecy: Only when the last tree is cut down. Only when the last river is poisoned. Only when the last fish has been caught. Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”

    We can no longer swim or eat fish from our rivers and creeks; along our highways and roads there is trash, even furniture at times. And we are safe nowhere so walks in the remaining wooded areas can no longer be enjoyed. Not only the lack of safety can be considered in many of our rural and forested areas because they are hazardous dump sites for greedy corporations and, with the help of Trump ending many EPA regulations, those sites will be expanded.

  11. What we know and do not know is most often passed through and disseminated, or not reported on to us by the McMega-Media.

    Case in point:
    Pulling back the curtain on the ostensibly “bipartisan” orientation for newly elected members of Congress at Harvard’s Kennedy School in Boston, Reps.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) informed the public through live social media updates on Thursday that—contrary to the ideologically neutral advertising—the private conference featured a heavy dose of speeches by corporate CEOs and completely shut out organized labor and members of the progressive community.

    “Our ‘bipartisan’ congressional orientation is co-hosted by a corporate lobbyist group,” Ocasio-Cortez noted, likely referring to the Koch-funded American Enterprise Institute, which is co-sponsoring the event. “Other members have quietly expressed to me their concern that this wasn’t told to us in advance. Lobbyists are here. Goldman Sachs is here. Where’s labor? Activists? Frontline community leaders?”

    Tlaib, for her part, called attention to a speech by Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs president who left his post as President Donald Trump’s chief economic adviser earlier this year.

    According to Tlaib, Cohn condescendingly told the freshman members, “You guys are way over your head, you don’t know how the game is played.”

    “No, Gary,” Tlaib responded, “you don’t know what’s coming—a revolutionary Congress that puts people over profits.”

    “One of the best parts of Ocasio-Cortez’s arrival in D.C. as a new leader is that she notices, and is revolted by, the corrupt, corporatist rituals that are so embedded in D.C. culture that most politicians and journalists barely notice them, let alone find them objectionable or odd,” noted The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald.

    Among the speakers are:
    1.) Hon. Elaine Chao, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, in case you forgot: Chao is married to U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
    2.) Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO of General Motors
    3.) Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute
    4.) Alex Gorsky, Chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson
    If it were not for the courage of Reps.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), we would have no idea of the brainwashing by selective speakers for this “event”.

    I have noticed my face book reads from the Rabid Reactionary Evangelical Republicans, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has become the new enemy – she is a perfect target for them – Progressive- a Woman and a Hispanic.

  12. Republican’s will do anything to win like corporations will do anything to make more money even if it’s at the expense of others no matter who.

    Both “rights” are held with religous fervor.

    In my experience the difference between religion and science is evidence, normally today in the form of data. Science deals with those aspects of reality that we can gather experimental data on. (Of course there are theoretical scientists who typically lead the leading edge of research but they generally define the hypotheses for research scientists to gather the evidence for or against.) Religion is not science but the assumptions that some people are compelled to make about what cannot be known, what there is no obtainable evidence for or against.

    In our times the ability and reach of science has grown exponentially because the tools have. Computers and satellites and hadron colliders and big data. Some say that is the cause for the retreat of religion in the average life: there’s less unknown. It should have translated into better decisions more in line with realty which despite our egos is still the boss; still what we must adapt to because it’s not under our control. But that hasn’t happened because of the departure of politics from public service to private service. Interests that want to rise to “special” have to pony up with political bribes disguised as campaign donations in order to get dealt with and public services typical can’t afford that. (That’s the real indictment of unions who were they last bastion of institutions who could fund public service politics.)

    We will lose our war with reality. That’s absolutely certain. It will not be gentle with us as we are to reality no different than any species or even life itself gets no breaks from reality. We can only adapt but we’ve temporarily given up knowing that. The price for that ignorance will be very high. It will certainly humble us but in time?

  13. No, Monotonous, I have not read that book. I was not at Pearl Harbor on that fateful Sunday. I didn’t get into the act until 1944 when, too young to be drafted and just out of high school, I volunteered.

  14. As usual, between Sheila and the many comments, there is little to add. I will amplify a bit.

    Gerald pointed out the overwhelming amount of information that we face. I still read the journal, Science, every week, but I am skimming through more and more of the articles as I have to narrow my focus to a smaller and smaller set of interests due to the sheer volume of new information. I still remember being given a paper by a noted biochemist when I started my masters program. It was written in the ’60s and discussed how to keep up with the scientific literature given the huge number of new papers being published.

    Vernon, while I agree with you that capitalists don’t like things that mess with their profits, the additional problem is that they only look to the next quarterly profits. The fossil fuel industry could become the “energy industry” if they decided to take their current profits and invest in renewable technology. They would make more money in the long run, but it would hurt current profits, so they don’t.

    Pete and others have covered science and religion. I just remember discussions in Skeptical Inquirer and among the skeptics about those. The consensus was that to be science, the hypotheses had to be testable. One aspect of religion was that it started with given answers. Now look at the “conservative think tanks” and the current crop of Republicans. The answer to everything is more free markets and for the Paul Ryan types, more laissez faire, Ayn Randian economics. It IS a religion for them.

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