Ignorance is power
by Tom Sullivan
Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2015 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
At a Christmas party in the early 1990s, two women approached me separately to ask if I was "into metaphysics." They meant the beliefs and practices of the New Age movement. I told them that while I have a degree in philosophy and had studied metaphysics, I was really more interested in ethics and political philosophy. They quickly lost interest and went elsewhere to look for more harmonious energies.
A friend of the same persuasion said her husband hoped to go back to college to study quantum physics. He was going to be disappointed. There would be no examination of the healing properties of quartz crystals or of how to communicate with higher "energies" from another dimension.
These people were not uneducated or stupid, just adrift and gullible. That is preface to saying that cultivated ignorance is not uniquely a product of the political right. It just seems to be a major export.
Writing for the BBC last week, Georgina Kenyon profiled Robert Proctor, a science historian from Stanford University. Proctor's look at the obscurantism of the tobacco industry – the deliberate cultivation of doubt – led him to coin the term agnotology, the study of deliberate propagation of ignorance:
“I was exploring how powerful industries could promote ignorance to sell their wares. Ignorance is power… and agnotology is about the deliberate creation of ignorance.
“In looking into agnotology, I discovered the secret world of classified science, and thought historians should be giving this more attention.”
As with the tobacco industry, other interested groups employ the deliberate propagation of ignorance to profit their interests, be they monetary or political. Propagating doubts about John Kerry's war record or Barack Obama's nationality, for example:
Proctor explains that ignorance can often be propagated under the guise of balanced debate. For example, the common idea that there will always be two opposing views does not always result in a rational conclusion. This was behind how tobacco firms used science to make their products look harmless, and is used today by climate change deniers to argue against the scientific evidence.
“This ‘balance routine’ has allowed the cigarette men, or climate deniers today, to claim that there are two sides to every story, that ‘experts disagree’ – creating a false picture of the truth, hence ignorance.”
“We live in a world of radical ignorance, and the marvel is that any kind of truth cuts through the noise,” says Proctor. Even though knowledge is ‘accessible’, it does not mean it is accessed, he warns.
“Although for most things this is trivial – like, for example, the boiling point of mercury – but for bigger questions of political and philosophical import, the knowledge people have often comes from faith or tradition, or propaganda, more than anywhere else.”
Responding to President Obama's town hall on gun violence this week and to Anderson Cooper's giving credence to the coming-to-take-your-guns conspiracy theory because many people "believe this deeply," Charlie Pierce responded with his pithy Third Great Premise of Idiot America—Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it. Truthiness and "true facts" dominate American political discourse today, if we can even call it that.
Phil Torres of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies writes this morning about that culture of American anti-intellectualism where "conspiracy theories have the same clout as legitimate science, the opinions of non-experts are just as credible as those of the experts, and ideology takes precedence over the cold hard facts." Donald Trump is merely a symptom of that ethos and an industry dedicated to propagating doubt:
It’s not an accident that Fox News wants an audience that isn’t preoccupied with carefully dissecting complex social, political, economic and religious issues. Critical thinking is perhaps our very best strategy for apprehending the true nature of reality, and as the great comedian Stephen Colbert once declared, “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” In other words, critical thinking could lead to liberalism — or worse, to that most dreaded form of liberal fanaticism called secular progressivism.
Scientific studies actually back up this line of reasoning. Consider a 2012 study published in Science, one of the most prestigious journals in the world. This study found that when people are prompted to use their critical faculties, they become less likely to affirm religious statements. In other words, there’s a causal link between “analytical thinking” and religious disbelief. Perhaps this is why the Republican Party of Texas literally wrote into its 2012 platform that, “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs [that] have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs.” God forbid children start questioning their “fixed beliefs” about religion — or politics.
Yet another peer-reviewed paper found that people who think “deliberately” and “effortfully” about certain topics tend to express more liberal views. As the authors put it, “political conservatism may be a … consequence of low-effort thought,” meaning that, “when effortful, deliberate thought is disengaged, endorsement of conservative ideology increases.” Moving from how people use their brains to the brain’s innate capacity, multiple studies have reported that liberals (and atheists) have higher average IQs than conservatives. One study even found that low childhood IQ predicts conservative and racist beliefs later in life. It follows from such data that the divide between right and left isn’t just about differing social, political, and economic philosophies. It’s also about the the role of the intellect in determining our normative worldviews.
But it is also a reaction to powerlessness. More so than William F. Buckley in the mid-1950s, today's conservatives are faced with a rapidly changing world and feel powerless even to stand athwart history, yelling Stop. Liberals are not immune. In an unpublished piece written long before September 11, I addressed the New Age movement's growing out of a sense of alienation to modernity and powerlessness:
A common response to such powerlessness is the conspiracy theory. The U.N.’s black helicopters, the international Jewish conspiracy, the Vatican, the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati, the oil companies, the CIA and others offer us someone to blame for the world's problems – without having to take any responsibility ourselves. Identifying others as the source of evil empowers us, in an odd way, by convincing us that if we could just eliminate them, things would improve. Just ask the Klan.
In New Age thinking, more benign conspirators pull strings behind the scenes. The government may be hopeless and Jesus may have lost credibility, but our alien mentors, spirit guides and secret circles of Wise Guys are directing humanity to a brighter future. A host of channelers, gurus, practitioners and facilitators have selflessly come forward to guide us into their empowering presence. Stripped of our myths by science, people have scrambled frantically to reconstruct the interior landscape from a pastiche of mystical icons – from pyramids to crop circles to UFOs – and a faith in beneficent higher beings that reassures us that someone is in control, even if that someone is not us.
Who knows, maybe Donald Trump is an alien? As Linda Fiorentino said at the end of Men in Black, "Not much of a disguise."