Ignorance is king

This week I’m going to post on a remarkably similar topic to last week: anti-intellectualism.

During my speech last week, some people mentioned that they had personal experiences with science teachers who believe in creationism – like I said then, people are entitled to believe whatever they like so long as they’re not harming anyone else – but the trouble is that teachers can and do let their beliefs interfere with their job of educating children (the very fact that some of you knew that your teachers were creationists demonstrates this), which results in children being lied to.

I posted a link to FSTDT last week, but this site deserves more attention: it’s a compilation of quotes from all different kinds of fundamentalists. Some are hilarious (and there are plenty of examples of pseudoscience, by the way), some are extremely worrying – but they all embody one shared view: I don’t care what those other books say; my mind’s made up (common sense tells me that gravity doesn’t exist). A central part of pseudoscience is a distrust of scientific consensus – while a healthy dose of scepticism is laudable, anti-intellectualism probably isn’t.

Why’s it a problem?

Not by any means a new phenomenon, anti-intellectualism is usually based around defensible and praiseworthy causes (e.g. greater humaneness in education, “good character” to great scholarship”). You need only look at the Khmer Rouge to see why this kind of sentiment is so damaging, however: they systematically wiped out Cambodia’s intellectuals, crippling the country. Mao’s Four Pests campaign (and the Great Leap Forward in general), which led to widespread famine. Republican primaries in which unabated lies are repeated and are left completely unchallenged. News sources that make people mistake obvious satire as genuine belief, more ignorant, and less informed than if you don’t read the news at all (yes, it’s Fox News), and treat T.G.I. Friday’s promotional research with the same credence as actual research.

I'm sure Norwich is flattered it could be mistaken for London.

More specifically to education, it has been said to threaten “the respect [of clinical psychology] as a profession”.

Anti-intellectualism is often just antipathy towards intellectuals, rather than towards  knowledge. There’s evidence that this is because of a perceived elitism. (More on that in a bit.)

When we’re dealing with antipathy towards knowledge, however, it’s usually because of a perception that intellect and common sense are mutually exclusive – you can’t live in the real world and be a bookworm. In fact, there’s no need for any kind of dichotomy in the way we think about the two (p. 151) – they may be different ways of thinking, but even within an educational setting they are equally valuable (e.g. common sense in humanities), although sometimes we try to get students to understand things ‘within the systematic discipline’ (i.e. using an approach that’s best for that situation – but surely that’s some kind of meta-common-sense?).

(Willful or contrived ignorance, on the other hand, isn’t an issue of education.)


It leads to a situation where people are proud that they lack basic life skills like numeracy. So why would someone be proud of the fact that they’re not very good at maths (as if it’s proof that they’re not some basement-dwelling neckbeard), and yet saying “I can barely read” with a smug expression doesn’t garner the same response?

What’s the solution? 

There is obviously an element of elitism in even the idea of anti-intellectualism; putting anybody on a pedestal because they’re intellectual, or dismissing others because they’re not, is a terrible idea. There’s also plenty of evidence for the idea that we’re too easily impressed by things we don’t understand, e.g. neuroscience. It has even been said that university faculty members whose “traditionalism and smugness approach the incredible…create a false but pervasive dichotomy between thinking and feeling, resulting in mistrust and rejection of the latter as a source of insight and knowledge”. So one of the most important elements of dismissing the myth that ignorance is something to take pride in, is combating this idea that you have to either be a cold, clinical automaton working in some ivory tower (e.g. “Big Pharma”), or stick with a “common sense” approach.

As I said in mentioning that there’s no real dichotomy between the academic world and the real world, a problem lies in people’s attitudes towards intellectualism. They see this false dichotomy, and if it were a choice between being memorising facts, consigning myself to a solitary life in a dark corner of a library constantly reading, or being able to function in the ‘real world’, I’d probably choose the real world too. You can enjoy reading and keep your basic social skills, too. If only people thought of it that way.


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2 responses to “Ignorance is king

  1. Interesting topic. You write that “Anti-intellectualism is often just antipathy towards intellectuals, rather than towards knowledge.” This is sort of how I feel, for the reason that intellectualism often seems to actively get in the way of knowledge and progess. This article http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/10/intellectual-vs-engineer/all/1 gives an interesting overview of the intellectual and scientific approaches to solving problems. The author, Timothy Ferris, writes that “being an intellectual had more to do with fashioning fresh ideas than with finding fresh facts”. Ferris notes that in intellectual circles there appears to be a widespread disdain for facts, with many intellectuals even maintaining that there is no such thing as an objective fact. Ferris writes that while intellectuals were proclaiming grand (and often harmful) theories with little factual base, “the world’s grubby, error-prone scientists and engineers toiled away”, achieving “the greatest increases in knowledge, health, wealth, and happiness in all human history”

    Another example of what I am talking about is Norman Borlaug, father of the ‘green revolution’ that introduced modern agricultural techniques to developing countries, thus saving literally millions of lives. Borlaug has been criticised for his reliance of monocultures and his support for bioengineering and inorganic pesticides and fertilisers. Borlaug replied that his critics had “never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things”. So while knowledge and science are great, intellectualism and grand ideological schemes with little factual base should be treated with caution, I think.

  2. I think that your blog is amazing!! how do you find all the video clips etc, some really odd and interesting stuff ! (No marks….obviously!!)

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