Monday, September 29, 2014

Recovering one by one.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” - Isaac Asimov, "A Cult of Ignorance" 1980
Unfortunately Dr. Asimov’s assertion is as true today as it was over 30 years ago. Overcoming this committed obliviousness is a key step to addressing our cultural schisms and societal inertia.

© User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0
The reasons are myriad for such steadfast blindness to all but what confirms our extant opinions. Ironically, the Internet’s ready availability of information (albeit of variable veracity) challenges viewpoints with a frequency undreamed of by Asimov. Historically, self-affirmation was enough for individuals to deny that which conflicted with their self-image of morality, adequacy and worth. In this era of the ‘global village’, cultural cognition (self-affirmation for one’s entire culture, if you will) drives a willingness to conform one’s individual beliefs to those of one’s culture. There is a growing body of literature exploring this phenomenon,  and some approaches toward increased open-mindedness may develop therein.
"A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one's own mind." - George Orwell, "Notes on Nationalism", 1945
At the very least we must change the way we discuss important issues, and what we expect of our leaders. We must decrease the polarizing rhetoric of our causes, our politicians and our nations. We must stop demonizing those with whom we disagree. Such vilification merely reduces our opponents to contemptible caricatures, and their arguments to pitiable confirmations of their absurdity. It does nothing to advance our understanding of the issue at hand, nor contribute to any workable compromise.

As it stands, societal priorities are dictated by the institutions directing the discussion. We can regain control of the debate. To do so, a sociocultural shift must occur wherein ignorance is no longer valued as highly as learning. Unfortunately, education does not always lead to epiphany. Nyhan et al [1] describe the phenomenon whereby correcting a previous political misperception may lead to further solidification of false or unsubstantiated beliefs.  Is this tendency to hear only that which we want to hear so engrained in our individual and cultural behavior that any attempt to encourage sincere, knowledgeable discussion is doomed to failure?

I believe not.

Dr. Asimov also stated, “Self-education is... the only kind of education there is.”[2] Here then is the solution. Moreover, it is facilitated by that great threat to self-affirmation. The Internet provides the ultimate knowledge-resource humanity has ever known. However, we are going to have to learn how to seek, evaluate, synthesize and apply knowledge. There are many available resources on interpreting science - from the lay press, from science journals and even from comedy websites. One of the best is from Dr. +Jennifer Raff, called 'How To Read Scientific Papers'.

All that is required is the motivation for us to use these skills. I would suggest that the stability of our societies and maintenance of humanity's progress is motivation enough.

"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." — Charles Mackay.[3]


[1] Nyhan B, Reifler J. When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions. Polit Behav. 2010;32(2):303–330. doi:10.1007/s11109-010-9112-2.

[2] Asimov I. (1975) Science Past, Science Future. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[3] Mackay, C. (1852). Memoirs of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds. London: Office of the National Illustrated Library.