Thursday, June 26, 2008

Where Ignorance Is Bliss, 'Tis Folly To Be Wise

"d" at LGM has a post up about a new book on the science, if there is such a thing, of ignorance.

A reviewer makes this point about ignorance:

Ignorance is not simply a veil between the knower and the unknown. It is an active – indeed vigorous – force in the world. Ignorance is strength; ignorance is bliss. There is big money in knowing how to change the subject – by claiming the need for “more research” into whether tobacco contains carcinogens, for example, or whether the powerful jaws of dinosaurs once helped Adam and Eve to crack open coconuts.


Having a memory so spotty that is a small miracle one can recall one’s own name is a wonderfully convenient thing, at least for Bush administration officials facing Congressional hearings. The Internet complicates the relationship between information and ignorance ceaselessly, and in ever newer ways. Poverty fosters ignorance. But affluence, it seems, does it no real harm.

This is, then, a field with much potential for growth. Most of the dozen papers in Agnotology are inquries into how particular bodies of ignorance have emerged and reproduced themselves over time. Nobody quotes the remark by Upton Sinclair that Al Gore made famous: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.” Still, that line certainly applies to how blindspots have taken shape in the discourse over climate change, public health, and the history of racial oppression. (In a speech, Ronald Reagan once attributed the greatness of the United States to the fact that “it has never known slavery.”)

The internet, with its speed of thought connections between previously unconnected things--such as voters and information--makes the sharp divide between voters and thought, history, and logic all the more striking. It has the potential to bring together people who believe one thing (erroneously) with people who believe another thing (correctly) but the conjunction of the two can be either fruitful or disasterous, explosive or rather more like a damp squib, as this link to a video onPandagon shows:

Amanda links us to a video interrogation and an attempted education of a small town, right wing woman who is spreading the rumor that Obama is, in fact, a baby killing "Arab." The woman, who at some point got herself on a national TV or radio show to spout her newfound "knowledge" of Obama's real background and thus his real intentions, is convinced that Barack Obama is an "arab" with "arab tendencies" who favors "killing live babies" because she learned about it from a "lobbyist" in "DC" who she misidentifies as the Christian Women for America. Not surprisingly she turns out to mean the front group "Concerned Women for America" founded by Tim LaHaye's wife, Beverley.

The video confrontation is very poorly done since the videographer has no idea how to talk to someone he disagrees with, and is not prepared to confront her with the kind of evidence she would find credible--testimony, pictures, counter-information from sources she would consider believable. For example he does not sit down with the woman and interview her in comfort or seclusion but remains standing the entire time looking down on her (he appears to be taller). He does not show up with anything like "evidence" that she can look at--pictures of Obama and Michelle at their children's baptism. Pictures of Obama in church. Pictures of Obama at their own wedding. He does not confront her with weak points in her own theology which presumes that blood history (Obama's father) is more important than conversion history in Christian belief. Simply raising the question of whether a person is "born" or "chooses" to become Christian would have been an important way in to destablizing her world view. White american ethnic tradition places a high value on blood and ethnic origin, even for religions of choice. This is what an anthropologist would call an ethno-theory or a cultural trope. But at a higher level of abstraction Christianity is and always has been a converting religion that places most of its emphasis on the notion that every individual, regardless of his race or religious background, can and should come to Jesus and that that coming to Jesus wipes out the past. So this woman's insistence that Obama is "really" an Arab at some fundamental level, below the level of his actual history as a practicing Christian, exists in a very fragile conceptual space for her. On the one hand she believes it because race and ethnicity hold a very important place in her own daily worldview--they are obviously ineradicable and they leave their traces on us as people. But in her concious religious tradition? They have no long term place. Obama's stated intention to be a Christian, and to live as a Christian, and to raise his children as a Christian can't be countered with "he was born an Arab" or "his father was an Arab" because there are no such things in Christ Jesus per Paul and all the great converting figures.

In fact Obama would have a great success with these people--if idiots like this videographer don't interfere--going on a barnstorming "before I accepted Jesus" tour in which he, like Bush before him, pointed towards his own state of "original sin" (Bush's drunken indifference to god, Obama's years in the wilderness of Islam) *even or especially if he has to make it up.* He can say Michelle converted him, all dressed in white. This is such a natural part of the fundamentalist christian worldview that they almost can't grasp any other orientation to religion other than sinner to saved. An anthropologist that I knew twenty years ago, when this stuff was just barely on the horizon for all of us, told me in a fury that his brother had become a born again Christian and was insisting that Jesus had saved him from a life of prostitutes and drug dealing. The fury part? He said that his brother didn't actually have all the sins he thought he'd been cleansed of--he'd never been a drug dealer and he'd never lived the life of loose sexuality that he had ended up confessing to. It was all a kind of popular delusion, as public confessions and repentances tend to be.

I'm getting rather far afield from my original intention, which was to discuss ignorance and knowledge in the context of politics and the internet, but we've actually known quite a bit of this stuff for a very long time. John Emerson put up this great quote from Theodore Lowi's 1976 essay in Poliscide

From Poliscide, Theodore Lowi et. al., Macmillan, 1976, p. 282.:

Ignorance turned out to be a major result of specialization. Decision makers give up their knowledge of the whole as they seek full and complete knowledge of their particular piece of the whole. But ignorance is not only a correlative of specialization. It is almost a condition for peaceful coexistence among specialists.

Ignorance tends to be meaningfully distributed throughout the hierarchies. There was more ignorance at the center than at the periphery.....This brings our particular concern into focus. Ignorance at the scale that we observed could not have occurred by chance alone. Ignorance at this scale involving scientists -- that is, men dedicated to knowledge above all else -- had to be deliberate.

Reminding us that ignorance is a function of specialization, and specialization is a feature of modern societies and of modern media formats which consistently cut the world up into bits that can be commented on, or understood, only by "experts" whose knowledge is guaranteed by their appearance with degrees or histories attached to their names (a fellow of the AEI, a woman from Concerned Women of America) and by their appearance on your TV as an expert.

Individuals don't "know" much, outside of their own sensory perceptions, that they haven't heard or acquired at second hand from other sources of more or less dubious authority in their own social circle--or, with the growth of newspapers, books, radio, tv, and the internet their own imaginary social circle. When you go out to talk to someone who "knows" something that you think you know "just isn't true" you have to come armed with the same kind of information they are using to get to their erroneous conclusion, and you have to have a lot of patience. Just confronting someone and telling them they are wrong--or worse, that their trusted source is wrong is simply not convincing.