IGNORANCE IS BLISS: Looking Into the Willful Ignorance Phenomenon

As a kid, I was ostracized for wanting to know more about the world. At least, this was the case when I lived in the province for most of my childhood. I was discouraged from reading books throughout the day for wild explanations that include that I might go crazy from all the information that I’m learning.

Such anti-intellectualism isn’t restricted in provinces; even metro cities across the country are affected by it. There are plenty of blogs out there to point this out, such as GetReal Philippines, Filipino Freethinkers, (another blog), etc. This means that people all over the country, at this point in time with the advent of technology and information in their hands by the way, choose to remain ignorant. And of course, it is not restricted in our country, but is a phenomenon that occurs everywhere. So, why do people choose to encourage anti-intellectualism?

Willful Ignorance

There are three kinds of ignorance, as stated by James Carse, Professor Emeritus at NYU. What are these kinds of ignorance? It includes the following:
  1. Ordinary ignorance – basically, the absence of knowledge which can be fixed by education. (ex. Learning history, science, trivia and facts.)
  2. Willful ignorance – knowing something but choosing to pretend you do not.
  3. Higher ignorance – hard to achieve but it’s the kind of ignorance that allows us to be open and curious in the face of knowing that we do not know

Ordinary ignorance can easily be resolved through education; this is generally how we start out as kids, ignorant but curious. Higher ignorance however is far more superior to the three other kinds because of the lifetime desire for learning more, and claiming not to know everything, despite learning about everything. It brings up a famous quotation:

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. Socrates

Among these three, what’s describes the anti-intellectualism scenario the best is willful ignorance. One scenario can be seen in the United States: politicians go around and proclaim that global warming is a hoax, and even anti-vaxxers’ influences are rubbing off on middle-class parents as they stop giving their kids vaccinations. The media has a big role to fill for information gathering, especially social media. Sadly, because of different biases and mispracticed journalism, the media is scattered with different kinds of information that lead the public to be misinformed. Thus, despite the fact that we have all the data to gather, ignorance still remains as a choice. So why does ignorance prevail?

Psychological Perspective: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a theory stating that incompetent people cannot recognize how incompetent they are. Interestingly, these people have false feelings of confidence, feeling as if their knowledge is accurate when in fact, it is not. The underlying problem of this effect is an ignorant mind that pretends to know it is everything: willful ignorance.

This brings up the point that the key to an ignorant mind is misinformation. When we look inside an ignorant mind, it is filled with unnecessary cognitive clutter, beliefs, heuristics, and hunches that may actually appear as if they are right and accurate knowledge. It could be that the ignorant mind was raised not just by the environment, but how their mind was built, backing up ideas with purpose-driven reasoning.

Another factor that comes to mind is how a person is defined by values that describe who they are to outward question them is to question their very being. I think this factor best describes the workings of a willful ignorant mind, for it show that no matter how much information is present at hand, these facts may be bent to a great extent to satisfy a person’s subjective worldview. One such example is a study conducted in 2006 by Daniel Kahan, a professor at Yale Law School, concerning public perceptions of nanotechnology among uninformed respondents. Interestingly, despite the respondents not knowing anything about nanotechnology, it did not take away whatever biased thoughts they had about the subject regarding its risks and benefits.

“When Kahan surveyed uninformed respondents, their opinions were all over the map. But when he gave another group of respondents a very brief, meticulously balanced description of the promises and perils of nanotech, the remarkable gravitational pull of deeply held sacrosanct beliefs became apparent. With just two paragraphs of scant (though accurate) information to go on, people’s views of nanotechnology split markedly—and aligned with their overall worldviews. Hierarchics/individualists found themselves viewing nanotechnology more favorably. Egalitarians/collectivists took the opposite stance, insisting that nanotechnology has more potential for harm than good.
Why would this be so? Because of underlying beliefs. Hierarchists, who are favorably disposed to people in authority, may respect industry and scientific leaders who trumpet the unproven promise of nanotechnology. Egalitarians, on the other hand, may fear that the new technology could present an advantage that conveys to only a few people. And collectivists might worry that nanotechnology firms will pay insufficient heed to their industry’s effects on the environment and public health. Kahan’s conclusion: If two paragraphs of text are enough to send people on a glide path to polarization, simply giving members of the public more information probably won’t help them arrive at a shared, neutral understanding of the facts; it will just reinforce their biased views.
The Filipino Perspective: The Environment
Anti-intellectualism seems to persist in the country because of the belief that people who are intelligent are elitists. But by assuming ignorance is restricted by class issue, the opposite of it would be describing that people who are ignorant are poor.
“However, this does not imply that the poor are incapable of reasoned decision, it simply means that they are forced to unfairly work harder than richer people (as in all other things). Access to information is a class issue; ignorance is not. It is often the case that people who have the privilege of access to limitless information simply reject it on principle, because of dogma, superstition, and blind allegiance to authority.”
If anything, this anti-intellectualism stance has kept the country from progressing, as it discourages critical thinking. This scenario is evident during elections, with millions of Filipinos voting for politicians that campaign their personality rather than their platform. Perhaps religious fanaticism is a factor for the disregard of critical thinking, with our country being rooted to following faith blindly rather than making an analysis of faith. Our society is becoming more and more emotional and vindictive, with no more space for critical thinking.
As long as the country patronizes ignorance and puts the value of intelligence aside, it will take us longer than we want to in reaching a First World Status. With the rampant information provided to us by the internet, if anything, the people are growing more biased and subjective with their views, which leads us to question the value of critical thinking in our country—or rather, the saddening lack of it. It’s a new year once again and the world is advancing, but are we up for this change? We will have to see for ourselves.

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