By now, most people have heard about the twitter storm in the aftermath of NPR’s 4th of July tweeting of the Declaration of Independence. A number of Trump supporters responded angrily to the descriptions of King George as a tyrant; unfamiliar with one of this nation’s founding documents, these “patriots” assumed that the tyrant in question was Trump and unleashed their ire accordingly.
Pretty much everything to be said about that episode has been said, and I don’t intend to belabor yet another example of the lack of basic civic knowledge. (I’ll even resist the temptation to say “See, I told you so.”)
What is worth thinking about, however, is what has been termed “America’s Cult of Ignorance.” An article addressing that issue began with my favorite Isaac Asimov quote:
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has 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.’”
The linked article is an excerpt from a book the author has written on the subject. He gives several examples of the harms done by widespread ignorance, then gets to the point:
These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything. In the United States and other developed nations, otherwise intelligent people denigrate intellectual achievement and reject the advice of experts. Not only do increasing numbers of lay people lack basic knowledge, they reject fundamental rules of evidence and refuse to learn how to make a logical argument. In doing so, they risk throwing away centuries of accumulated knowledge and undermining the practices and habits that allow us to develop new knowledge.
The author grapples with the phenomenon of “stubborn ignorance”in the midst of the information age, and concludes that “hilarious” as examples may be (see the NPR episode, for example) it is ultimately no laughing matter.
Late-night comedians have made a cottage industry of asking people questions that reveal their ignorance about their own strongly held ideas, their attachment to fads, and their unwillingness to admit their own cluelessness about current events. It’s mostly harmless when people emphatically say, for example, that they’re avoiding gluten and then have to admit that they have no idea what gluten is. And let’s face it: watching people confidently improvise opinions about ludicrous scenarios like whether “Margaret Thatcher’s absence at Coachella is beneficial in terms of North Korea’s decision to launch a nuclear weapon” never gets old.
The problem, as he readily admits, is not that we do not have experts. We do. The problem, he says, is that we use them as technicians, as conveniences. We don’t engage with them.
It is not a dialogue between experts and the larger community, but the use of established knowledge as an off-the-shelf convenience as needed and only so far as desired. Stitch this cut in my leg, but don’t lecture me about my diet. (More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight.) Help me beat this tax problem, but don’t remind me that I should have a will. (Roughly half of Americans with children haven’t bothered to write one.) Keep my country safe, but don’t confuse me with the costs and calculations of national security. (Most U.S. citizens do not have even a remote idea of how much the United States spends on its armed forces.)…
Any assertion of expertise from an actual expert, meanwhile, produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy. Americans now believe that having equal rights in a political system also means that each person’s opinion about anything must be accepted as equal to anyone else’s.
A society that knows nothing, elects a know-nothing.