How much ignorance can we survive?
Thousands of people turned up and marched for science on April 22, 2017 (Earth Day) in Melbourne, Australia. Many of those present raised the importance of climate science in signs and in the speeches given. (Photo by Takver via Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA 2.0)
We are all ignorant, just not about everything. We know a lot about some things, hopefully including our vocations. We have a working knowledge of other things. And we know nothing or a limited amount about many things.
Ignorance, after all, is simply defined as “a lack of knowledge” and it is a part of life.
Ignorance can become a problem in personal and civic life when we start acting on things we do not know about, or about which we have a lot of false or inaccurate information. Will Rogers put it this way, “It’s not what we don’t know that hurts, it’s what we know that ain’t so.”
Having a U.S. President who lied or misled the American people more than 30,000 times during a four-year term, with the end result that many people believed him, is a sad illustration. More than 60 percent of Republicans still believe the Trump/MAGA “Big Lie” about the 2020 election being stolen. This form of ignorance continues to have tragic and destructive consequences: an insurrection, deaths, death threats for election workers and voter suppression laws – to mention a few.
The Getting Better Foundation, based in Livingston, Montana, has produced a film, “Trust Me,” that examines how negative news and misinformation are creating a dangerous environment of distrust, fear, crime, and mental health disorders. (https://www.trustmedocumentary.com)
“”Trust Me” offers a path out of the disinformation we find ourselves in,” writes Sam Wineburg of Stanford University. The film also points out that this is an international problem. Demagogues and dictators thrive on misinformation.
Isaac Asimov, chemistry professor and one of the great science fiction writers, observed years ago that this problem is in our culture: “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.’”
What can we do about this scourge of misinformation and disinformation? Responsible media are filled with articles and analysis now of why people believe things that simply are not true. Much of this focuses on the Internet and algorithms that reinforce people’s beliefs rather than providing facts. Another major focus looks at the mindset of individuals who are prone to believing conspiracy theories. Others focus on media that are dedicated to “alternate facts,” “fake news,” conspiracy theories, and political propaganda, especially on the far right.
But the fact that millions of Americans are not now tethered to fact-based reality is a dangerous situation, individually, socially, and politically.
Sadly, the Republican Party is now largely an anti-democratic personality cult, with many of its beliefs and policies based on lies, misinformation, “gut feelings,” conspiracy theories, and total nonsense. When Republicans combine this level of disinformation with intolerance, extremist views, racism, support for violence, and disrespect for law and democratic institutions – as they have done and continue to do – they may well represent the greatest threat to our democracy since the Civil War.
Indeed, Ulysses Grant foresaw our current situation 150 years ago when he said, “If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition and ignorance on the other.”
We may have reached the point in our history described by Grant. In our next two elections, voters may have to choose between American democracy and a form of antidemocratic extremism, regardless of their particular policy preferences. They could do well by getting their facts straight for starters.
David Darby has held policy and leadership positions in several US agencies and Montana state government. He was also a senior advisor for both the US Treasury Department and USAID, working with over a dozen foreign governments on management and budget policy. He is retired and lives in Billings.
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