As recent political events on both sides of the Atlantic have demonstrated, ignorance is trending. Politicians boast, “I’m not a scientist” or that people are “sick of experts”, and rather than expertise, lack of experience is framed as a credential. In this climate, fake news is on the rise and flagrant lies by those in positions of authority are accepted – lies which shape beliefs amongst the populace. The upshot is that although we are living in the information age, we do not appear to be well informed. In his new book “Understanding Ignorance“, philosopher Daniel DeNicola explores this trend, examining the abundance, endurance and consequence of ignorance. Here, he discusses his arguments.
What brought you to the subject matter of ignorance?
I would call it a convergence of academic interests and current events. For years, I taught a seminar for first-year undergraduates called Secrets & Lies. We studied the ethical issues involved in the concealment and revelation of the truth, both at the interpersonal and governmental levels. But over time, I was drawn to thinking about the ways in which secrecy and lying construct and exploit our ignorance, and about the ethical dimensions of the interplay of knowing and not-knowing. Meanwhile, the democratic ideal of an educated citizenry was coming quaint, as our public life seemed to become driven political and willful ignorance. I came to believe that if we are to grapple with “a culture of ignorance,” we need first to understand the nature of ignorance.
During the Brexit referendum, we had a senior minister say “Britain has had enough of experts” – and similarly in the US, expertise is often framed as elitist. What is behind this political trend?
Populism has always rejected expertise, and the reliance on experts presents a problem for democratic theory. The libertarian strain of democratic thought, for example, has always prized individual autonomy, agency, and independence. So, the idea of yielding one’s epistemic autonomy to an expert—of depending on another person for the truth—is an uncomfortable idea at best. Both liberalism with its value of freedom and democracy with its regard for the equality of individuals reject authority. And expertise represents a type of authority—although its rejection may confuse political and epistemic authority. The conflict is ancient: Plato, in the Republic, actually proposed the unity of political and epistemic authority (thus cementing the confusion) and described vividly the ways in which democracies would reject expertise.
But although the tension may be old and endemic, there are aspects of contemporary culture that have intensified this rejection. Some of the blame can be placed on experts themselves: we learn of fraudulent or corrupt experts; we see the rise of mercenary professionals whose expert opinions are for sale; we regularly witness the spectacle of experts who hold opposing opinions; we are battered with continual revisions of expert advice in economics, social policy, and especially medicine—what foods are healthy, what not; what screening is recommended to detect early-stage cancers? Though these issues are not new, increased media coverage of them has magnified their impact.
Moreover, specialization and the increased complexity of research often isolate experts. They hobble the ability to communicate knowledge to a general audience.
But beyond all these, there is a key factor: the rise of social media. In times past, experts would talk with other experts, or dispense their knowledge to an interested lay audience or in private appointments with their clients. These patterns still go on, of course. But now, with social media, the members of the audience, the clients, are talking to each other. Who needs the pronouncements of a well-educated film critic when Rotten Tomatoes can provide the opinions and ratings of thousands of movie-goers? Why seek the judgment of a gourmet food critic, when Zagat or TripAdvisor can summarise the views of hundreds of diners in rankings. As this model of the wisdom of crowds engulfs the work of economists and other social scientists, and even natural scientists, the effect is to collapse the fragile but vital distinction between knowledge and belief, between informed judgment and unreflective opinion.
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Daniel R DeNicola is the professor and chair of philosophy at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania and the author of Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don’t Know