Friday, August 17, 2007

Willful Ignorance

If you have been paying attention to the attack on the theory of evolution, the debate over abstinence only sex education, the attempt to characterize America as a Christian Nation, or any of several other topics, then you have almost certainly seen willful ignorance in action. Willful ignorance, of course, is not actually limited to the people on any one side of a debate, but in the case of those particular debates you could be forgiven for forgetting that.

Nearly everyone who opposes the theory of evolution, it seems, exercises some degree of willful ignorance. So too, nearly everyone who supports abstinence only sex education, or asserts America was founded as a Christian nation, or denies global warming, or believes gay marriage will undermine the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, or -- or ... on and on and on! -- nearly everyone who takes any of those positions exercises more than a little willful ignorance. So, it's pretty fair to ask, "Why are so many people so stubbornly opposed to learning about those things?'

To put that question in a context: How is it possible that an animal whose survival presumably has always depended on its ability to think clearly about the world evolve such a huge capacity for self-deceit? For willful ignorance is nothing if not self-deceit.

You would think, wouldn't you, that people prone to ignore rock solid evidence for something would have been weeded out of our gene pool sometime during the paleolithic era. Obviously, that is not the case. In fact, given how prevalent willful ignorance is -- not just in American culture, but around the world -- it could even be true to speculate that humans evolved a capacity for willful ignorance. That willful ignorance is not merely a flaw of some sort, but actually something that nature selected for. But why? Why would a lack of realism be of any benefit at all to an animal that in very large part survived the challenges of nature by its wits?

I am frankly stumped to explain how our species could so often be willfully ignorant. Do you have any ideas about it? I'd like to hear them.

10 comments:

Guitar's Cry said...

I think that any information--be it scientific or religious--is assimilated into the individual the same way. The information that the individual connects to reality is that which conforms to or is powerful enough to change the schemata of the brain.

So one who puts emphasis on Christian symbolism is going to focus on that style of information and create their reality with it. Willful ignorance is essentially willful blindness.

And I don't think this is so much an issue for the individual until she or he attempts to force others into that symbolic structure. The old farmer who was raised Christian is going to believe that God created man over evolution because that's where she finds meaning. But the preacher who believes the same and attempts to rework the law to focus on that viewpoint is going to face the fury of those who don't--can't--share that same view.

The same is for the scientist claiming "Evolution is true! Question it, and you are intellectually dishonest!"

Ultimately, it is up to the individual to decide which reality to follow, and even there I'm not sure how much "will" is involved (depending of course, on defintion).

xDashofPanachex said...

Yeah, I totally agree with you, but once you get your opinion set, it takes so much effort to keep researching it and reevaluating it. Plus, people object to the "question some things but not other things" attitude that some folks have. Good stuff though.

(I don't really use blogger anymore, so... http://dashofpanache.wordpress.com/ )

Webs said...

You would think, wouldn't you, that people prone to ignore rock solid evidence for something would have been weeded out of our gene pool sometime during the paleolithic era.
I think part of the problem is our nature to constantly seek solutions. And when scientists say, "We don't know for sure and may never in this lifetime", people get their panties in a twist. People want to pick up tomorrow's newspaper and read, "Scientists prove/disprove the existence of God!" But the universe doesn't always work that way.

People then look for meanings and continue searching and bam! Religion comes knocking. And guess what? They have the answers. They tell you what happens when you die, what has already happened, and they have a plan for you. And it doesn't take much but an allegiance of faith to a being you will never see or hear from unless you die.

The only problem is many people, when they jump on board with religion, stop searching. They feel they already have the answers. This is where science becomes undermined, and where willful ignorance takes over.

Anonymous said...

To put that question in a context: How is it possible that an animal whose survival presumably has always depended on its ability to think clearly about the world evolve such a huge capacity for self-deceit? For willful ignorance is nothing if not self-deceit.

I figure that, in evolutionary terms, a tendency toward objective reasoning in all circumstances would be selected out due to an inevitable conflict with one's self-interest. When one's survival is at stake, a person who cannot cognitively allow his reasoning to be clouded by self-interest would be at a competitive disadvantage.

Further, one is going to consider it to be in his self-interest to defend his beliefs against challenge. Again, natural selection is going to favor those who do not reject the beliefs of their clan. Holding benignly irrational beliefs (such as in a particular creation story) would have far less impact on survivability than would maintaining clan cohesion through shared beliefs.

Although in my estimation evolutionary influences such as the above occur primarily at the subconscious level, at some point the Evolution denier must consciously choose to disclaim scientific methods of knowledge acquisition, in order for his beliefs to survive exposure to scientific evidence.

In other words, I don't believe acceptance of scientific reasoning and evidence comes naturally. Some people will be inclined to choose protection of their beliefs over science when they see the two as being at odds.

Arium

decrepitoldfool said...

"Nearly everyone who opposes the theory of evolution, it seems, exercises some degree of willful ignorance. So too, nearly everyone who supports abstinence only sex education, or asserts America was founded as a Christian nation, or denies global warming, or believes gay marriage will undermine the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, or -- or ... on and on and on!"

These are a package, all tied up with a bow and presented for sale by a subculture that claims certainty. As noted above, uncertainty is not very comfortable.

How do we sell uncertainty? Even the scientist who says "Evolution is true!" says in the next breath "...until you show me a better explanation that is even more predictive, and fits the facts better." This leaves the bottom line open, consuming mental resources with no end in sight.

It's a hard sell.

stevo said...

Maybe it's not willful ignorance. Do the people that believe evolution is a fallacy actually read research and form opinions, or are their beliefs based on faith? Do they believe because they have been told to believe, brainwashed by church leaders and religion?

You could argue those with faith are looking for easy answers. Preachers have a line to explain every thing; life, goodness, evil, death, the afterlife, etc. If you swallow that, why not their answers to such politically-charged questions such as gay marriage?

I vote for being stupidly led by the nose, not willful ignorance.

Carl K said...

I've been paying attention to all of these. Unfortunately, they all go beyond willful ignorance, to an active rejection of the evidences science provides, and an uncritical acceptance of one or another credo instead, and a proclamation of the correctness of those credos.

While these all seem to be linked to the evangelical right, the spillover has been to libertarians who don't want any government influence and to others who have seemed to imprint on the current administration as the bearers of what is good and right.

What we need somehow to do is make unambiguously clear the evidences that science offers, and the implications of those evidences. As in the case of tobacco use, junk science, the science of special interests, has managed to insert itself into the picture in a way that obstructs this process.

Mahendra said...

Excellent post! Wow!

I don't have an answer. Your question is intriguing and I'm thinking.

I wonder: During the thousands of years of evolution, mankind formed groups and a society. Individual member of this group were no longer faced with the survival issue. That's when willful ignorance started. The group assured survival, other cavemen took care of fighting dangers, while some simply twiddled their thumbs and indulged in willful ignorance? Can the answer lie here?

I don't know. Thanks for a wonderful post. It has really got me thinking. If you ever find any further insight into this, do let me know! :-)

Leo said...

How can our species have evolved to be so wilfully ignorant? Easy:
Wilful ignorance has been a greater survival attribute than evidence-based rationality throughout most of history.
Big Call, right? Remember that we haven't had the evidence or the thinking tools (Science) for most of history. Now see how wilful ignorance works better: Consider Circumcision. In a pre-science age, without the germ theory of disease, circumcision seems to be a barbaric irrational superstitious practice. Yet those who stuck by their superstition fared better than those who disdained it. It's true even today because it reduces the chances of catching venerial disease by 60% http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2007%5C07%5C25%5Cstory_25-7-2007_pg4_12
(Remember that prior to Penicillin, Syphylis was as fatal as AIDS.)
Almost every superstitition or religious teaching has irrational explanations that science disdains, but those ideas still have survival benefits.
The brilliant sociologist Marvin Harris outlines the way this happens in his book 'Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, the Riddle of Culture'. He shows how this is true for Pig-Loving in New Guinea and Pig- Hating in the Middle East,
for the Sacred Cow of India and Witch- burning in Europe.
In brief, wilful ignorance has been a survival tool for much our evolution.
As Arium (Anonymous) so cogently points out, it's not necessarily in the individual's interest to always be rational.
When heretics are being burnt at the stake, there's a compelling survival value in learning wilful blindness.
Finally of course, evolution never selects for perfection. Otherwise we could all be stronger than Hercules, faster than the Flash and sexier than Wonder Woman. It's only ever about "good enough to pass our genes on".

Paul said...

Hi Guitar's Cry! I agree the willful ignorance of others would not be such a problem if it were not for the fact that so many willfully ignorant people wish to impose their ignorance on others.


Hi Dash of Panache! Welcome! I have bookmarked your site. You are right. There is no practical way these days of being informed on every single issue or subject. Yet I would think that one could at least not willfully remain ignorant on a subject. Good comment!


Hi Webs! You seem to have hit spot on the psychology of willful ignorance. It's a search for certainty.


Hi Arium! Welcome! That is a very interesting hypothesis. Thank you! My only question is how much of a role do shared beliefs play in social cohesion? I've never been able to reach a conclusion about that.


Hi DOF! It's almost as if the side of science is set up from the start to loose out to the peddlers of certainty, isn't it? Some of us, perhaps only a few, can live with uncertainty -- but most people seem to need to feel there are very assured things in life.


Hi Stevo! I think you are legitimately discussing the problem from a slightly different angle there. Same problem, different view. Good comment!


Hi Carl! Welcome! It seems to me that a tragedy of our time is how many lies are being told about science by corporations, politicians, preachers, and pundits in the name of their agendas. Too often, the average person doesn't know who to believe anymore.

Hi Mahendra! Thank you for your kind words! You might be right that once some folks no longer had to intimately face nature -- because they were living on the efforts of others -- they were free to create all sorts of ignorant ideas. Witness that the earliest complex societies in Sumer were the first societies to have a caste of priests. Good comments!


Hi Leo! Welcome! I'm familiar with some of Harris' work and it's very thought provoking. But I'm not sure I buy into the notion that every strange religious practice has a rational underpinning. That just doesn't make sense to me. Am I wrong to think that way?