The cult of ignorance

Towards the social approval of learning

We don’t often editorialize, but an opinion piece written by science-fiction author Isaac Asimov back in 1980 – in which he tackled the false notion that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge” – is again eerily relevant today.

Josho Brouwers

It’s hard to avoid talking about politics, especially in an age where populism has been on the rise, fueled by demagoguery, and certain elements of society seek to make our world less inclusive and less diverse and less in general. This downward turn can be attributed to a strain of anti-intellectualism, where knowledgeable people – like scholars and scientists – are treated with suspicion, if not downright ridicule.

Any academically-trained specialist in the ancient world who’s worked in continuing education, has given a lecture to a general audience, or is active in social media will have run into people who inevitably ask them about the aliens that supposedly built the pyramids or the reality behind the sunken continent of Atlantis. A couple of years ago, I gave a course in archaeology and was asked if I seriously believed mere humans who lived thousands of years ago were able to build Stonehenge. I gave an answer that made use of complexity theory, treating human societies as complex adaptive systems, but the gentleman in question remained sceptical.

None of this scepticism or suspicion is new. In 1980, one of the foremost writers of science-fiction, Isaac Asimov, wrote an opinion piece in the January 21st issue of Newsweek entitled “The cult of ignorance”. It has rarely if ever been reprinted. That’s a shame, because this article is perhaps one of the best opinion pieces around and deserves to be read again today. If anything, this article has become more relevant.

While Asimov’s focus is on the United States, the contents apply equally well to many other countries. He starts as follows:

It’s hard to quarrel with that ancient justification of the free press: “America’s right to know.” It seems almost cruel to ask, ingenuously, “America’s right to know what, please? Science? Mathematics? Economics? Foreign languages?

None of those things, of course. In fact, one might well suppose that the popular feeling is that Americans are a lot better off without any of that tripe.

For the past few years, the United States has had a president who is a certifiable moron. He hardly reads any books. When his own administration published a massive report on climate change, the product of four years’ worth of scientific research, the president waved it off by saying that he doesn’t believe it. And with the coronavirus, he gave the literally toxic advice that people ingest bleach as a way to combat the disease. One wonders why he hasn’t proclaimed that the Earth is flat yet. Up is down, after all.

Asimov next makes a particularly poignant point:

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 throughout political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

The idea behind democracy is that people get to vote on who runs their country. The idea is that one person gets one vote, regardless of their level of education, their personal wealth, or their accomplishments. And don’t get me wrong: it’s a good and noble idea. But as the election of current president of the United States and similar demagogues around the world has shown, democracy can easily be corrupted. But this doesn’t have to be the case.

First of all, it’s in the demagogues’ interests to keep the masses from getting access to decent education. The current American president even once proclaimed: “I love the poorly educated!” To be fair, though, a lack of education doesn’t mean you’re automatically stupid or ignorant. Plenty of people with limited education are smart individuals. There’s also a lot you can learn just by reading. That’s why it’s important that everyone has easy access to libraries. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the current US administration is (again!) seeking to cut federal funding for libraries.

Because of their hostility toward education and reading, it’s also in the interests of demagogues to nurture a climate in which people believe, as Asimov so powerfully puts it, that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”. I pick, more or less random, this clip shown on an episode of the Daily Show: a woman with no scientific background gives her “opinion” on climate change, dismissing the work of countless hardworking, academically-trained scientists.

Of course, if anyone dares suggest that we ought to listen to facts rather than opinions, these people can be easily dismissed as “elites”. After all, did the current president of the United States not promise to drain the swamp? Did this (supposed) billionaire not promise his devoted fanbase that he would turn the tables on the “elites”? Again, Asimov’s comments in his 1980-article could have been written today:

We have a new buzzword, too, for anyone who admires competence, knowledge, learning and skill, and who whishes to spread it around. People like that are called “elitists”. That’s the funniest buzzword ever invented because people who are not members of the intellectual elite don’t know what an “elitist” is, or how to pronounce the word. As soon as someone shouts “elitist” it becomes clear that he or she is a closet elitist who is feeling guilty about having gone to school.

What can we do to put an end to the “cult of ignorance”? Asimov points out that education is an issue and can be improved. People also need to read more. I would add, that a stronger focus on teaching people how to think critically is also massively important. Josh made a similar point in a recent review we published on this very website.

But crucially, as Asimov correctly points out, we need to tackle the culture that fosters anti-intellectualism. In that sense, the current president of the United States is only a symptom of a widespread and longstanding problem. It takes time and considerable effort to change people’s minds, as struggles towards greater equality and inclusivity have made clear – and we still have some ways to go.

As Asimov writes towards the end of his article:

I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning.

The best way to expand your mind is by reading. So why not start by picking up a good book to read? As far as Asimov’s own oeuvre is concerned, I especially recommend The End of Eternity. It involves time travel, so readers of Ancient World Magazine will find something of interest there, too, since we would all like to be able to visit the past.

But before you read anything else, have a look at Isaac Asimov’s complete Newsweek article. A transcription of the original text has been helpfully made available on GitHub.