We are, says Tim Harford, living in an age of ignorance. He refers to the work of Robert Proctor, a historian of science, who coined the term “agnotology” to describe the study of ignorance. Proctor’s insight, arising from his analysis of the tobacco industry’s efforts to create doubt about the adverse impact of smoking, was that ignorance is often culturally induced. “Ignorance is not just the not-yet-known,” he says, ”It’s also a political ploy, a deliberate creation by powerful agents who want you ‘not to know’.”
The evidence for widespread ignorance is all around us: from the persistent belief among Republican voters in America that Biden’s victory was illegitimate, to demonstrations in the UK outside hospitals by people insisting Covid is a hoax. Then there is the incredulity among traders and business owners in Britain at the decimation to their livelihoods brought by Brexit. Their disbelief is understandable, even among those of them who voted Leave, given the consistent denial by the Government over four years of the potential harm that would come of severing nearly five decades of close ties with our closest and biggest market.
Harford describes three main elements to the cultural production of ignorance: distraction (by which consideration of genuinely important questions is crowded out of the public sphere by news that presents as significant but is really trivial); political tribalism (by which we become attached to worldviews that are associated with our social affiliations); and conspiracy thinking (the dismissal of evidence as fake news).
But why are we susceptible to being induced into ignorance?
Part of the answer is to be found in Isiah Berlin’s 1953 essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox. Quoting a fragment of Greek poetry, Berlin proposed a binary in how people experience the world:
“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
According to Berlin, hedgehogs “relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance.”
Foxes, on the other hand, “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way… Their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects.”
Hedgehogs, it seems to me, are at greater risk of being cultivated into ignorance than foxes. If you cleave towards a single organising principle, you are more vulnerable to becoming ensnared in the snake-oil constructs that seem to explain your concerns or flatter your prejudices, without the pesky complexity which comes with nuance.
Conversely, if you are a fox who seizes upon the essence of a wide variety of influences, you are, by definition, more comfortable with pluralism. Your view of the world is a work in progress, constantly tested by new data.
Berlin was referring to writers and thinkers, but he hypothesised that his typology might apply to humans generally. If so, it is evident that there are hedgehogs all around us, and foxes seem to be thinly distributed. Or perhaps it is that the way hedgehoggery manifests is louder and more insistent in its single central vision, more prone to achieving critical mass as individuals coalesce around that vision. Look at the personality cults around Trump and Corbyn, the members of which cling to their self-reinforcing and conspiratorial worldview even as their leaders have fallen from grace.
Foxes, with their diffused and scattered thought, may be less likely to display certainty, more isolated in their eclecticism and less visible in the public discourse. The foxist way of knowing is at a cultural disadvantage in the networked society, as it will tend to create relatively disconnected pools of insight more than memes that go viral. All of which makes the public domain more easily gamed by those who have a stake in shutting down thought.
The result is a culture that valorises a simplistic but tenacious form of knowing that is so superficial it is actually ignorance. The paradox of the abundance of information that the internet has enabled promoting ignorance is something that troubles David Dunning, a social psychologist. It is a world, he says, where everyone can become their own expert :
“My worry is not that we are losing the ability to make up our own minds, but that it’s becoming too easy to do so. We should consult with others much more than we imagine. Other people may be imperfect as well, but often their opinions go a long way toward correcting our own imperfections, as our own imperfect expertise helps to correct their errors.”
If we want more robust antibodies to culturally induced ignorance, we have to strengthen our immunity to easy but incomplete or false answers. It would be pleasing to think we could achieve this at a societal level. But I think this is hard and, in the short term, unlikely. People who reside in ignorant certainty are deeply entrenched in their views and won’t be persuaded by counter-narratives. There is a need to rebuild trust and connection between groups with opposed views.
This work begins with oneself, for three reasons. The first is that we are all susceptible to beguiling certainties that contain their own blind spots. Berlin’s binary is a case in point. He proposed it playfully and was surprised when it was taken so seriously. Rather than ask whether you’re a hedgehog or a fox, consider instead what brings out the hedgehog in you and when is your inner fox brought to the fore?
The second is that resistance by individuals to cultural ignorance aggregates into societal impact. Rebuilding trust between tribes becomes easier when we allow context, nuance and complexity to soften the grip of polarising ideas. We are more likely to listen to those with whom we disagree and more likely to take account of the pain and insecurity that drives their attachment to what we consider misguided views.
Finally, loosening our own attachment to beguiling certainties supports our sanity and mental wellbeing in this febrile time. We can let go of the anxiety that arises when our opinions are not validated. This is difficult in the context of pandemic and Brexit dislocation. When there is palpable harm all around us, it can be hard to understand why others don’t share our diagnosis. But it can be helpful to wear our knowing lightly. Instead of flattering ourselves that we can see clearly, we would do better to recognise that the footprint of our certainties is in fact very small. Each step forward in knowing may bring some clarification, but it also raises new questions, new terrains of not knowing.
It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the emergence of a new coronavirus turned into a pandemic in part thanks to a pre-existing pandemic of conceited, superficial knowing. In the UK, at least, it was met by mental models prepared for an outbreak of flu and a desire to impose false certainties on what was new and unknown. And still the ignorance persists. As Britain passed the threshold of 100,000 dead from Covid, Boris Johnson was insisting that the government had done everything it could, even as he promised to learn the lessons.
It is time for an unknowing of our conceits. Unknowing is not a stepping back from knowledge into ignorance. It is a relinquishing of the ignorance that masquerades as knowing.