Durango Skeptics and Atheists

A Community for Critical Thinkers in the Four Corners Region

The Emergence of Ignorance as a Virtue (and the Decline of Civilization As We Know It)

By Larry Bollinger

Please note that is essay is my personal opinion. It is not the editorial opinion of the Skeptics and Atheists of Durango or its membership. I appreciate this forum for allowing me to post. Comments supporting or opposing the views expressed are welcome.

Having survived the vicissitudes and pratfalls of Life for over 67 years, I’ve accumulated quite a list of pet peeves that by now have blossomed into full-blown Gripes and Aggravations. Chief among these is the elevation of ignorance to the status of a personal virtue. It most often takes this form of “Oh, I never listen to the news! It’s just so depressing and there’s nothing I can do about it” or some similar sentiment. The listener then reflexively responds sympathetically, “You’re so smart!” or “That’s the only way to stay sane” or some such approbation. The conversationalists then part with a mutual feeling of satisfaction, having pronounced the world and the actions of its inhabitants irrelevant to their daily lives…as though events beyond their circle of family and friends won’t affect them.

Such fallacious thinking leads directly to the decline and eventual dissolution of a democratic society such as ours, which depends fundamentally on having an informed electorate. I admit that I react poorly to such comments; I hope that I respond in a helpful and friendly manner, but I doubt it. I’ve heard this sentiment expressed so often and so flippantly that it immediately sets off alarm klaxons and flashing lights on my brain’s dashboard. It panics me because we’ve started down the road to the degradation of democracy on our watch. It calls to mind the Dunning-Krueger Effect we discussed in a monthly meeting some time ago which has become a major driving force for the US electorate. (I submit that it’s valid to substitute the word ‘information’ in place of ‘ability’ in the following definition).

 I’ll save you a trip to Wikipedia: “…the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people of low ability [information] have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. The cognitive bias of illusory superiority comes from the inability of low-ability [low-information] people to recognize their lack of ability [information]; without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability [low-information]people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence…”.  In other words, low information voters already know what they know. Any intrusion of new information is unwelcome and annoying. Psychologists have found that arguing ‘the facts’ with such people just pushes them deeper into their preconceived notions. Facts in this frightening new world have become counter-productive. And our President, with little or no pushback from other members of his own party, encourages blissful ignorance by rejecting the Free Press as ‘fake news’ and most astonishingly ‘an enemy of the people’. Think about that! The Free Press, once the crown jewel of our social order, is now being torched in the dumpster fire which has replaced our former deliberative and fact-based government.

Amazingly, self-identified conservatives have come 180° from the days when anything the government said was viewed with a jaundiced eye. Now, this large group of voters seems to believe that the Trump government and the President’s tweets are the only true source of news and information…traditional journalism is vilified daily and is left to whither in this age of ‘social media’ which is driven by ‘bots and foreign provocateurs. At the same time, scientists have been forced from federal advisory panels and scientific research has been curtailed for ideological reasons. Information that used to be collected and disseminated by the federal government such as data related to climate change or vital medical data is being destroyed. https://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2018/07/republicans-finally-kill-off-valuable-medical-database-their-donors-hate/

Why does this matter? Because in this interconnected world, nothing happens in a vacuum. The President’s gut-driven, information-free, decisions affect us all. Climate change is an existential threat which has been marginalized and ignored; indeed, decisions to extract as much oil and gas as possible will exacerbate the problems. Decisions to renege on treaties which have been hammered out over years of negotiations will affect employment, agriculture, increase the threat of nuclear annihilation and remove the US from its role as a world leader. Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, these decisions can affect your prosperity, your health, the quality of your life and those of your children. None of us can afford to ignore the very real issues that confront us.

There is no alternative to being involved. I urge you to do as Carolyn and I have and subscribe to our excellent local newspaper which is our sole source of news about Durango’s city issues as well as regional issues such as the recent fires. The Durango Herald is a gem and we are responsible for preserving and nurturing this valuable regional asset. A digital subscription costs around $2.50/week which supports a team of local journalists. We also have a digital subscription to the New York Times which costs all of $15/month. Subscribing to a newspaper not only opens a window on the world for you, it’s a positive step in support of an American institution that is under direct assault by the US government and its President! Next, react to what you learn: call our US Congressional delegation and tell them what you think on the record…do this often…several times a week isn’t too much. Write letters to the Editor to express your opinion. Be vocal and become involved in an advocacy group that matches your affinities. Be sure you are registered to vote and be sure your family and neighbors are too. This is not the time for silence or timidity. Silence equals complicity in this world where our most cherished values are in danger of being subsumed by a wave of ignorance and greed. Withdrawing from the world is not an option; silence is something we cannot afford.


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1 Comment

  1. I recently ran across “cognitive bias” in a book about AI that I was reading and the author mentioned that we humans have literally hundreds of subconscious, biases hard wired into our brains. I checked it out on Wikipedia which has a very informative graphic showing the 180 known cognitive biases studied by psychologists and neuroscientists to date. It seems to me that education and our democratic checks and balances are the only solutions to allowing all of those biases from destroying our civilization.

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