Posted by: Dr Churchill | February 28, 2020

Cult of Ignorance

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
― Issac Asimov

Us public health professionals, medical science communicators and even skeptics — we are constantly trying to understand the phenomenon of rejection of evidence, logic, and the consensus of expert scientific opinion.

Why are people so ornery and such

There is, of course, one logical explanation and many illogical ones because many decades ago the blame was placed mostly on scientific illiteracy, a knowledge deficit problem, and the cure was considered to be a decent scientific education for all.

However now, many observational and educational studies over the last thirty to forty years, have found a host of contributing factors to the process of anti-science thinking, and the flat earth society — including moral purity, religious identity, ideology, political identity, intuitive as opposed to analytical thinking, and a sad tendency toward conspiratorial thinking…

And yes, knowledge deficit and a lack of proper scientific education also plays a large role — but its not a real contributor to today’s anti-science and anti-vaccine, or anti-intellectual thinking.

Yet, all these factors contribute to varying degrees on different issues and with different groups. They are also not independent variables, as they interact with each other, since tribal, religious and political identity may be partially linked, and may contribute to a desire for the mirage of moral purity.

Also, all this is just one layer, mostly focused on explaining the motivation for rejecting science. The process of rejection involves motivated reasoning, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and a host of self-reinforcing cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias.

There is also a clear motive of moronic conspiracy thinking, because as I always say there are far more Morons in the Universe than successful Conspirators. And aside from that — the evidence here shows that some people believe in most or all conspiracies because they are themselves accustomed to play the role of conspiracy theorists, whereas some others believe only in some conspiracies opportunistically, because it’s necessary to maintain a position they hold for other reasons. There is therefore bound to be a lot of overlap between anti-science and being a full blown conspiracist, but these two kinds of people, are not the same thing.

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Today, there is ample evidence of a strong association between the flat earth society fans, the anti-science and anti-vaccine brigade, and all those who exhibit strong opposition to climate change, vaccines, GMOs, and water fluoridation — particularly amongst the survey-respondents who have the highest levels of political interest.

Secondly, a survey experiment shows that anti-scientific thought, moderates the acceptance of expert consensus cues, such that respondents with high levels of anti-science preponderance — actually increase their opposition to these positions in response.

And thirdly, evidence shows anti-scientific thinking is connected to populism, a worldview that sees political conflict as primarily between ordinary citizens and a privileged societal elite.

In conclusion, the anti-science hipsterism in today’s fads & fashions, affect how we process information, because anti-intellectualism is a real thing, and it is not just a label placed on those who reject consensus scientific views for perfectly valid reasons, since it reflects a style of thinking that leads to out and out rejection of science, despite the evidence.

For example, someone may be motivated by their political ideology, world view, and tribal allegiance to reject the strong scientific consensus that existing GMO crops are safe. This is likely to set up some cognitive dissonance, with the political motivations on one side of the scale, and the scientific evidence on the other. A host of factors are then piled onto each side of the scale, and one side typically “wins.” If you have a strong dedication to objective expert opinion, that will weigh heavily on the GMO side. If you are a conspiracy theorist or an anti-intellectual, you may have no problem rejecting that consensus, and in fact may prefer it.

Again, the evidence shows this is largely a two-step process. The first step is sorting out your motivation, and this is mostly a subconscious process that details which side do you want to believe, and the second one is that which makes you feel better. The lasts step is rationalizing the previous steps thus justifying whatever choice you already hold, which is largely based on feelings and intuition. And this is where it gets complicated, because some of the factors listed above may contribute to these steps.

Conspiracies, again, are the most dramatic example of an idiomatic mind…

For some people who are motivated to believe in conspiracies due to mistrust and misapprehensions — there is no hope.

Yet for all others, they are simply a convenient justification for beliefs they already hold for other reasons.

Other studies on the subject — imply that anti-intellectualism, is mostly about motivation – having anti-intellectual world views means that they want to reject scientific consensus for their own sake. In fact, having anti-science and anti-intellectual views correlates with rejecting expert opinion, even if it is unrelated to existing ideological views, to the point that there is a backfire effect, because not only did those with anti-intellectual and anti-science views reject the scientific consensus — but they were actually motivated to move further away from the prevalent and prevailing scientific consensus.

Other studies have implications for our political environment, such as populism which is a view that includes the notion that the main conflict in the world is between ordinary citizens and a villainous elite. This becomes a war against elitism and expertise itself, since populism is both motivation and justification – because once you wholesale reject scientific expertise — you can believe anything you want.

We see this on both sides of the political spectrum and the point of this writing, is not to be political or to imply any equivalency, but just to highlight this current & strong phenomenon.

Donald Trump, for example, rejects the consensus on vaccines and global warming, whereas Bernie Sanders rejects the consensus on nuclear power, GMOs and guns, and is a rather favorable candidate towards quackery and alternative non-scientific medicinal cures.

And as with many things, you can often find a kernel of truth to any position.

Because people are generally good at reasoning, which includes finding those kernels of truth they hold dear, and then magnifying them into a full on justification for whatever position they want to hold. And since scientific experts and science elites do make many mistakes, since they are also people with their own motivations, and any power will be abused to some extent by someone — that is precisely why we have institutions and regulations to prevent this kind of abuse of power…

Yet, we must keep in mind that we do not have a tyrannical rule, or a leadership class made up of terminally flawed people, but we live under the rule of law, and we all know tha both the law and the people view science as institution, not just about individual researchers, but about elaborate positions that are being supervised and policed by the whole community.

Since our complex society requires multiple overlapping institutions to keep each other transparent and honest. It’s messy and imperfect, but the alternative is too horrific, to contemplate, because that alternative is populist rejection of not only the scientific expertise, but the very institutions of science expertise and the concept of expertise itself.

And since this leads to intellectual anarchy, often justified by portraying it as intellectual freedom — the populist view is mostly about believing what feels good, going along with an explanatory narrative that makes some kind of sense out of a complex and scary world, and thus organizes that understanding around vilifying an enemy, who is the only one to be blamed fully for our problems.


Dr Churchill


And what is the damndest thing today, is that both our political and our communications media, along with our popular journalistic media, favor such simplistic and appealing populist narratives, and disadvantage the more nuanced and certainly the precious well thought out scientific approaches…

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