A state of not knowing, generally seen as unintentional but sometimes given the qualification ‘wilful’. If you don’t know something, you don’t know it. The only way to correct that is to learn some new stuff. You can choose not to learn the new stuff, or stuff can be hidden from you by forces beyond your control. Or do those forces just appear to be beyond your control?
There are some manifestations of ignorance that can’t be corrected by investigation. Nobody alive can describe the experience of death, other than providing an account of the outward appearance of someone else’s death. Accounts of so-called near death experiences relate only the physical and psychological sensations produced by the human frame approaching death. Self-awareness, a product of the as yet largely unmapped complexity of the human brain, lends a sense of absurdity to the ending of consciousness. We cannot know whether the death of the body causes consciousness to end, and so we speculate – also a product of brain complexity. Historically, when faced with the apparent absurdity of consciousness suddenly ending, faith has stepped in to rationalise ignorance. Suddenly there is life beyond the death of the body. So that’s OK, because the human life essence doesn’t reside in the body so in a way it doesn’t matter what happens to the body. When the body hurts chronically, we can take comfort from the belief that we are not just a body. Problems occur when rules are invented for the afterlife, rules that have become ever more intricate, often including the invention of a non-corporeal being who manages and judges the afterlife and reserves the right to bar people from entry. Different rule systems are seen as incompatible with each other. Intolerance and hatred ensue, based on what people routinely forget is just an invention. My non-corporeal being does not accept either you or your non-corporeal being. Let’s have a war then, shall we?
Something broadly similar happens with belief in extra-terrestrial life. The science tells us that even if they exist they can’t get here. But we tell ourselves that Einstein may have been wrong and that they may one day arrive, even though his track record so far is pretty good. We tell ourselves that aliens may plug the gaps in our frailties, vulnerabilities and weaknesses, but more often than not we make them in our own image.
The banishing of ignorance and the furtherment of complex knowledge should be facilitated by faster and more accessible communication. Shouldn’t they? This was certainly what was on the mind of Tim Berners-Lee when he invented the web. It appeared knowledge was on the verge of being truly democratised, with the content of the world’s libraries potentially pouring down the phone line into your screaming dialup modem and saturating your CRT pixels. (Watch those x-rays.) The earliest manifestation of IMDB was hosted at Cardiff University, was free of advertising and was a film enthusiast’s wet dream. A constantly updated Halliwell that didn’t weigh anything and that you didn’t have to look for as you paused the closing credits on your shaky VHS. Fast forward through those fuzzy white flickering VHS lines to 2017 and we are told by some websites that blocking advertisements hurts people. Really now. I rather think that it hurts commercial interests and that if your business model depends entirely on advertising you need to build yourself a time machine. Noah will be happy to discuss options with you.
So not too far off thirty years after the invention of the web, where are we in terms of knowledge, ignorance and communication? Well, media are now social. Great. I can stay in touch with friends and family in one tab and do academic research in another. Only trouble is, gee wiz, my Aunty at the other end of the country who I’ve only seen about four times since I was three, and doesn’t really know me, thinks I’m the spawn of the devil because I hold opinions different from hers. She ‘unfriended’ me once, whatever that means. I think that was after I said that the former shadow chancellor making a tit of himself on national TV was not really entertainment. Anyway she asked me to be her friend again a few days later, possibly because she felt guilty or because she’d sobered up, or both. The moral of the story, true or not, is that we are now completely accustomed to polarisation. Life is spent agreeing or disagreeing, or pretending to agree or disagree, according to perceived social need. But the space in between is increasingly blank, dark and cold. In my view the mindset cast by social media has been directly responsible for the EU referendum. What kind of sense does it make for us to vote yes or no on an issue of such extreme national importance, ignoring all complexity and gradation? On 24th June we had won, and so all migrants needed to leave the country that day, and we weren’t going to allow any more in. Simple. Those ponces in the High and Supreme courts had better not interfere with our right to be polarised or our right to ignore the complex issues.
Agnotology is an emerging discipline that looks at the deliberate propagation of ignorance in order to achieve a specific goal. It was first developed in relation to the tobacco industry. The science linking smoking to lung cancer is half a century old at least, and nobody who is not in denial would challenge it. If you want to give yourself lung cancer, and possibly as an added bonus your nearest and dearest too, go ahead and smoke. But our industry is centuries old and is properly regulated. Why should science interfere with my income? I like my house and my sports car. And after all a person has a right to smoke. I know: we’ll introduce doubt. Don’t look at the facts. That’s too much like hard work. There are only a few studies that indicate smoking might be bad for you, and they’re probably wrong. Aren’t they? Social media will help. No-one can ever be arsed to read beyond the ‘continue reading’ prompt. Better to use pictures anyway. A heavy smoking guy in a Barbour jacket pointing at a long line of dark people should do it.
More detailed work needs to be done. Work that promotes absence and suppression of detail is to be avoided, and is ultimately the product of wilful ignorance.