We’re living in a golden age of ignorance

18th February, 2021

Has there been a moment in modern history where so many people in free societies have believed such damaging lies? It’s easy to point to the US, where nearly 90 per cent of people who voted for Donald Trump believe Joe Biden’s election victory was not legitimate. No surprise, then, that there is considerable support for the recent violent attempt to prevent the democratic transfer of power. But it’s not just the US. In France, a minority of adults are confident that vaccines are safe, which explains why only 40 per cent say they plan to get a Covid-19 shot. This hesitancy also goes some way to explaining why France’s vaccine rollout has started so slowly.

Meanwhile, across the world, substantial minorities believe that the Covid-19 fatality rate has been “deliberately and greatly exaggerated”. The proportion of Covid-19 deniers is 22 per cent in the UK; in many other countries, it is even higher.

How did it come to this? The simplest explanation — to repurpose a phrase from former US Treasury secretary Larry Summers — is: “There are idiots. Look around.” But while there is a certain visceral satisfaction in that explanation, there is much more going on.

Robert Proctor, a historian, coined the term “agnotology” to describe the academic study of ignorance. He became interested in the phenomenon after studying Big Tobacco’s all-too-successful effort to seed doubt about the scientific evidence on the risks of cigarettes.

Proctor once told me “we are living in a golden age of ignorance”. That was in 2016; the golden age had barely started to dawn. Three elements of it are worth highlighting — none of them entirely new.

First, distraction. It’s possible for people to spend hours every day consuming what is described as “news” without ever engaging with anything of substance. Some distractions are obvious: doing the sudoku will not help you understand the implications of the post-Brexit trade deal, and neither will gazing at pictures of celebrities.

At least such diversions are marketed as such. Others are more insidious. Consider “scotch-egging”, the oddly British pastime of arguing over whether a particular activity (driving to beauty spots to go for a walk, cycling in east London when your home address is in Downing Street, treating a scotch egg as a “substantial meal” with your drink in a pub) does or does not violate the letter or the spirit of pandemic rules. Scotch-egg stories are emotionally salient and easy to understand, and superficially they seem to be about important matters of public health. But they suck attention away from the real questions: how can I live life while protecting myself and others? When I cast my vote, does the government’s response deserve praise or blame?

Second, political tribalism. In a polarised environment, every factual claim becomes a weapon in an argument. When people encounter a claim that challenges their cultural identity, don’t be surprised if they disbelieve it. It is obvious that political polarisation might shape our beliefs about questions of politics (do you approve of Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic?) and government (was the US election fair?) and policy (should we provide a universal basic income?). But it also shapes our beliefs about apparently unrelated scientific questions, such as whether humans are causing dangerous climate change, or whether the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is safe. Logically, the answers to these questions should not skew left or right — but they do.

The HPV vaccine is a fascinating example. A team of researchers at Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project concluded that many Americans had sharply different views about HPV compared to the hepatitis B vaccine (HBV). What explains the difference? They tended to learn about HBV from their doctors, while they learned about HPV from cable news. Not everything is polarised — but almost anything can be polarised, and it will be if a prominent political or media figure sees advantage in doing so.

Distractions stop us from paying attention to what matters, and political tribalism makes us reject evidence that casts our tribe in a bad light. Combine the two, add steroids and you get the third element of the age of ignorance: conspiracy thinking.

Conspiracy thinkers devote enormous mental energy to extracting meaning from trivia. Overwhelming evidence can be dismissed as fake news manufactured by the conspiracy. So can ignorance be banished? It isn’t easy. David McRaney, creator of the You Are Not So Smart book and podcast, and Adam Grant, author of Think Again, each offers similar advice: don’t lead with the facts.

Instead, establish rapport, ask questions and listen to the answers. (Needless to say, this is much easier in a real-life conversation than on social media.) You won’t be able to bully someone out of fringe views, but sometimes people will talk themselves around.

This is wise advice, but my own recent work has a more modest goal. Instead of trying to enlighten someone else, I suggest that each of us starts with our own blind spots. We are all distracted. We all have tribes too: social if not political. We are all vulnerable, then, to believing things that aren’t true. And we are equally vulnerable to denying or ignoring important truths. We should all slow down, calm down, ask questions and imagine that we may be wrong. It is simple advice, but much better than nothing. It is also advice that is all too easy to ignore.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 22 January 2021.

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