Science denialism is motivated ignorance

Graphic of orange person burying head in sand

In 2020 BC those who believed the earth was flat suffered from ignorance. In 2020 AD, those who believe the earth is flat suffer from motivated ignorance.

What’s the difference?

According to philosopher Daniel Williams:

Motivated ignorance involves a form of ignorance that is driven … by an active aversion to possessing [knowledge]…

It’s not simply a matter of being unaware of relevant information — as most individuals in 2020 BC were unaware of the evidence demonstrating that the earth is round.

For denialists, motivated ignorance is both self-serving and psychologically comforting.

[F]or ignorance to be “active” in this way it must satisfy two conditions: “(1) the individual is aware that the information is available, and (2) the individual has free access to the information or would avoid the information even if access were free.”

… When one lacks this awareness, one’s ignorance is … merely “inadvertent”… [I]ndividuals exhibiting active information avoidance would still remain ignorant even if the acquisitional costs pertaining to a body of knowledge were eliminated.

It’s the ongoing effort to prevent learning relevant information maintained by flat-earthers in 2020 who could easily acquire the background knowledge and reasoning skills to recognize that the earth is round.

Science denialists in 2020 — climate denialists, vaccine denialists, COVID denialists — embrace motivated ignorance. It’s not simply that they are unaware of the relevant information needed to reach scientifically accurate conclusions. It’s that they refuse to let themselves be exposed to the relevant information needed to reach scientifically accurate conclusions.

In that effort they are aided immeasurably by social media and mainstream outlets like Fox News. These entities allow users to deliberately recuse themselves from reality by creating cocoons of ignorance where potentially disturbing knowledge is barred.

Motivated ignorance is often socially rewarding because certain forms of denialism enable membership in a social group:

…[C]ertain beliefs function as badges of group membership, enabling us to signal our membership of and loyalty to desirable coalitions.

Although we tend to think of people who are ignorant as also being irrational, Williams argues that motivated ignorance can be entirely rational.

…[P]erhaps the most influential case study of motivated ignorance within contemporary philosophy involves situations in which members of elite or dominant demographic groups wilfully avoid facts about the lives of oppressed or marginal groups and the nature of society more generally. This ignorance is widely thought to be strategically self‐serving, enabling members of such privileged groups to preserve psychologically comforting illusions and avoid accountability…

Similarly, for those who base their identity on denialist beliefs, avoiding scientific information that challenges those beliefs is both self-serving and psychologically comforting. That’s why social media is so popular. It is an opiate for those whose self-image depends on motivated ignorance. Participants can relax and enjoy because they can be sure they will never be psychologically challenged in any way.

That doesn’t mean that those who engage in motivated ignorance are consciously aware of what they are doing. They are often in denial about their desperate need for psychological reassurance, but that does not make them any less needy.

So what’s the problem with motivated ignorance?

One of the most socially consequential forms of ignorance today is the ignorance among voters in contemporary democracies of facts and matters of scientific consensus that are relevant to political decision‐making… [T]here is now extensive data revealing extremely high levels of ignorance of basic matters of empirical fact around which there is strong scientific and expert consensus.

It isn’t a matter of lack of interest in political decisions. Science denialists are often highly motivated to engage in political activism.

As with religious and ideological communities more generally, dissent from group dogmas and sacred propositions can issue in harmful forms of group ostracism, even when such heresies are best supported by the available evidence. Further, it is often painful to abandon deeply held political opinions and commitments, even when such abandonment is best licensed by an impartial evaluation of the facts. Drawing attention to such costs can help to explain how individuals exposed to a deluge of political information can remain both misinformed and yet passionately committed to such misinformation …

In such cases, motivated ignorance is a form of willfully protective cognition. But while individuals may benefit, society as a whole is egregiously harmed.

…[I]f a large number of people in a democracy conform the way in which they seek out, ignore and process information to the goal of protecting their coalitional identity rather than achieving knowledge, the resultant ignorance will then likely play an important role in political decision‐making… [T]he basic dynamic will apply whenever the acquisition of knowledge is heretical and thus socially punished on the grounds that unjustified beliefs function as signals of coalitional membership and belonging…

This has important implications for how we respond to motivated ignorance:

An intuitive view is that the answer to socially pernicious forms of ignorance is to provide people with more information, perhaps combined with an appeal to their reason. This is unlikely to help when ignorance is motivated.

These problems will not be solved with more empirical knowledge, but with better understanding of the seductive allure of motivated ignorance.

  • mabelcruet

    I’ve basically given up reading Sceptical Ob on Facebook. I find it absolutely soul destroying wading through all the nonsense from the anti-vaxx trolls and their bleats of ‘I’ve done my research! I’ve been studying this for years! I know more than any doctor does! I trust my intuition!’ They have absolutely no understanding of what studying and research actually is, and how long it takes to develop the level of knowledge and understanding that is required by someone at Dr Fauci’s level.

    Case in point-I’m a paediatric pathologist in the UK NHS. I’m one of 64 of us in the whole country-there are 1500 consultant histopathologists who deal with adult pathology (like the surgical pathology when people have cancers resected), so I’m one of the 4% of consultant pathologists who specialise in babies. I’m a consultant, which is the highest level of seniority in the NHS and have been for almost 30 years. I sat my last required examination aged 32 (which was my Royal College fellowship, similar to the USA boards). I’ve also got a PhD and an MA which I did in my late 30s, early 40s. So I can safely say I know more about paediatric pathology than 95% of all pathologists, which means I know more paediatric pathology than more than 99.9% of the general population. This isn’t boasting-this is a fact. I know an awful lot about a very small area of medicine (for anything involving a living patient, you would be better off finding a boy scout with his first aid badge, because its been a very long time since I laid hands on anyone still breathing). But I AM STILL NOT AN EXPERT! Even with my qualifications and years of experience, and book chapter authoring, and research projects, I am still only considered an expert in certain areas-my main role is obstetric and placental pathology. Whilst I deal every day with paediatric cancer specimens, I’m not nationally regarded as an expert because I don’t do research in that area. I am regarded as an expert in intra-uterine growth restriction, but not in paediatric neuropathology, for example. I can diagnose hypoxic ischaemic encephalopathy in infant brains, its part of my training and something I see regularly, but it’s not an area I’ve done primary research in and so I’m not an expert and wouldn’t present myself as one in that particular area. It takes years to develop expertise, and a lot of time to maintain that level of expertise-even experts still have to practise, no matter what area their expertise is in. Even Gold medal winning Olympians still have to train daily to remain at their level. So with someone like Dr Fauci, the thought that someone who has spent a few hours reading anti-vaxx blogs with cut and pasted reams of utter nonsense about cellular mechanisms and vaccine ingredients decides that they know more about vaccine dangers is just laughable. And its so very, very depressing to read the same nonsense and the same lies over and over again.

  • fiftyfifty1

    Thank you for this piece. I have seen a lot of people blaming Covid Denialism on “our poor schools”, “weak STEM and math teaching” etc. But that doesn’t explain the deeply partisan nature of Covid denialism. Are we to believe that teachers did a good job of teaching STEM/math/logic skills to Democrats but then slacked when they taught Republicans? No. Covid denialism is not due to inability to understand the facts but rather refusal to understand the facts. Covid denialism is not about what is taught in schools but rather about what is taught in homes, places of worship, and on Right Wing television and social media.

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    • demodocus

      Aye. Some version of government is on the curriculum in every public school in the nation. And look how many don’t remember a blinking thing.