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.