The politics of ignorance

Ignorance is not merely an absence of knowledge. Sometimes it’s the product of a deliberate effort to replace knowledge with doubt or even lies.

Classic examples come from business. The opioid crisis was triggered when Purdue Pharma lied to doctors about the addictive potential of OxyContin. We were told that it was not addictive so long as it was used to treat real pain; that, of course, was a lie as doctors themselves eventually demonstrated but not before millions were harmed.

Conservative COVID denialists are not ignorant in the traditional sense.

The tobacco industry determined it isn’t even necessary to lie to create ignorance; simply encouraging doubt that smoking causes lung cancer was enough. As this famous memo makes clear:

Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the mind of the general public… If we are successful in establishing a controversy at the public level, then there is an opportunity to put across the real facts about smoking and health.

In politics the efforts to replace knowledge have been culturally mediated.

Religious fundamentalists have always feared that scientific knowledge about evolution would undermine religious belief. They have opposed teaching evolution in public schools and when that tactic was prohibited, they insisted on creating doubt by “teaching the controversy” between evolution and so called ‘intelligent design.’ Just as in the case of tobacco and lung cancer, there has never been a controversy; one side is right and the other is wrong but by creating ignorance, religious fundamentalists hoped to keep that information from their children.

Such culturally mediated efforts to deliberately replace knowledge with doubt and lies appears to have reached an apogee in the conservative response to the COVID epidemic.

The facts are there for anyone to see:

COVID is deadly.
Treatments like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin don’t work.
The COVID vaccine save lives.

Not surprisingly the success of these culturally mediated tactics is also culturally mediated. It is mainly political conservatives who accept the lies; the rest of us are gob-smacked that anyone could believe such nonsense.

It is important to understand that conservative COVID denialists are not ignorant in the traditional sense; they do not suffer from a lack of knowledge since the facts are obvious to anyone who is paying attention. They are victims — albeit willing and enthusiastic victims — of a deliberate effort to replace knowledge about COVID with lies and doubt. That’s why they imagine they are educated when they are simply — and sometimes fatally — duped.

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