Reasons for the Rise of Ignorance

7 August 2023

I have spent some time wondering why ignorance seems to be growing. Decisions seem to be made without regard to the facts.  This seems particularly bad when some sort of scientific knowledge is required.

Years ago it was assumed that if knowledge was readily available all decision making would improve, but it seems that the opposite is the case. Some years, following the lack of implementation of policy in response to the knowledge of the harm of tobacco, I was inclined to blame disinformation from vested interests and the fact that media courses were arts-based, so that the vast bulk of journalists knew little science. Then there was the significant effect that advertising had on the contents of the media.

Vested interests do a great job. First they blatantly deny the facts. Then it is reported as ‘controversial’ (‘cos they made the ‘controversy’). Then it is portrayed as uncertain or unproven because it is controversial.

But I think there are other elements:

  1. The specialisation of knowledge, so that students can choose or not choose their subjects very early as part of ‘freedom’ so can have an apparently full education with complete unawareness of what they do not know.
  2. The internet and social media have allowed people to meet people who think as they do, and divide them from those who do not, in order to keep them on the program, so they can market to them. So people are helped in their choice to restrict their knowledge input.
  3. There has been an increasing gap between those who have money and power and those who have knowledge. This is partly due to the idea that you do not have to know about something to ‘manage’ it (a 1980s Harvard idea that persists as it is convenient to managers), and partly because of the egos of those who make a lot of money and therefore think that they are exceptional and that scientists are not important because they have not made money.
  4. It may also be that the drop in equality of opportunity has led to people who have worked only in the political realm rising to power without an understanding of science (or indeed social issues).

Here is an article from the NY Times and SMH on this issue.


The paranoia of the tech plutocrats

By Paul Krugman

Peter Hotez, a leading vaccine scientist and a frequent target of anti-vaxxer harassment, recently expressed some puzzlement in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. He noted that many of those taunting him were also “big time into bitcoin or cryptocurrency” and declared that “I can’t quite connect the dots on that one.”

OK, I can help with that. Also, welcome to my world.

If you regularly follow debates about public policy, especially those involving wealthy tech bros, it’s obvious that there’s a strong correlation among the three Cs: climate denial, COVID-19 vaccine denial and cryptocurrency cultism.

There’s a strong correlation among the three Cs: climate denial, COVID-19 vaccine denial and cryptocurrency cultism.

I’ve written about some of these things before, in the context of Silicon Valley’s enthusiasm for Robert F Kennedy Jr. But in the light of Dr Hotez’s puzzlement — and also the rise of Vivek Ramaswamy, another crank, who won’t get the GOP nomination but could conceivably become Donald Trump’s running mate — I want to say more about what these various forms of crankdom have in common and why they appeal to so many wealthy men.

The link between climate and vaccine denial is clear. In both cases, you have a scientific consensus based on models and statistical analysis. But the evidence supporting that consensus isn’t staring people in the face every day. You say the planet is warming? Hah! It snowed this morning! You say that vaccination protects against COVID? Well, I know unvaccinated people who are doing fine, and I’ve heard (misleading) stories about people who had cardiac arrests after their shots.

Anti-vax agitation and crypto enthusiasm are both aspects of a broader rise of know-nothingism, one whose greatest strength lies in an intellectually inbred community of very wealthy men.

To value the scientific consensus, in other words, you have to have some respect for the whole enterprise of research and understand how scientists reach the conclusions they do. This doesn’t mean that the experts are always right and never change their minds. They aren’t, and they do. For example, in the early stages of the COVID pandemic, top health officials opposed widespread masking, but they reversed course in the face of persuasive evidence because that’s what serious scientists do.

You can understand how the person in the street might not get what scientific research is all about. But you might think that businesspeople, especially those who’ve made money in technology, would appreciate the value of research and technical expertise. And many do.

But there are forces working in the opposite direction. Success all too easily feeds the belief that you’re smarter than anyone else, so you can master any subject without working hard to understand the issues or consulting people who have; this kind of arrogance may be especially rife among tech types who got rich by defying conventional wisdom.

The wealthy also tend to surround themselves with people who tell them how brilliant they are or with other wealthy people who join them in mutual affirmation of their superiority to mere technical drones.

So, where does cryptocurrency come in? Underlying the whole crypto phenomenon is the belief by some tech types that they can invent a better monetary system than the one we currently have, all without talking to any monetary experts or learning any monetary history. Indeed, there’s a widespread belief that the generations-old system of fiat money issued by governments is a Ponzi scheme that will collapse into hyperinflation any day now. Hence, for example, Jack Dorsey’s 2021 declaration that “hyperinflation will change everything. It’s happening.”

Now, I’m quite willing to admit that monetary economics isn’t as solid a science as epidemiology or climatology. And yes, even noncrank economists argue about some big issues much more than their hard-science counterparts.

But economics nonetheless is, as John Maynard Keynes wrote, “a technical and difficult subject” — one on which you shouldn’t make pronouncements without studying quite a lot of theory and history — although “no one will believe it.”

Certainly, people who think they understand climate better than climatologists and vaccines better than public health researchers are also likely to think they understand money better than economists and to believe in each case that experts telling them that the world doesn’t work the way they think it does are engaged in some kind of hoax or conspiracy.

Sure enough, much of the recent turmoil in the crypto industry has had economists wondering: Didn’t these people look into the theory and history of bank runs? And the answer, of course, is that they didn’t think they needed to.

True, there have always been wealthy cranks. Has it gotten any worse?

I think it has. Thanks to the tech boom, there are probably more wealthy cranks than there used to be, and they’re wealthier than ever, too. They also have a more receptive audience in America in the form of a Republican Party whose confidence in the scientific community has collapsed since the mid-2000s.

So, in answer to Hotez, the dots are indeed connected. Anti-vax agitation and crypto enthusiasm are both aspects of a broader rise of know-nothingism, one whose greatest strength lies in an intellectually inbred community of very wealthy men.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times, then the SMH September 1, 2023