Social media is brimming with cultural commentary, political movements and aesthetic infographics. The belief is that if you are not up to date, then you don’t care. It is purported that if you are not informed, then you are part of the problem. I want to challenge this misconception. The expectation imposed on us today is that we should all be arriving at some final destination of intellectual enlightenment. This is, of course, a fictional destination. Today, I will provide you with a defence.
Social media is brimming with cultural commentary, political movements and aesthetic infographics. The belief is that if you are not up to date, then you don’t care. It is purported that if you are not informed, then you are part of the problem. I want to challenge this misconception. The expectation imposed on us today is that we should all be arriving at some final destination of intellectual enlightenment. This is, of course, a fictional destination. Today, I will provide you with a defence of ignorance.
First, ignorance is our natural state of being. We are, in fact, ignorant of most things. For example, we have only discovered and named 1.2 million of the world’s 8.7 million species of animals, plants and fungi. Less than 20% of the ocean has been mapped and explored. Astronomers can only see, describe and comprehend 4% of the universe. Or rather, to move from the specific to the abstract, there is an unquantifiable number of unknown unknowns out there. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, unknown unknowns are “the ones we don’t know we don’t know”. Recognising the vast existence of this category is to recognise the insignificance of humanity’s quest for knowledge thus far. In an infinite universe, we indeed have only uncovered a negligible number of truths. This is an essential context to ensure some intellectual humility.
Often ignorance is not the sole issue behind backward beliefs and inaction. Giving someone all the knowledge in the world to change their harmful belief may actually reaffirm their pre-existing view. This phenomenon has been coined the Backfire Effect. It describes the perseverance of beliefs despite presenting new and contradicting information.
Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, spent time with the ‘Seekers’. They were a cult centred around an impending apocalypse on December 21 1956 and believed they would find salvation in telepathic aliens. Despite the prophetic pronouncement proving to be false as they ushered in 1957 without the world showing any signs of ending, the loyal followers held tight to their convictions or considered themselves to have even more faith than before (Festinger et al., 2017).
Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician who discovered, 20 years before germ theory emerged, that disinfecting your hands between patients resulted in fewer fatalities. His fellow doctors denied his findings despite the overwhelming empirical evidence in their hospital. Some were cited to believe that a man’s hands could not possibly carry disease. Even with the lives of fever-ridden children on their hands, men refused to wash them.
This demonstrates the inability of mere knowledge to change people’s beliefs. The remedy to ignorance prescribed by social media is awareness, a list of books, and many information-heavy swipe-through posts. But the above phenomenon demonstrates that knowledge is an inadequate remedy. Ignorance, then, is not the issue. A lack of knowledge or information is one thing. A closed mind and firmly planted feet are something else entirely.
Another abnormal finding in behavioural science is the case of ‘information avoidance’. This is when people favour the immediate hedonic benefits of actively ignoring, forgetting or choosing not to uncover information that will have negative consequences. In finance, this takes on the name of the ‘ostrich effect’ and describes the greater likelihood of investors not looking at their portfolio when the market is doing poorly. Another example was revealed in a study where up to 55% of people who get tested for HIV don’t return to find out the results despite the potentially life-threatening repercussions.
‘Information avoidance’ illustrates our tendency to seek short term gain at the expense of our long-term selves. This helps explain why plenty of people choose to not engage with unpalatable information. Ignorance is indeed bliss in the face of overwhelmingly negative updates on the world around us. ‘Information avoidance’ is a separate hurdle to ignorance. It is the active decision not to engage, and knowledge cannot change that.
My defence of ignorance goes beyond pointing to additional barriers such as the Backfire Effect and ‘information avoidance’. I also want to change the reputation of ignorance. We have much to gain from repainting ignorance in a positive light. The current rejection of ignorance has directly resulted in people falsely equating themselves to medical or scientific experts, disseminating harmful fake news, and winding up as conspiracy theorists. This could be overcome by accepting a state of unknowing. A state of unknowing permits for imperfection, encourages questioning and listening to those who know more and is conducive to deeper understanding and growth. Ignorance is the necessary precursor to curiosity and erudition – we should remind ourselves of this often.
Humans are irrational and often foolish, but we are also inventive and intelligent. None of this is to say that we are incapable of progressing, learning, or growing—quite the opposite. We are more than capable of all of the above but accepting ignorance is the first step on that journey that we are far too reluctant to take. As individuals and a collective, we fall when we assume there is no more to clarify, question, or know. Embrace your ignorance and let it guide you into unexplored territories. If you take anything from this article, I hope it is that we can’t know everything. In fact, we don’t know anything, really. And that’s okay.