Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Effects of Anti-Knowledge on Democracy

Mike Lofgren, former Republican Congressional staffer, has written an important article titled: The GOP and the Rise of Anti-Knowledge.
In the realm of physics, the opposite of matter is not nothingness, but antimatter. In the realm of practical epistemology, the opposite of knowledge is not ignorance but anti-knowledge. This seldom recognized fact is one of the prime forces behind the decay of political and civic culture in America.

Some common-sense philosophers have observed this point over the years. “Genuine ignorance is...profitable because it is likely to be accompanied by humility, curiosity, and open mindedness; whereas ability to repeat catch-phrases, cant terms, familiar propositions, gives the conceit of learning and coats the mind with varnish waterproof to new ideas,” observed psychologist John Dewey.

Or, as humorist Josh Billings put it, “The trouble with people is not that they don’t know, but that they know so much that ain’t so.”...

At present, however, a person can be blissfully ignorant of how to locate Kenya on a map, but know to a metaphysical certitude that Barack Obama was born there, because he learned it from Fox News. Likewise, he can be unable to differentiate a species from a phylum but be confident from viewing the 700 Club that evolution is “politically correct” hooey and that the earth is 6,000 years old.

And he may never have read the Constitution and have no clue about the Commerce Clause, but believe with an angry righteousness that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional.

This brings us inevitably to celebrity presidential candidate Ben Carson. The man is anti-knowledge incarnated, a walking compendium of every imbecility ever uttered during the last three decades.
Lofgren goes on to take Christian fundamentalists to task for the fact that the Republican Party is mired in anti-knowledge. While it's true that the candidacy of Ben Carson draws heavily on his support from Christian fundamentalists, I'm not sure that he's reached the source of the problem yet.

When I read this column I was reminded that a local conservative radio host used to refer to his own take on the world as "garage logic." It was his way of poking at the "elites" who actually knew stuff and embracing what Stephen Colbert later called "truthiness."

Recently Carson took a cutesy pot-shot at those elite professionals who actually know things by going on twitter to say, "It is important to remember that amateurs built the Ark and it was the professionals that built the Titanic." One has to wonder whether Dr. Carson would suggest that amateurs take up the practice of pediatric neurosurgery - or if his particular brand of professionalism is simply exempt from this kind of derision.

What that radio host and Dr. Carson are espousing (and Colbert was mocking) is the tendency of conservative media to attract viewers/listeners by appealing to their feelings about what must be true rather than the facts. When facts intrude on our "garage logic" it makes us uncomfortable because it creates what we call cognitive dissonance. We are comforted by the alternative of simply blaming the elites and rejecting the facts.

That's why I'd suggest that the root cause of an attraction to anti-knowledge was the creation of Fox News. What Murdoch managed to do with that network was to pose the proposition that facts were merely the liberal media at work. So on one side of the "debate" you have the conservative garage logic and on the other you have liberal facts. The rest of the media - in an attempt to prove they weren't liberal - accepted this frame, giving credence to anti-knowledge as a legitimate position. That traps us into things like having to argue over whether the science of human's contribution to climate change is real because denialism is given credence as the opposing conservative view.

Interestingly enough, this legitimization of conservative anti-knowledge has also had a corrosive effect on liberals. It has stripped the dialogue between liberals and conservatives of their legitimate differences and leaves us only arguing against nonsense. Liberals can be self-righteous in our positions and eschew what the Dewey quote above embraced about humility, curiosity and open-mindedness.

This is why Marilynne Robinson's concern about the danger this dynamic poses to our democracy rings so true.
I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with—you know?…because [of] the idea of the “sinister other.” And I mean, that’s bad under all circumstances. But when it’s brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.
It is important to recognize the effect an embrace of anti-knowledge has had on our political discourse. But shutting down curiosity and an open mind are too high a price to pay in response. That is a sure-fire route to inertia - which is anathema to liberalism.


  1. I think anti-knowledge far predates Fox News. Fox News just put it on the air to make a profit from it.

    1. More from Lofgren that I didn't include:

      Fifty years ago, if a person did not know who the prime minister of Great Britain was, what the conflict in Vietnam was about, or the barest rudiments of how a nuclear reaction worked, he would shrug his shoulders and move on. And if he didn’t bother to know those things, he was in all likelihood politically apathetic and confined his passionate arguing to topics like sports or the attributes of the opposite sex.

      There were exceptions, like the Birchers’ theory that fluoridation was a monstrous communist conspiracy, but they were mostly confined to the fringes. Certainly, political candidates with national aspirations steered clear of such balderdash.

    2. That was the 50s and early 60s. Everyone was playing by the white rules...we'd just come off winning a big war and were full of ourselves. Nobody had a chip on their shoulder; we had just elected a Northeastern elitist.

      Then the civil rights movement came along, then the hippie movement, then the feminist and gay movements. Plus television was breaking out of the Ozzie and Harriet mold to reflect how Americans were challenging the status quo. The conservative whites, feeling like their world was changing, began adopting a siege mentality. Their massive inferiority complex took hold. Now they have to work to find someone who believes the way they do AND is smart/successful. Anti-intelligence is a defense mechanism. Intellectuals have always been the enemy of conformity.

      Then Fox News comes along and monetizes that siege mentality. It's been there for decades, though.

  2. (re-posting a comment I made over on the Political Animal article)

    Put it this way: if those who disagree with you are part of a sinister conspiracy and they happen to come to power through democratic means, then it is not only acceptable that you refuse to grant them legitimacy, it is *required* that you destroy them by any means necessary.

    I shake my head when I see liberals fall into the same trap (and they do repeatedly).

    When enough people begin to think that way, Democracy dies.

    1. About all the demonization of the enemy ... tonight is Halloween, the night that proves that, at some level, we don't completely buy the demonization. We trust our neighbors to give our children candy with very very little risk. We agree to make each others' children happy as a community, no divisions and no questions asked. Yeah there are wet blankets who are all about Hell Houses or passing out vegetables and toothbrushes and Jack Chick tracts, but most people get trick-or-treating and work together to make it a good night for the kids.

  3. I think this connects to the whole rejection of "elite" knowledge that is woven through our history. We honor the 'self-made man", the autodidact. It has been amplified and weaponized by Fox News and others. When liberals are scorned for their knowledge, they often react by scorning the emotions and circumstances of the opponent. So we say "they vote against their own interests!", assuming that we know their interests better than they do.