Pod Bay One

The cult of ignorance

Back in 1980, Newsweek published an opinion piece by science-fiction author Isaac Asimov that seems eerily relevant again today.

Written by Josho Brouwers on 27 November 2018

It’s hard to avoid talking about politics, especially in an age where populism is on the rise, fueled by demagoguery, and certain elements of society seek to make our world less inclusive and less diverse and less in general. This downward turn can be attributed to a strain of anti-intellectualism, where knowledgeable people – like scholars and scientists – are treated with suspicion, if not downright ridicule.

None of this is new. In 1980, one of the foremost writers of science-fiction, Isaac Asimov, wrote an opinion piece in the January 21st issue of Newsweek entitled “The cult of ignorance”. It has rarely if ever been reprinted. That’s a shame, because this article is perhaps one of the best opinion pieces around and deserves to be read again today. While Asimov’s focus is on the United States, the contents apply equally well to any other country in the world.

Asimov starts as follows:

It’s hard to quarrel with that ancient justification of the free press: “America’s right to know.” It seems almost cruel to ask, ingenuously, “America’s right to know what, please? Science? Mathematics? Economics? Foreign languages?”

None of those things, of course. In fact, one might well suppose that the popular feeling is that Americans are a lot better off without any of that tripe.

Today, the United States has a president who is a certified moron, who hardly reads any books. When last Friday his own administration published a massive report on climate change, the product of four years’ worth of scientific research, the president dismissed it by saying that he doesn’t believe it.

Asimov continues:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way throughout political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

The idea behind democracy is that people get to vote on how their country is run. The idea is that one person gets one vote, regardless of their level of education, their personal wealth, or their accomplishments. And don’t get me wrong: it’s a good and noble idea. But as the election of Trump and similar demagogues around the world has shown, democracy can easily be corrupted.

And it’s in the demagogues’ interests to keep the masses from getting access to decent education. The American president even once proclaimed: “I love the poorly educated!” Furthermore, it’s in the interests of demagogues to nurture a climate in which, as Asimov so powerfully puts it, “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”. I pick, more or less random, this recent clip from the Daily Show to demonstrate the latter idea: a woman with no scientific background gives her “opinion” on climate change, dismissing the work of countless hardworking scientists who actually had training in this field.

Of course, if anyone dares suggest that we ought to listen to facts rather than opinions, they can be easily dismissed as “elites”. After all, did the current president of the United States not promise to drain the swamp? Did he not promise his devoted fanbase that he would turn the tables on the “elites”? Again, Asimov’s comments in his 1980-article are equally valid today:

We have a new buzzword, too, for anyone who admires competence, knowledge, learning and skill, and who whishes to spread it around. People like that are called “elitists”. That’s the funniest buzzword ever invented because people who are not members of the intellectual elite don’t know what an “elitist” is, or how to pronounce the word. As soon as someone shouts “elitist” it becomes clear that he or she is a closet elitist who is feeling guilty about having gone to school.

What can we do to put an end to the “cult of ignorance”? Asimov points out that education is an issue and can be improved. People also need to read more. I would add, that a stronger focus on teaching people how to think critically is also massively important.

But crucially, as Asimov correctly points out, we need to tackle the culture that fosters anti-intellectualism. It takes time and considerable effort to change people’s minds, as struggles towards greater equality and inclusivity have made clear. But ultimately, Asimov was an optimist:

I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning.

The best way to expand your mind is by reading. Science-fiction books, as noted earlier, often focus on ideas – ideas, for example, about how societies might or might not function in the future. So why not start by picking up a good book to read? As far as Asimov’s own oeuvre is concerned, I especially recommend The End of Eternity and The Gods Themselves.

But before you read anything else, have a look at Isaac Asimov’s complete Newsweek article. A transcription of the original text has been helpfully made available on GitHub. A PDF scan of the article is available here.