The Mechanisms of Ignorance

This is one of my favorite kinds of blog posts: where I dive into it not knowing the answer. Usually when that happens, it’s what I write a book about, but some questions I don’t want to turn into novels.

So here’s what we’re starting with: global capitalism cannot meet the needs of the world’s population.  More and more as capitalism demonstrates its exhaustion, we are seeing income disparity, which in turn drives the militarization of local police, increased police state measures such as spying on citizens and extreme persecution of whistle-blowers, and war measures as capitalists who can no longer count on economic bullying resort to violence to secure resources, market share, profit.

As these things increase, we notice something else: a drastic rise in ignorance.  And that’s where I’m mystified.

Let me be clear that in some cases, the ignorance is easily explained: belief in climate change is a direct threat to oil profits, so of course there will be climate change deniers.  And then, as capitalism finds it has less and less need for educated workers, education is slashed, hacked, and burned, so the ground for mass ignorance is being laid.

But there’s more to it, and that’s what I’m not getting.  To be precise, whence comes the rise in anti-vaxxers?  It isn’t just that they view children as property and want to debate who owns them (“The state doesn’t own the children, parents own the children.” — Rand Paul), it is very conscious ignorance and refusal to see reality.  Similarly, those who deny evolution.  In both of these cases, and others, there is a strong correlation to the most appalling right-wing political positions, with the ugliest forms of bigotry, and, moreover, such nonsense has become more widespread as the crisis of global capitalism has deepened, hence I do not accept coincidence as the answer.  What I’m not seeing is why this correlation exists?  Where is the relation between preserving private property as the highest goal, and a literal interpretation of the Bible?  And, above all, what is the mechanism by which these ideas slither down from the conscious reactionary to the merely ignorant?  I’ll be interested to hear what some of you think.


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103 thoughts on “The Mechanisms of Ignorance”

  1. I honestly think some of these things are side-effects. You have a suspicious population, for the most part without critical thinking skills, looking for bogeymen. Thus, the very reasonable distrust of the pharmaceutical industry pervades *all* interactions, including necessary interventions like vaccinations.

    It’s not an intended consequence, but it’s probably fairly welcome to the people at the top because, hey, what’s wrong with one more thing to keep the proles scared?

  2. Things like anti-vaxx serve capitalism’s interests by sidetracking us with huge religious battles. It pits overly-credulous people who dislike and distrust the government and pharmaceuticals against the people who are right-thinking and also dislike and distrust the government and pharmaceuticals. Now we’re fighting each other about something stupid (not that public health disasters are stupid, but having to argue about this is) instead of working together against the government. *jazz hands*

  3. Off the top of my head… Take the position that you are defending status quo, and that you are afraid. The prescription is “any wedge in a storm.”

    Each trope that may rouse fear or engender discord will be encouraged. Beside the obvious virtue (distraction) this approach should generally frustrate informed debate by lowering sympathy for–and expectations of–reason amongst peers.

  4. Is it driven by a desire to turn away from, or even undermine, the perceived primacy of “science”? Since those “scientists” keep supporting positions which undermine existing power structures, maybe those who wish to support such structures are attempting to discredit the whole project of scientific inquiry?

    If that were true, it would explain anti-science positions that don’t seem to directly support capitalist agendae. The goal, perhaps, is to discredit science on any and all sides.

  5. The above replies all seem very reasonable and even likely, but without challenging them I have a further question, or maybe a preceding one: Why should we assume that there IS a “relation between preserving private property as the highest goal, and a literal interpretation of the Bible?”

  6. @thnidu — I assume a relation between the two because the leadership of the various elements of the Patriarchal movement tend to be moneyed reactionary capitalists.

  7. I don’t think that literal interpretation of the Bible is important – it is *selective* interpretation of the Bible. Otherwise they would notice that Jesus Christ was a liberal.

    It appears to me that a big psychological need here is to defend their identity. To get their support it works best to say “I’m family and they are not”. They are willing to put up with things that hurt them – to help their family (aren’t we all?). But they don’t trust those who aren’t “family”, and that includes scientists and other people who are different from them. Especially people who claim to be more capable and/or “better” than them.

    Telling them “vote for me because I will make your life better” isn’t sufficient – not if I’m acting like I’m smarter or more knowledgable or more willing to accept outsiders.

  8. Lots of good comments here so far. Thanks. Barsoomcore’s point about the rejection of science is especially giving me things to think about.

    thnidu: You’re roughly as old as I am; we’ve both been there as ignorance flourished as capitalism entered a deeper crisis; that’s a lot of weight to put on coincidence. Also, what Jen said: those who give the highest and most vocal expression to rejection of science are overwhelmingly supporters of “property rights.”

  9. We’re seeing a lot of economic disruption these days as the information era connects the world faster than traditional political and social structures can adapt. This leads to uncertainty and fear at all levels. One common reaction to that is tribalism–protect “mine” and to hell with everyone else.

    This leads to a lot of suspicion of things beyond one’s personal experience. The reason so many people don’t believe climate change is because they don’t experience it–they experience weather, which feels the same as always. So why trust those scientists?

    This is coupled by many of the elites realizing that they can exploit tribalism for power. Karl Rove realized that he didn’t need to win the moderates if he could just get more conservatives to turn out and vote. We get false scientific studies on all sorts of things (including vaccines causing autism) becaues leaders have realized the average person can’t keep up with all the topics and now is distrustful of any authorities outside their tribe.

    It’s fear, and the only solution, I’m afraid, will be a disaster that forces people to realize there’s something worse.

    I’m not hopeful for humanity. Our inability to adapt quickly coupled with our creation of a world that requires it is likely to doom us.

  10. SKZB stated “So here’s what we’re starting with: global capitalism cannot meet the needs of the world’s population.  More and more as capitalism demonstrates its exhaustion, we are seeing income disparity, which in turn drives the militarization of local police, increased police state measures such as spying on citizens and extreme persecution of whistle-blowers, and war measures as capitalists who can no longer count on economic bullying resort to violence to secure resources, market share, profit.
    As these things increase, we notice something else: a drastic rise in ignorance.  And that’s where I’m mystified.”

    Mostly it is denial, People would not know “who they are” if they had to accept the facts that you state! Their whole world would come crashing down. There has to be an alternative to the current social structure.

    the current choices are:
    1) Socialism – Socialist governments own many of the larger industries and provide education, health and welfare services while allowing citizens some economic choice. think Norway
    2) Fascism – another failure
    3) Communism – can work in an ideal setting, however people are not idealists, they are self centered and will try to create niches for themselves which devolves into Socialism, Think Cuba
    4) Democracy – does not work because it disregards the minority opinions, Think India
    5) One world government – think thought police, however if it was put in place it would take about 100 years to work itself out.
    6) Dictatorship – subject to the whims of the dictator, Think Iraq
    7) Benevolent dictatorship – could very well work initially, but what happens when the benevolent dictator dies? How do we find the next one!
    8) Theocracy- Whose? Never! way to restrictive on both sides right & left, think Iran
    9) Anarchist – this would take us back to complete chaos. think Afghanistan!
    10) Totalitarian – You will be told what to do, where to go, think North Korea, China
    11) Republic – What we currently have now – Self-interest controlled by the corporations, Think USA
    12) Capitalism -think Russia in its current state
    13) Parliamentary – think Israel, England
    14) Monarchy – think Jordan
    15) Oligarchy/Plutocracy – A think Pakistan form of government which consists of rule by an elite group who rule in their own interests, especially the accumulation of wealth and privilege. Only certain members of society have a valid voice in the government.

    Is there something else that can work?

  11. “Those that believe in absurdities can be made to perform atrocities.” Not causal vis-a-vis anti-vaxxers, but related.

    The rise in groups of all types (religious and otherwise) that fundamentally distrust science leads people, by extension and guilt-by-association, to also distrust a lot of evidence-based reasoning, or even the idea of reasoning itself. (“Other ways of knowing”, anyone?)

    When you’ve already made a commitment to Something (anything!) where Nothing Can Change Your Mind, and you proudly boast of this fact, the bar plummets for the kind of crap you let into your head. You not only *don’t* scrutinize things, you *can’t* scrutinize them. You neither recognize the need for scrutiny nor have the tools to do so if you did.

    Denying evolution is pretty easy to explain, to me. There’s a very easy path from “evolution is true” to “therefore Genesis (et al) is false”. People that’ve built their identities around Genesis can’t stand that (oddly enough). So they deny evolution, and that’s that.

    But see, then they have to deny *lots of other stuff* (well, as I’m sure you know, so I won’t belabor the point). But anyway — I’m sure that contributes to anti-vaxxing and other foolishness.

    As an aside, I’m pretty sure I got my habit of saying and writing “well” a lot from your Khaavren books. :) Is it neat or weird to know that you can have that kind of influence?

  12. Humans are crappy at three things: 1) imagining communities of more than 100 people, 2) risk analysis; 3) taking responsibility for their actions. Hence the anti-vax sentiments.

    Because humans have trouble imagining communities of more than 100 persons, the incidence of autism seems disproportionately high to them (“I met an autistic child, therefore one in a hundred children are autistic”). Likewise since they’ve never met anyone who has measles, they dismiss it as a risk. The concept of ‘herd immunity’ is hard to convey to people who can’t intuitively grasp that there are more than 100 people in the world.

    Because humans have trouble with risk analysis they rank the risk of autism much higher than the risk of measles – because they’ve met people with autism, but not with measles. So when someone offers them a simple way to (it’s claimed) eliminate the exaggerated autism risk, these humans jump at it, completely ignoring the measles risk.

    And because humans have trouble taking responsibility, they are more comfortable pushing that responsibility for outcomes off onto “God” or “society” or “chance” than they are accepting it. This one is a little more complex.

    If by taking action a human assumes responsibility for a REDUCED risk, the human is still more leery of assuming responsibility for that risk than they are of being free from responsibility of a HIGHER risk. If they do nothing and a bad event happens, they can blame it on God. If they do something, and despite much reduced odds a bad outcome occurs, they have to OWN it. And humans HATE that.

    So if they believe there is any chance of their child getting autism from an inoculation, they would RATHER their child faced the risk of measles for which they can deny responsibility than that their child face the risk of autism for which they would be responsible.

    And the relative risk numbers don’t mean anything. We’re SO terrible at risk analysis that lotteries are thriving successes. Anything smaller than about a one-in-six chance (Russian roulette) confounds intuitive risk analysis.

  13. There are a lot of anti-vaccine people who are very much left of center, too. Sometimes I wonder whether, regardless of political orientation, some people feel the need to take a stand for the sake of taking a stand. But a lot of the really valuable things one might want to take a stand on are outside one’s on control. People don’t feel they can influence most of the world around them, so they become fixated and hysterical about something within their sphere of control to feel empowered about something, anything.

  14. We don’t have those 15 choices as being exclusive. The real world has lots of overlap with all of those choices. (That’s not True capitalism or communism or Scotsmen or whatever).

  15. The babylonian system, and the old egyptian system, both lasted for thousands of years. Somebody new would conquer them and replace the king and the upper aristocracy, and the system would grind along pretty much like before. Why would capitalism collapse when those systems didn’t?

    Because it is built on the expectation of continuous growth. There are supposed to be opportunities for anybody who can grab them. Everybody who joins in is supposed to get wealthier, even if some do far better than others.

    But we’ve run into resource limitations that appear to stop that, and maybe flaws in the system also stop it. To survive we must transition to something else. Unless we can get enough technological breakthroughs, we’ll have to switch to something more stable.

    Meanwhile, people want their lives to have meaning. Consumer culture was a fine novelty for a couple of generations. You get up in the morning and milk the cow and maybe the milk starts freezing before you get it to the kitchen. You chop firewood for the kitchen stove while somebody else hand-pumps water from the well. Indoor plumbing and HVAC looks like a big deal when you start from there. But if you compare 2015 technology to 1995 or 1975, the comfort level isn’t that much higher. People pay for more air conditioning. There’s more selection of gourmet frozen food. More wall-to-wall carpeting which is hard to clean.

    Consumer culture does not give much meaning unless you have a subsistence background to compare it to. And not that much even then.

    Science does not provide a meaningful creation myth. Evolution does not provide a meaningful background for a life. Trial-and-error establishes that some genes survive better than others in today’s environment and so those spread. Big deal.

    Marxism provides more meaning than a lot of things.

    So anyway, people want their lives to have meaning and they reject things that don’t work for them. A lot of them choose Christianity instead, or Islam. There’s *meaning* in rejecting the consumer culture around them. They don’t have to believe in science. That makes them special. Being special gives them meaning. Not believing in vaccination is special whether you have religious reasons or not. You are betting your children that you are right and the scientists are wrong.

    It doesn’t have to be about the capitalists who run the media. A lot of the support the system used to get was because people got rewarded for it. If you clap your flippers just right and bark, they throw you a fish. Now they don’t throw so many fish and more people are looking for something else.

    So long and thanks for all the fish.

  16. The whole idea that there are all these economic systems, political systems, social systems laid out like a buffet and we can just pick the ones we want demonstrates a complete failure to understand history. We’re in a boat rushing down a river. We can work together to see that we arrive safely, or we can try to fight against the current with the sure and certain knowledge that if we do the boat will fall apart and we’ll all drown. What we can not do is go, “Hey, let’s make a hard left and go over that thar mountain.” Sorry, the river doesn’t run that way.

    Now, where is the current leading us? What is the nature of the vessel? How do we best steer it? These are important questions, about which I have strong opinions. I’m certainly not going into details now, we’re discussing other things. But idea that we get to sit around and go, “how should society be arranged? Okay, let’s go do that,” has nothing to do with a scientific understanding of how society works. That is, by the way, one fundamental error of libertarianism.

  17. I was asked if I have any ideas. The main one in that sub thread is to not be worried about ideological purity. People count more than ideas. Look at results – and try to avoid seeing our short term interests as paramount, but recognizing that things change, allow the future generations to build their societies – not ours.

  18. I think there is a problem in identifying this as purely a science vs. ignorance debate. If you look into the vaccine issue past the “he said”/”she said” arguments portrayed in the media, there actually is scientific evidence on both sides. However, neither side’s science is absolutely conclusive, thereby requiring some degree of inference and proposition to get to a conclusion. Experimenting directly on babies and children is generally considered unethical, resulting mostly in statistical analysis, which can be manipulated by those with the proper motivation. That’s when the argument comes down to whose “science” do you “believe”. Do you take the authoritative proposition of the government and pharmaceutic companies at face value, or do you question it? Obviously, some reflexively fall on supporting the government and capitalist players, while some fall against them. But there is a gray area that’s being overlooked in the debate, if you really want to understand why different views on vaccines seem to transcend political views. Intelligent people can look ignorant to those with a different “belief” in the matter, especially if you don’t know how they reached their stance, but until there is definitive scientific evidence, beliefs are unfortunately subsumed into the scientific debate.

  19. Theo: There may well be a good time and place to discuss it; this isn’t it. This is about one thing: what are the causes and mechanisms by which certain ignorant ideas, seemingly unrelated to the decay of capitalism, are reinforced by that decay? Obviously, you are free to disagree that capitalism is in decay, or that there is a relationship between the decay of capitalism and those ideas, or even that those ideas represent ignorance. But for this post, that is the premise, and such disagreements would leave you unable to make a useful contribution to this particular conversation.

  20. Geopolitically what would be really helpful would be is if we could recognize that ANY system will be gamed and abused to allocated excess resources to a select few, who will then use almost any means to protect their privilege, and with that in mind come up with some kind of mechanism to say “Oh, hey, that happened again – we need to free up these resources you’ve hoarded, thanks” without resorting to bloodshed.

    So right now we could say “Hey, nice, you REALLY gamed the system didn’t you? Wow, you guys own half of everything! Well, here’s your trophy, and here’s your token prize money that you get to keep along with one mansion, two limos, and a jet. And we’re just going to patch those bugs you exploited to get this cash, re-establish actual democratic governance, and put the rest of the resources you hoarded back into the system so that everyone else can keep playing. Okay? Again, congrats, and thanks for pointing out the flaws in the system.”

    But NO, it always has to come down to cops and guns and blood and death for what is, in the end, essentially the same result.

  21. In Southern California at least, there’s no correlation to political affiliation. Anti-vax is strong in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills (high Democrat areas) and in San Juan Capistrano and Laguna Beach (high Republican areas). . (See for details.)

    We have people who are afraid of trusting what used to be trustworthy authorities because they think they have been lied to (and in some cases that is indeed true).

    And they don’t notice that their politicians and their newsmongers and their other fearmongers are lying to them.

  22. To the original problem, I’d say the answer is simple: there’s no short term profit in investing in education.

    Anti-vaccination sentiment, disbelief in climate change, distorted perception of the health risks of obesity (not nearly as high as most people think until someone has a BMI in the 40s – but we’re drowning in diet pills and exercise programs and diet books because there’s a lot of money to be made taking someone from BMI 35 to 32 despite the lack of consistent evidence it will improve lifespan or health outcomes), failure to see the illogic in particular religious or political views – I’d call it all a side effect of the fact that investing in education has no short term benefit for capitalists.

    Long term, there’s a benefit to investment in education. A highly educated populace drives the cost of skilled labor down. But no CEO, even Fortune 100 CEOs, think in those terms and make charitable donations or political donations with that goal in mind.

  23. I don’t think there’s a direct connection between conservative right-wing beliefs and anti-vaccination. In Germany, for example, I’d mainly associate anti-vaccination with middle-class Green vegetarian organic-food-worshipping homeopathy fans who might well consider themselves to be on the Left (but not too far). They’d certainly consider themselves to be the absolute opposite of “those crazy American conservatives.”

    What these people have in common with the variety of anti-vaxxers you describe is a rejection of science and logic as tools for understanding the world. That’s why postmodernism has played such an essential role in destroying the achievements of the Left – it gave those who held progressive social views that were not compatible with religion a replacement faith.

    It’s the generally anti-science (or “science doesn’t know everything”) stance that is extremely useful to capitalism, as it prevents people from seeing their problems in systemic terms, instead seeing them in personal terms (identity politics, self-help, etc.) or in overly specific political terms (conspiracy theories, hatred for individual politicians, fixation on minor events, etc.).

  24. Barsoomcore makes a great point, bather than discredit science completely, I think confusion is the goal. Knowing is for the elite, not the masses or their representatives. If you confuse the issue and allow debate where there should be none it can result in an apathetic populace. Give that populace only 2 choices between Milktoast and Madness, eventually they’ll give Madness a try, just for a change.

    You can’t discredit science completely because it brings you poisons, fertilizers, drugs, tech, etc. All wonderful commodities.

    Since our propaganda system relies on conflict, and open hostility to get viewers’ attention, viewers don’t get science or even legitimate debate. All this leading to more apathy & confusion and eventually to exhaustion or “Jesus Take The Wheel” thinking.

    I think you can get any given 3 – 5% of the population to believe or support anything no matter how bizarre, false or inhuman. Find a former model/tv personality and have her fly off the handle about how vaccines made her babies autistic. Legit? No, but that got the attention of a lot of mothers. Keep airing it, keep giving the famous person air-time to normalize her views with the population and you drag in more believers.

    So much crap is flying around on the media outlets people don’t know what to believe, because they either cannot investigate it themselves or don’t want to. If people have given up to exhaustion then they’re prone to magical thinking and superstition or believe the confident patent-medicine salesman on the side of the road.

    All of this leads to name calling and the choosing of sides and the radicalization/polarization. Basically tribalism as Big Ed pointed out, but on the federal scale – Two camps, each with self conflicting views, but whatever gives them more people. (See Wiemar elections 1920-1933 – okay I cover it briefly below)

    As for private property – Eve pissed off God and removed her peer status from Adam and made him his property. Still left in tact was the initial decree that all of the world and its living creatures were to be under man’s dominion and to be subdued (replenished too). God continually grants parcels of land for this -ite and that -an/am. Every place is given a name and therefore must have boundaries. He gave Abram the lands that fell south of Jordan, east of Egypt and what not.

    If you attack that, you attack the earliest grown seeds of identity in a lot of people. The most fragile things have to be protected with ferocity. An unyielding sense of self may be one of the most brittle.

    The mechanism is propaganda… This is getting long, but hear me out.

    So the DAP/NSDAP (nazis) began in 1920. Super outspoken anti-Semitic organization and they didn’t conceal the fact. Only 1 – 5% is buying into it. The downtrodden, etc. 1928 they suppress the whole angle. They start bread and soup kitchens, picking up the poor, and indoctrinating them.
    During the same time the KDP (communists) are pulling 5 – 10% of the vote.
    The whole nation is becoming more and more unhappy and divided. Members of the center are radicalizing and going to whomever advocates their ambitions.
    The NSDAP regionalizes their campaigns and say whatever gets the biggest reaction. ~”we hate city folk”~ to rural types and ~”we hate country bumpkins”~ to city dwellers. Say whatever you can to gain power. (See Romney’s 47%)
    That preaching to the choir approach to propaganda grew the party from 5% to 33% in 6 years.

    If you haven’t seen it I highly recommend Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent. –

    Also here’s a short clip of Chomsky on stupid people –

  25. Trust, an essential loss of trust in institutions which exist to provide services to the citizens of a nation. The US, at the least, has lost it’s trust and in the absence of something solid (science, rule of law, government, healthcare) in which to base plans made against an uncertain, and terrifying future, they embrace what panders to their most base fears. Ignorance as a willful decision to choose something that suits preconceived notions and biases rather than face truths which tell of a world where they don’t see a safe place for their lives without painful change.

  26. Big plus one on Jonas Kyratzes’ comment. Some people damn Marx for not being Nostradamus, but what Marx offered was not a future history; it was a way of analyzing the present with a scientist’s attitude. That attitude is hated by many people who prefer faith to reason.

    To be clear, this is not a “religion versus science” issue. There is a spiritual attitude that is completely compatible with science, as Albert Einstein and, I hope, whoever is in charge of the Vatican Observatory know.

  27. In my tiny little mind I think it is the following: People have the luxury to be anti-Vaxx because they have not seen a devastating epidemic of any disease in this country and they certainly do not realize that is because of the vaccines. It does not matter to most people to see the news stories of it happening in other countries because it has not happened here in so long. Lots of people are mad at the government, so against anything gummit wants them to do. Juat my thoughts.

    I have worked around medicine for 30+ years. When the anti-vaxx people come in with a kid who has meningitis, measles, or whooping cough, they are so overwhelmed with guilt and remorse that their anti-vaxx stand evaporates like summer rain on an Arizona sidewalk.

    Please be aware that people in their 50s and 60s may have missed the measles booster. Women in childbearing years need to have that vaccine. Sometimes your vaccination does not “take”. If this is a ramping up of measles, it would not hurt to check with your doctor to make sure you are, in fact, up to date and immunized against something that could be a really bad thing to catch and devastating to a fetus.

  28. Regarding the private property/literalism question, you might want to read Fred Clark’s Slacktivist blog (if you don’t already). Recently he’s been digging a lot into that particular biblical hermeneutic and its relationship to the defense of slavery prior to the Civil War; it’s entirely possible there’s a connection there.

  29. Uri: As you can see, it’s there now. WordPress thought that was your first comment here, and the first time anyone comments, it goes into moderation.

  30. Regarding the “conscious ignorance” aspect, I find Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory insightful on this, on what seems like willful ignorance from the outside. Unfortunately, hard to put in a nutshell–he doesn’t soundbite well.

    “Morality binds and blinds” is one of his few soundbites that might apply.

    Later today I’ll try to revisit my notes from Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and see if I can find what I’m looking for.

  31. Humans are animals. Self aware animals. You remind me of a documentary I saw yesterday from the history channel. It mentioned something along the lines of, and I’ll paraphrase, “When your eyes are close, reality is ‘waves’, when you open your eyes, reality is ‘particles’.” A person either chooses to ignore, or they were taught to ignore, though I suppose there are certain people born with an Apathy towards things that don’t concern them. That gene is still going around.

    On another note, Mr. Brust, I have just posted on the “Jhereg” /r/subreddit on the website “” about why there has not been some type of film adaptation to your Dragaeran world. There have been plenty of crap story lines with no breadth, and your worlds are full of magic and adventure. Something I think the imaginations need more of personally.

    Your faithful fan who wants to see Cat’s Laughing live.

  32. Why complicate things? The US alternative health industry is worth ~13 billion a year, about a quarter the size of the coal industry. And if one industry can lobby, so can another.

  33. Wow! This is an impressive amount of thought going on. I’m not sure who else is trained in science, but let me put out my perspective. People tend to say science is perfect in predicting outcomes (false) or else attack science as a bunch of hooey (again false). People are binary like that. There is lots of well earned distrust of government “science” positions (which often are just politics dressed up to look like science). Thus a lot of people are justifiably somewhat distrustful of official science positions.

    Mercury is one really frustrating and complicated topic. The official position is that Mercury is super bad. So bad that when a student breaks a mercury filled thermometer, the school is evacuated (total silliness and over reaction). A hazmat team is called in to pick up the drop of mercury. The proper response is to sprinkle sulfur powder on the mercury, pick up the mess, put it in a plastic bag and send it to a hazmat disposal site (what is mostly being done now). When we were kids, everybody played with mercury in their hands. In the old days, mercury and mercury salts were used in medicine. But today, it is treated like Ebola. So that is the frame of reference for mercury that many people have.

    Except for mercury amalgam fillings in your teeth. This has been done for maybe a century. I personally see this as a bad thing. The fillings do really dissolve and wear away in your mouth, so you do ingest the mercury. To say anything else is to lie. But it’s OK from this source because otherwise you could sue the dentist for putting in an amalgam filling. If you have a decent dentist, he likely will not use amalgam any more (except maybe in special cases or if you request it). I’ve had all mine replaced over the years.

    Mercurochrome has been taken off the market because it contains mercury. A medical researcher put out a paper correlating vaccinations to autism, starting a shitstorm.

    So here we have a political response to mercury in your mouth to protect the dental industry plus over reaction in other areas over mercury. Now you have a parent being told that the preservative for vaccination contains mercury. How do you expect somebody to react given the information above? The official position is to poo-poo any concern the parent might have over the mercury or the injection schedule. That sounds like politics.

    I have tried to pay attention to any real science related to this in common news sites and as far as I can tell, there isn’t any. Some official spokesperson poo-pooing parents concerns and calling them ignorant or superstitious or whatever is not science. It is politics. Just like saying mercury in your teeth is OK, is politics.

    I just did some searching for actual research on both the relationship of immunization schedules and the mercury in the immunization. The ethylmercury (Thimerosal) in vaccines is a listed health hazard and vaccination exceeds CDC safe exposure guidelines. But a short lived one (20 days?). Studies have been done which compare the autism rate between vaccinations with and without mercury – – and show no correlation between the mercury and autism rates. This leaves unexplained why autism seems more prevalent today. It could be that years ago, Johnny was just locked up in a closet out of sight of the community. We have very poor statistics on historical autism rates by modern diagnostic standards. It appears autism is significantly higher in the US and Europe than the rest of the world, but we don’t have good statistics.

    My personal concern was the large number of vaccinations given as a single dose (maybe more vaccinations than the guidelines recommend for convenience). But the same studies referenced earlier say that the schedule is not a problem but I couldn’t find actual research on this and the correlation to autism. Military people given broad spectrum vaccines have developed mental and health issues as a result. So this issue cannot be dismissed out of hand. Unfortunately, babies are given so many vaccinations ( that it would be difficult to study an alternative schedule. It is not obvious to me why some of the things vaccinated against are done, when they are done. Many people simply cannot afford to go to the doctor that many times. When we were kids there was a full time school nurse and she would do vaccinations for free.

    It has been recommended that Thimerosal be removed from vaccines as it really is a known hazard and it enters the brain and nerves. It appears that this has mostly been done for infant vaccinations.

    Given all this, is it surprising that some parents simply avoid this confusing issue by not getting vaccinations, thinking the risk from the vaccine is perhaps higher than the risk of a possible disease? After all, everybody my age had chicken pox, maybe mumps and so on, and we lived to talk about it so the perceived risk is lower than it really is. Does that mean parents should not get their kids vaccinated? I don’t think so. But their position is not completely stupid, ignorant and selfish either given the sparse and contradictory information they have to work with. And calling them names does not address the root problem, it just makes them dig in.

    So if you want to get those parents who avoid vaccination to sign up, their concerns need to be addressed respectfully with real information, not politics.

  34. I think it’s a complex situation, with no simple cause, but I believe–sadly–that the capitalist, conservative views, and the Biblical literalism, and the xenophobia, all stem from one root cause: hating to think. People don’t like to think, and don’t know how, and would rather do almost anything else. Why not live your life as your father and grandfather did? Why work out your own view of life when it’s all there in black and white in the Bible (or whatever) and you don’t have to do any research or interpretation or learn anything about what culture and time that scripture came from? Why ask why that lady in the store why she covers her hair, or that cab-driver who is obviously from another country where he’s from and why he came here? All that can happen is that your pre-conceived notions might be challenged, and you might have to abandon some and cultivate others–without anyone else telling you what to think!

    Heaven forfend! Easier to slip into lazy adherence to old ideas. And watch football, or American Idol, or whatever.

    Socrates, Jesus, Bruno–so many people tried to challenge the old ruts of conventional “thought,” and were killed for it. Go back to sleep. There’s nothing to see here.

  35. I think people like to think – at least to the level of deciding which team to bet on….

    But we don’t want to be wrong in things that matter. That means lots of people don’t want to have their views challenged. Trouble is, avoiding being wrong is expensive. We don’t learn how to grow past our mistakes.

    I read some business advice where the owner asked the prospective CEO what mistakes he had done. When told that the prospect succeeded in everything, the CEO found someone else – someone who knew how to handle being wrong.

    The first thing though is being willing to accept that sometimes we *are* wrong.

  36. I’m surprised (especially here) that no one has yet brought up that old time (saying about) religion: it’s the opiate of the masses. There’s a lot of truth to this, but it kind of oversimplifies things in my opinion.

    Ideologies are easier for people with control over communication to co-opt than principles. All “isms” fail, because the ideology becomes more important than people, and because the message is too easy to warp to fit people’s weaknesses and nature. This is why communism, in spite of being theoretically a good idea, has had bad results when tried (whether you think they’ve been “tried for real” or not is kind of beside the point).

    It’s why *any* ideology that sees the world in black and white is doomed to be warped by those in power to their advantage. That’s actually the biggest weakness of libertarianism, not the notion that one can change the path of history. It’s way too easy to coopt to reactionary conservatism, in spite of the fact that it’s theoretically almost the direct opposite of that ideology.

    Religions are just one example of this problem with ideologies in general. It’s all too easy to warp a message that’s not based on basic principles, evidence, compromise, and cooperation into something reactionary (or radical).

    The association between conservatism and the “right wing” is actually kind of an odd one, really, and religion is the wedge that makes it possible. Wedge issues are the easiest thing to manipulate people with, and religion is the most wedgey of all wedge issues.

    And that’s what brings us back to the whole anti-vaxxer thing…

    First, don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is something new coming about because of some kind of recent decay of capitalism. Try this quote from wikipedia on for try: ” For example, in a 1772 sermon entitled “The Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation” the English theologian Rev. Edmund Massey argued that diseases are sent by God to punish sin and that any attempt to prevent smallpox via inoculation is a “diabolical operation”.” Or this charming example from around 1900 ( There have been anti-vaxxers pretty much ever since the idea of vaccination was invented.

    But… why now? Because the old wedge issues has lost their glossy finish. It’s old news to be against gay marriage, or abortion, for example. Pretty much everyone has an opinion about these, and they aren’t really going to be “swing voters” in this election, because they’re basically already decided. This is just a fresh way to stir people up by showing “another way your freedoms are lost” or “another way our religious values are being attacked”.

  37. I think the obvious answer is the obvious answer. Those in power have no interest in educated lower classes. It’s harder to exploit educated people; people without education can much more easily be manipulated through mass media, can be more readily induced to xenophobia and foolish tribal attitudes, and can be divided into factions supporting one or another false platform.

    It’s possible to argue that having made their bed with idiots and gerrymandered their districts to buy idiot votes that the GOP has passively and inadvertantly committed to pandering to an idiot voting class and now is unable to break the habit. But really I think the true answer is even more malicious than that.

  38. I’m expressing even more than my usual caveats: I’m on the other side of the pond, I’m in hospital, drugged up and my oxygen levels are a tad iffy. On the other hand, the House of Commons has just passed, on a free vote, by a massive majority, proposals to license the insertion of healthy mitochondrial DNA from a donor into the eggs of women with defective mitochondrial DNA, so that a fertilised egg can be re implanted and, in time, that woman can give birth to a healthy baby.

    There had been considerable opposition from the Church of England and the Catholic Church, and I’ve not even tried reading the stuff churned out by the fundamentalists who work so hard at relocating the Bible Belt in Britain. There has been hysteria about three parent babies and the inevitable destruction of the human race etc. etc. etc.

    Nevertheless, the Bill passed with a massive majority, and the attempt to portray science as Satan hasn’t worked. They will, no doubt, try again in the House of Lords, but it isn’t going to work there either; they blew their credibility when they tried to abuse Parliamentary process to kill the equal marriage bill, and failed.

    It seems to me that people drawn to religious fundamentalism have a psychological need for someone to tell them what to do; this is exceedingly useful for capitalism, and capitalists therefore encourage it by all the means available to them, which are quite considerable…

  39. I sometimes wonder whether the period when it made since for the powerful to support their communities is ending. With the assumption that people care mainly about our peers, for a couple centuries the powerful gained relative advantage by having communities that produced wealth. But redefining “community” to include the same whole world as their peers may mean that one’s status does not increase by residing in a wealthy town or country.

    So buy off politicians to lower your taxes, support your business, war against your competitors & – if the country goes broke, it won’t matter much, especially if one can get more in the short run (then move one’s wealth elsewhere).

  40. Hmm, as much as I’m fresh here, let’s see it for some reactions.

    @David Hajicek
    Actually the correct part to my knowledge is that mercury is nowhere the problem it’s made out to be. Anyhow, as for fillings (I’m the proud owner of a pair of those) the reason it’s not a problem is that the mercury is there in an eutectic alloy form that, as such alloys do, is somewhat reluctant to get rid of its mercury in a similar way that you don’t see carbon leeching out of mild steel. The problem with mercury leaking was mainly in the older times before the composition of it was regulated by government – given the mixture also contains silver, many dentists skimped out on it and made decidedly over-mercuried alloys that then did leak.
    Amalgam fillings have also many advantages – they aren’t as sensitive to setting conditions, are bacteriostatic, and don’t shrink with time. Either way, my grandma and grandpa had them for about 40 years now and they’re fine.

    @skzb and the main topic
    More than anything, I see this growth of almost voluntary ignorance as the result of a whole number of factors, including failings of education, profitmongering by the media, and especially in medicine, the huge knowledge gap between being able to use it and actually understanding what’s going on.

    In fact, I’m tempted to say education isn’t a huge factor, as the generation of my parents received that pretty well in socialist Czechoslovakia (though in this case, a part of the problem is the inherent distrust in anything official a lot of people have since) yet a lot of the same idiocy that spread in the west has too taken root in our home, be it fortunetelling and astrology over audiotext numbers, “healers”, homeopathy, absurd nutrition systems (days ago our paper had a talk with such an expert, who apparently put energy in his soups by cooking them for three to five days straight. On a gas fire since an electric stove just doesn’t imbue it with the same energy.)
    In many of these cases, the media companies are content to rake money from advertising such services, and in case of such popular imbecilles, they will give them space to talk, because making a straight-cut issue into a ‘controversy’ is good for attracting readers. Again, state oversight like it used to be in the past would help. (I’m against censoring fiction, but absolutely for maintaining standards in *reporting*)

    Now the second point. The problem is… our medicine had such a friggin’ huge effect that we barely notice it, and it’s bad. Like – infectious diseases, even in my grandpa’s childhood, used to be a killer. The fact that now, you almost welcome having a germ rather than a virus because you can take a pill and be well in a day or three just shows how much progress was made. Same with vaccination – even my aunt, uncle and mother lived through epidemics of cowpox and measles, the second of those actually being *nasty* when contracted by teens or adults. (A schoolmate of my aunt actually died of them, as did a teacher in a nearby city.)
    But… because all of that’s defeated, people don’t include it in their tacit mental calculations – they only put in some absurdly low risk of vaccine adverse effects, and the disproven bullshit about vaccines causing autism which should be banned along with Auschwitz lie.
    And in the same way, when someone gets, say, cancer, and modern medicine, in certain cases, honestly admits it can do fuck-all, coupled with the above virtually invisible service it makes it look like it’s really, really crappy and impotent – and a loudmouth claiming they have the cure will get attention – and their customer either dies or becomes a ‘success’. It wasn’t cancer, but that’s in fact how a family member of mine got into all sorts of bullshit like this – they started out with ulcerative collitis, the medicines the doctor gave them did fuck-all, and they got better after some quack treatment, which was overwhelmingly likely just the disease going into remission by itself. Couple it with the media (the third time I mention them) constantly mentioning pompous claims and unsubstantiated (or often, grossly misinterpreted research findings) of the sort of STRAWBERRIES CAUSE CANCER! STRAWBERRIES CURE CANCER! and whatnot, and in the eyes of anyone who is ignorant, but not bereft of common sense, modern medical research begins to look like a bunch of quacks who can’t tell their anal opening from an aperture in the flooring tile.

    What’d be the solution… I dunno. But, making quack-treaters as legally liable as doctors, and reining in the profit-mongering information peddlers of our day would go a long way, I believe.

  41. The “rise of ignorance” started more than a century ago in my opinion (in the United States and Canada, I should say, not having any particular knowlege of other places in the world) so I do not think that there is a direct relation between the current troubles we have gotten into via riding exponential growth to fuel capitalist profits and the attitudes that you describe. See for example the descriptions of school in a small town in 1875 or so as described by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her books, or discussions about education by Robert A. Heinlein in “Expanded Universe” to see how basic education has declined. The situation in Canada where I am followed that in the USA with some delay.

    It is important to remember that originally the “autism is caused by vaccination” idea came from a scientific paper — I believe. There was a correlation between the two things. It turned out to not indicate cause and effect, but most people will tend to take correlation as equivalent to causation. Then some celebrity decided that the idea was correct and spread it through the mass media. Once the idea gets into people’s heads it is difficult to refute. We all have confirmation bias, so we are told. Until several other celebrities go public and say that there is no relation between vaccination and autism the idea is going to stick around. Or maybe that would not be enough. Statements from the government or from some generic scientist or doctor (as it were) are not enough to sway people once the idea is in place. And in the USA in particular there seems to be a peculiar distrust of government that I do not understand.

    Hence, I do not think that there is some explicit motive or action on the part of the powers that be to promote this state of affairs. Possibly they do not have any motive to try to correct this problem because they think that an ignorant electorate is more easily manipulated.

  42. Education *always* declines generation by generation, as each generation has more people who can read and write and get non-manual jobs.

    In fact the world gets worse each and every generation – as living standards go up, smaller percentages starve, smaller percentages get killed by other people, and smaller percentages are slaves.

  43. There are many reasons people have given for not vaccinating their children. One of the most irritating to me is complacency. They’re so used to living in a clean, sanitized environment they forget it’s not natural, that we, as a society, worked very hard to make it sanitary. They don’t get shots because no one they know ever dies from diseases, just from “conditions” like cancer and ALS.

    There is a lot to discuss about this crowd of people and their similarities to other movements, both current and historical, but that’s off limits because as you say here:

    “Obviously, you are free to disagree that capitalism is in decay, or that there is a relationship between the decay of capitalism and those ideas, or even that those ideas represent ignorance. But for this post, that is the premise, and such disagreements would leave you unable to make a useful contribution to this particular conversation.”

    You say you’re curious about the anti-vaccine movement, but you state it’s connected to/reinforced by the decay of capitalism without having demonstrated capitalism has anything to do with the problem itself. Concentrating just on the anti-vaccination crowd, you’d need to show that before capitalism took root people never behaved foolishly because they felt they know better than experts, which is one reason people refuse to vaccinate their children. And that no one ever asserted the right to have complete control over his family, regardless of what society thinks, another reason given for non-vaccinating. And that no one ever thought a god would intervene and prevent a life-threatening illness, another, albeit lesser, reason given by some parents.

    If you’re only willing to hear from people who accept the given relationship between anti-vaccination and capitalism, if you’re saying you’re right and anyone disagreeing is wrong, then what is left? Nuance? Snark? A discussion of whether we can blame objectivists for both measles and smallpox, followed by a debate on how much heat the voluntarists should take for the Spanish flu?

    Something pertinent to this matter, in several ways, is a recent study published by Stanford University’s Political Communication Lab: “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization”

    It covers quite a bit of ground, but the pertinent parts talk about how some people are so politicized they interpret everything in partisan terms regardless of how inapplicable such a point of view might be.

  44. One sentence per item (not an exhaustive list, since I must go to bed soon)!

    1) Vaccination is a victim of its own success; who wants a cure for a disease they don’t believe in?

    2) Evolution goes a long way to refuting human exceptionalism, and few of us like to think that we are fundamentally animals.

    3) Any serious effort to alter our carbon consumption would significantly lower living standards across the world in the short term, and the number of people willing to make a concrete, immediate and personal sacrifice for a nebulous, long-term and worldwide good is not high.

  45. @howardbrazee
    Except, to varying degrees, education has decayed across the former eastern block, and quite badly, especially on later levels. It has to do with terrible teacher salaries (and for example – just now, the law banned a practice that’s been going on for a while, of firing teachers at the start of the summer holiday, and hiring them again in September, so that the school could dodge out of paying them), lack of teacher autority due to quite often lack of means for them to do anything meaningful with misbehaving kids, and a dismantling of the former, functional system where curricula and say, the exam questions at the end of high school were set by the government. Now schools can set whatever, but because they’re paid by the student count, they dumb things down to retain as big a student body as possible.
    Add to it qualification inflation – jobs that used to require a high school diploma during socialist times now ask for a bachelor’s degree in college, quite often, and what you’re left with is terrible.

  46. VAE, You gave the official description of amalgam fillings. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite true. If the filling is on a biting surface, it wears away and you ingest it. The silver cannot hold on to the mercury in your gut as it has been atomized. In my case, the fillings that were old became corroded and porous. That silver and mercury dissolved and went into me. Talks about people “looking for an illness” if they ask about the mercury. Not very scientific. At the end it says that the amalgam does add mercury to your blood, just not enough (about 1/4) to exceed safe limits. So it has been measured that amalgam puts mercury into your blood. Is that a problem? Who knows. They say it might be for pregnant women, but that’s a guess.

  47. @David Hajicek
    The silver and mercury went through you, at any rate. I’m not particularly certain whether it reacts with hydrochloric acid at all (hence atomization might not happen, just like when you swallow a cherry pit, say) and indeed, the rate of absorbtion of mercury through digestive system passage of even pure mercury is minuscule – the way they were worried about, even in the article, was inhalation of vapours.
    Either way, even with the potential failings, the rate of absorbtion of mercury from them is two orders lower than the allowed workplace exposure, and as the article cites, if you eat fish once a week, you get about twice the amount that your fillings generate.

    I remain thoroughly unconcerned about the potential risk to my health from my amalgam fillings, and as far as I should be concerned, so should be you.

  48. We tend to be much more scared of unfamiliar threats than we are with much bigger familiar threats. That has been demonstrated many times. I wonder if measles is still too familiar, even as it is becoming rare. People seem to be more afraid of ebola than the flu.

  49. re: better education

    My impression is that teachers of my youth were poorer than teachers today, yours is opposite.

    And every generation sees priorities changing, and points to the devaluing of some old values as evidence that education isn’t as good.

  50. re: mercury
    I knew someone who had an office in a room at Iowa State University with a great big tub of mercury. It was fun to play with, but he spent most of the day in that small room. I wonder if he has added health problems because of that experience.

  51. > We tend to be much more scared of unfamiliar threats than we are with much bigger familiar threats. That has been demonstrated many times. I wonder if measles is still too familiar, even as it is becoming rare. People seem to be more afraid of ebola than the flu.

    Actually, that’s a part of a different phenomenon – that people are terribad at evaluating very small but non-zero risks, and generally overplay them badly compared to larger risks.
    I mean, you know how there are parents who won’t allow their kids to play outside because they might get kidnapped, even though the risk of it happening is a lot smaller than anything the kid experiences daily.

    Media add to this – constant stream of rare occurences from all around the world makes them seem commonplace – so that people tend to be persuaded say, crime is going up even when it’s going down.

  52. I don’t think what you are seeing is ignorance in action. The phenomenon you may be seeing is the out come of broken trust. Anti-Vaxx, fracking, climate change, sludge and many other issues seem varied and not related, yet the common thread I see ‘we have been lied to.’

    The topics are not as important as how they are clung to, and held with a drowning fanatics grasp. Smart and often educated people are uneasy and unsure as to why, only that they can tell that something is ‘wrong’. Given a ‘scientific’ (there is ALWAYS statics to support and papers by ‘FAMIOUS DOCTORS’) basis that gives the initial spark of credulity, then there is shock and then passion steps in and any hope of thought is lost.

    I think that the loss of trust and a subtle danger sense is in operation. Smart people sensing a predator or disaster are more likely to grab topics that will allow them to passionately express that fear. The emotional charge encourages blindness and we are off to the races. I think this explains why so many of these causes are lead by celebrities. BTW not all of these “issues” are ignorant, wrong or misinformed. The herd is uneasy. The pack is alerted.

    “So here’s what we’re starting with: global capitalism cannot meet the needs of the world’s population. More and more as capitalism demonstrates its exhaustion, we are seeing income disparity, which in turn drives the militarization of local police, increased police state measures such as spying on citizens and extreme persecution of whistle-blowers, and war measures as capitalists who can no longer count on economic bullying resort to violence to secure resources, market share, profit.”

    So I don’t see ignorance, I see fear and restlessness. I agree with your cause. I don’t think ignorance is the effect.

  53. A very thought provoking post and discussion. What is interesting to me about the comments is that some people have mentioned the study (which was done in either the EU or Britain, can’t remember off the top of my head) which eventually catapulted this issue into the main stream but they have left off the most damning fact about it. The researcher himself several years after publishing admitted that he fabricated the results!

    What annoys me the most about the study and the grief it has caused is two fold:

    1) Numerous studies were conducted afterwards and they never identified either a correlation or a positive result. Scientific studies have to be replicable in order to have any meaning. So many people do not understand this scientific principle. Primarily because of a lack of education at a younger age. Science needs to learn from religion – get ’em while they’re young.

    2) We are inundated with news stories about “don’t eat this, this cause cancer, eat this it will make you live forever” and since this changes constantly many people have decided that you can’t trust anything about any study.

    It used to really amaze me that people could be young-earthers/creationist. There’s actually an amazing amount of fake science that they use as propaganda to push ideas such as Noah’s flood being an actual fact, man and dinosaur lived together and the universe is only 6K years old. The ID people aren’t much better, but at least some of them will admit that the universe is billions of years old.

    What really pisses me off are the politicians who use evolution to get elected. Because they are supporting the spread of misinformation.

    You can have any beliefs you want to about god or no god. It’s no skin off my back. I fully support everyone’s right to freedom of religion. But teach it in your church/synagogue/mosque/prayer circle/home. Keep it the hell out of schools. It makes our population get dumber and dumber.

    The anti-vax crowd is interesting. There are two main groups that do not get vaccinated by choice (I’m leaving out the third which is due to medical reasons such as treatment for cancer which has stripped the poor child’s immune system, hence they can’t be vaccinated). The first group is poor – either below the poverty level or near it (which is a whole nother discussion as it’s a crime that anyone in the US is poor), often single parent family with multiple low paying jobs who for whatever reason don’t take their children to free well care visits and get vaccinated.

    The second group makes me want to slap the every living shit out of them. They are predominately well above the poverty level and often very “green.” Many posters above have mentioned this group. They don’t see the disease, they listen to the fear stories about autism and they don’t vaccinate their child.

    Personally I think that autism has always been a problem but people labeled them stupid or a variety of socially maladjusted, crazy, etc. A friend of my wife (god bless her – which is not literal, just a southern saying) has one daughter that is perfectly normal and one son with autism. She blames vaccines. Nothing will ever sway her on that belief because she wants something, anything, to blame for her son’s condition.

    Which brings us back around to politicians. What is the single best thing to do when confronted with trying to win a battle? Give the populace an easy identifiable enemy. “Us vs. them” is so much easier to use than “This research shows that option A will be better for the citizens. The study had a 95% rate of significance which means that there is a 5% chance it is meaningless. But we’ve tested it many times and gotten the same verifiable result.”

    The sheep are too stupid to govern themselves.

    Finally, I leave you with this delightful comic from The Oatmeal:

  54. L. Raymond- Interesting article. I think we also shouldn’t dismiss the echo chamber effect that goes into creating the menu of partisan issues. I can believe that Rand Paul’s “cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines” statement might reflect his actual beliefs, prior to his handlers pulling him aside to refine his position. He is no intellectual giant, and all evidence points to his medical knowledge being poor at best, even for an ordinary citizen let alone an ophthalmologist. He might have been taking case studies at the same political rally as Michelle Bachman.

    But why would Chris Christie, an intelligent, no nonsense product of the urban Northeast waffle on the value of vaccines? I don’t believe for a second that he ever had doubts about whether children should be vaccinated against measles. He spoke out of pure cowardice: because he knows that the Base is anti-vaccine, and the Base must not be angered. And the Base is antivaxx because the Foxheads are antivaxx, and the Foxheads are antivaxx, not to any vested interest that I can guess at, but simply because that it part of the menu. To be in the club, you must be free markets, no regulations, pro-christmas, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-government spending on anything….

    How did the menu form? Some of it is obviously planted by the Powers, their agenda slipped into the mouths of their victims, but some is pure accident, I think. Some pollster noticed that a slightly higher proportion of blue collar, born-agains bought into the anti-MMR hoax started by former Dr Andrew Wakefield. So the conservation news pundits picked it up, and spread the disease to more of the tribe. Yes, along the way some gluten-hating vegans caught the plague as well, but at least in this country, the vector was mostly Blue State.

    As social media and push news and search all became increasingly automated, the division becomes inescapable. The news feed on your phone notices that you click on Obama is Kenyan stories, so it feeds you Autism-vaccines. Your friends on FB throw them up mixed in clips about the Islamic no-Christian zones in Birmingham, UK. Every time you use Google, it shows you more and more of the same links that all the Ditto-heads click on. Soon, the only news items you see are the ones from the Menu, and it sound to you like all the world agrees on every item, except a few pointy heads that read the NYT and Mother Jones.

    It is no different for the other camp. Why are almost all Liberals against GM foods, even in absence of any evidence of danger? What is inherently liberal about distrusting agri-business but not Western medicine? It is all self-reinforcing. Seeds drop in the solution, and crystals spread, and soon we are all perfect prisms of sapphire or carnelian.

  55. This happened to be the quote on your page just now:

    “Ignorance is not a crime until it becomes willful.
    — Trotksy”

  56. Seth, I hope something was lost in translation there, because no one chooses to be ignorant. Either you’re convinced you’re wrong, or you’re not.

  57. Yes, I’ve heard people say they deliberately choose not to learn something for the most idiotic of reasons. Not let us say because the learning requires too great an investment of time or money, or because it’s too challenging for their current education level, or because they have made the considered decision that they have other more important things to learn.

    But for example people may refuse knowledge because they choose to put their faith in others’ false claims to such an extent that they will absolutely refuse to look at any contrary evidence. Most anti-evolution people have this attitude. Or because they choose not to care about the subject at all, assuming the subject has no importance — typical of the apolitical with respect to oppression or government abuse that is not affecting them personally. Or sometimes for no apparent reason at all, but just due to obstinate perversity.

  58. Do not tempt me with your logic/evidence.

    I’m not a scientist, but… I’m told that accepting that our behavior contributes to global warming means my opponent will get Koch money, not me.

  59. disclaimer – howardbrazee: I know your comment is tongue in cheek.

    “I’m not a scientist, but…”

    This ties into the excellent quote from Trotksy.

    Politicians use it to get votes (and money – or vice versa). It “brings them down” to the common folk of the earth, separates them from the hoity toity elite, and both decreases and increases fear at the same time – just different fears. A distrust of educated scientific people has been taught to the public. People who watch spongebob and the simpsons and football while drinking beer are much easier to influence than an intelligent, thoughtful electorate. They don’t want the public to be taught to think.

    Our schools do not teach students how to learn – they teach them how to pass tests. It very much reminds me of the students I taught in China (grad level ag econ and some English and culture courses). They were taught that whatever a teacher said or was printed in a textbook or released by the government was TRUTH. Not to be argued with, nor debated, nor even thought about.

    Which isn’t very different from the school system today here in the US. Students are not taught logic or debate or reasoning. They are taught 1+2=3 (which is good and necessary) and how to regurgitate data (or a datum in some cases…hah). Coupled with a rise in fundamentalist religious views which also says “Do not question, just have faith,” this is a very good way to end up with an easily swayed populace that does what they are told to do.

    At the same time, the culture is in place which has kids (who grow up usually to be adults) who disliked school in the first place and picked on and hated those kids who did well, seeing them as elitist for being in the advanced classes and going to college. So they are told by their parents who also aren’t very well educated that it’s all right to be a loser and sit on the couch and have a dead end menial job.

    So why would they ever listen to science in the first place? They’ve been taught their whole life that it’s okay and even better to be “average.”

    Reminds me of sitting in a restaurant in Hazard, KY one time and over-hearing the people in the booth behind me. Hazard is in eastern KY, in the mountains and is traditionally a coal-mining area which has been poor ever since people first colonized it (except for the mine owners of course).

    “Who does she think she is, going off to college like that. What, does she think she is so much better than the rest of us? Why can’t she stay here and be on the draw like everyone else?”

    (the “draw” is welfare of course)

    Now tell me that people don’t choose to be willfully ignorant.

    The culture breeds it. Our school systems enable it. Our politicians thrive on it. Our corporations profit from it.

  60. It is all about fear! Fear does not require logic. In fact, fear is fed by illogic and ignorance in the same way oxygen feeds a flame. Economic disparity feeds fear and desperation in the have nots, but also in the haves, who clutch greedly at what they have lest it disappear. Fears for offspring are not logical. Whether children are owned or not, wanted or not, treasured or discarded, they cannot be protected from all risk, all hurts, or all harm. They need room to grow, but there is no one answer or any “reasonable” for adults when threat to their child is perceived whether from a vaccine or a disease..

    We live in a time where political parties have learned to use fear to up their agenda, both parties do it. Corporations are consolidating global power, and must fight for survival in ways that can horrifically impact individuals. If you fear you will loose your job due to environmental controls you will be happy to hear there is no global warming. If you fear the future or your neighbors or the nation next door, fundamentalism of any sort is a shield against thinking about what is changing that cannot be controlled. Logic is an impediment to those who are willing to be ruled by fear That is not quite the same thing as ignorance, but ignorance may be the direct result of illogical efforts to hold back the tides of change.

    So, why not a novel, Mr Brust? Your books always make me think while enjoying myself immensely. Fear unfought and ignored is a problem in our time, as in any other. Every generation needs someone to say what FDR did “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”. Now I can’t think of anyone whose literary/fantasy take I would like more than yours on that theme, especially if Vlad Taltos is involved!

  61. Excellent idea! Though Mr. Brust did touch on some of that in Teckla ?(though I will admit to not having read it for a few years). Partly the point of Cawti teaching Easterners is to alleviate ignorance, leading to a more educated populace that was willing to challenge the existing status quo.

    Or maybe my memory is faulty and I missed the whole point…

  62. Could it be we are educated and yet are being led to embrace illogic and ignorance? Seems to me there are many pressures, intentional or not depending on your level of paranoia, that are working to help us all reach the level of the lowest common denominator. I agree that Teckla addressed some of this issue (I too have not read it in years), but I think there is a difference between how a suppressed group reacts to or rebels against supression, and what is going on in our world today. It seems to me we are all being made powerless in the face of technology, informaton overload, corporate and government indiference, greed, laziness, corruption, indifference, etc.. Is it true? Are we powerless? How exactly can the intelligentsia combat what is going on? The intelligentsia in the West is generally financially well off and we have the illusion of political power. Why would we do anything? What would lead us to effect change? What power do we have to change our world for the better?, How do we determine what is better (huge problem for all of us)? Should we give up and get spiritual? Should we indulge in a collective existential crisis? This is the first time I’ve every written in a blog space, so I am not going to come up with any answers! It is a lot of ask of anyone, but those more imaginative then me might get us all thinking – it is very clear the Steven Brust is more imaginative than me!

  63. @Ginny
    What you touch on in your previous post is what marxist-leninists would call a lack of class consciousness, manifesting. You kind of see it every day – go to any comments on a newspiece which goes on about minimal wage, about some unionized workers or state employees being a little bit better paid or having a smidgen better conditions, and you’ll see curses fly at their “lazy” “entitled” and whatever arses… and here’s the kicker, the ones cursing will usually be people just like them. While, you know, a millionary is getting the money by the day that a thousand of them wouldn’t earn in a month… but the idea that they should be equal to him, not just to other workers doesn’t even come to their minds – it’s a cognitive bias one has to consciously fight against. Plus, there’s the way these numbers get so stupidly big it’s hard to grasp them intuitively, the way you can grasp someone pulling in a thousand bucks more per month than you.

    It’s something everyone tends towards ,and has to watch out for, and it’s encouraged and exploited by the bourgeois ruling class – the classic narrative about how the rich deserve their riches because they’re hard working and whatnot (but like, show me a millionary who does thousand tiems the work of a janitor)

  64. Cassmarshall:

    “The phenomenon you may be seeing is the out come of broken trust. Anti-Vaxx, fracking, climate change, sludge and many other issues seem varied and not related, yet the common thread I see ‘we have been lied to.’”

    This is central. Science works on trust and replication. But when people deeply care about getting the “right” answer, it will get fudged.

    Pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars bringing a new drug to market. Clinical trials etc which must get good results before they can make any money, come rather late in the process. If they get the wrong answer they get nothing. But if they get good results they can potentially make many billions of dollars before the patent runs out, and by then they will have something that statistics show is better.

    Politics … I don’t have to say more about that, right?

    I knew a woman who assisted in a clinical study at a secondary med school, that was replicating a result found at Harvard. The primary researcher tried hard to get the same result that the Harvard guys did because he knew that it wasn’t the Harvard study that was on trial, it was him. If his results came out different the funding agencies wouldn’t think the Harvard study was in doubt, they would assume he was incompetent.

    Doing good science is a moral issue and sometimes people fail at that morality.

    Then there’s the reporting.

    In general, in medicine, we don’t actually know very much. Something like half of the treatments that were advocated in 1975 are now known to be worse than useless. In 1975, about half of the treatments that were advocated in 1935 were known to be worse than useless. There’s every reason to think that by 2055 about half of the treatments we do now will be considered worse than useless. If I could reliably tell which half surely I could find a way to profit from it! Well no, maybe not.

    People are right to be skeptical. They just sometimes choose wrong about which parts to be skeptical about.

  65. Alright, I’m going to split this into two posts. The first is in defense of science which I think is seriously misrepresented, the second is an attempt to answer the question posed by Steve.

    So here: In Defense of Science

    The first thing you learn about reading these articles on research is that they have differing levels of credibility. The validity of a test can be brought into question based on how careful the researchers were to eliminate bias, how old the research is and whether or not the research group has a conflict of interest on the matter ie- being paid by cigarette companies to refute cancer claims. The problem is every single one of these articles is still available whether it ends up being deemed credible or not. As an earlier poster pointed out: the folks who did the vaccine research faked their results!

    Another part of the issue is that there can be many experiments run by different groups. You come across one article at a time when there are usually dozens of separate experiments on the same thing. Each one is trying to eliminate factors that would invalidate results. What you learn in class is not to read one and choose that as the answer, you do what’s called a meta-analysis of every single article on the matter to come to a conclusive answer that takes everything into consideration.

    Knowledge of science expands every year, but you must have the scope to look at everything we have developed so far, understand that it is put through the most rigorous testing these folks can think of, and that everything must be taken with a grain of salt. What the anti-vaxxers don’t get is that one article from a decade ago with unreproducible results just isn’t valid. You can’t just leap into the scientific community, steal a light bulb from them and claim that you now understand electricity.

    To make matters worse, the articles can be written in some of the most murky medical jargon you’ve ever encountered. Science is confusing as hell and they don’t advocate for themselves very well. Anybody can just grab a handful of science and wave it around trying to prove their point. The scientific community doesn’t stand up and say- wait a minute, you’re picking the one faulty example to argue against the rest of the sane answers.

    And people don’t want to trust science- it’s fallible, it changes, and there are historical events that leave many wary of it altogether. Ever hear of the Tuskeegee research? Or the Nazi experiments? Sort of leaves a bad rap for scientists doesn’t it? For the most part, that kind of evil scientist is gone, today’s researchers work under a different standard of ethics. But there isn’t an image agency for science out there trying to change that perception. Science has doubled the average length of the human life in America, but people are still terrified of it. Seems kind of like a purposeful misrepresentation if you ask me.

    In general, it seems like people are happy to blame science and its products for their woes partially because they don’t want to take the time to learn how to manage it as a whole concept. They want one answer that they can use to attack with. Science doesn’t produce one answer, it creates damn- good guesses that are supposed to lead to more questions.

  66. Second Post: An Attempt to Answer the Question

    We have groups of people are standing with their fingers in their ears refusing to listen to reason, convinced that someone out there is trying to do them wrong, the specific group today being anti-vaccination groups. What kind of politicosociocultural environment produces this sort of ridiculousness? Well, let’s begin with the groups in power: Religion, Media, Science, Government, Big Business- I’m sure I’ve missed some but these are major contenders. The things that these groups do somehow result in a population of semi- intelligent people making bad decisions.

    The influences are many: religion taking the individual though process away in exchange for peace of mind; media doing the same- taking individual thought process away but in exchange for entertainment which makes us believe whatever world they want to present; science is scary as hell right? Remember Frankenstein? But what about those magical antibiotics and pain pills? It’s all magic to me, better leave the government in charge of science; government feeds itself and feeds whoever is complaining the loudest; and finally business buys new laws to make themselves more lucrative options. None of these things encourage rationality to those living under their effects.

    The people choosing to believe crap about vaccines, for instance, fall into the smarter-people group and the not-so-smart people group. The more-intelligent understand one or two pieces of this bullshit pie and don’t trust anyone ‘cause it sure seems like everyone is scheming against them. I think, however, that very few people are actively scheming against anyone, mostly they’re just scheming for themselves, as in improving their own situation, and maybe that hurts people below them, maybe it doesn’t. Then we have the less intelligent folk who do what god tells them or what the tv tells them (they’re the same thing right?). Media spreads the fear-mongering from the intelligent to the ignorant ’till we’re all just scared.

    So, for the wrong reasons, some believe things without basis. There’s a kind of herd fear here of those in power that is spread by media. Those in power aren’t trying to give your kids autism. Mostly they are just trying to maintain their own power. Those in power want the support of the population and mislead them to get that support. This leaves a population with little control over their own destinies; a population that is aware it’s being manipulated but can’t tell who it is or how to get at them and runs screaming from one extreme to the next. What a juicy nasty cycle it is.

  67. “You come across one article at a time when there are usually dozens of separate experiments on the same thing. Each one is trying to eliminate factors that would invalidate results. What you learn in class is not to read one and choose that as the answer, you do what’s called a meta-analysis of every single article on the matter to come to a conclusive answer that takes everything into consideration.
    “Knowledge of science expands every year, but you must have the scope to look at everything we have developed so far, understand that it is put through the most rigorous testing these folks can think of, and that everything must be taken with a grain of salt.”

    So you find dozens of studies that each fail to eliminate factors which would invalidate their results, but they include different biases. You can’t just do some sort of statistical average, you have to think carefully about what it is that each of them does show — because unless they’re dishonest they do show something, just not what they think. And find a way to put it together into something that makes sense. Ands if possible use it to design experiments that would actually answer the question, except for the biases thatyou haven’t noticed either.

    Science does not produce great results by default, it’s an achievement to get things mostly right. Coming up with medical advice that will work for a large number of people? That’s hard.

    So, you want people to have less arteriosclerosis and heart disease? They found people whose arteries were packed with cholesterol, it seemed natural to tell people to eat less cholesterol. Less fatty fish, for example. With less of it in your blood you should have less of it stuck to your arteries. But then it looked like maybe there was bad cholesterol and good cholesterol — fatty fish, for example. And maybe it isn’t the amount of cholesterol that matters, within reason — maybe it’s other things like omega-3 etc. It’s a very complicated system they’re trying to figure out, and each time somebody thinks he has an improvement it might take 20-30 years to test well enough to find out whether he’s right.

    Maybe with improving communications we can start to do this cheaper and faster. Like, this year we could compare people’s bank records that show how often they have paid for fast food at each fast food chain and how much they bought, versus their medical records, and look for patterns. All it would take is to resolve the privacy issues. If the grocery stores and restaurant chains etc could largely be persuaded to send in the records of what is purchased (which they use for their own inventory etc purposes) along with the dollar amounts, statistical correlations would show up much better. Similarly it becomes far easier to track actual medical outcomes for different treatments, when the results across the country can be put together. Big data is potentially very useful.

    In the meantime, people are rightly suspicious. Tell people about privations they should go through to improve their health 20 years from now. 20 years from now, tell them you were wrong before and what they were doing was good and they should do new different privations. It doesn’t take much of that for them to tune you out even more than they would just from you telling them to do things they don’t want to do.

  68. This thread is, unfortunately, tl;dr for me.

    But I will say, overly pithily and probably poorly examined…

    Ignorance serves the ruling classes.

    It’s not unreasonable to believe that all of the movements to support ‘literal interpretation of the bible’, ‘faith-based initiatives’, anti-vaxxers, and a thousand other pushes to shift the focus of American society away from free, open, and examined democracy are part of a long term movement within the monied people in this country to enact some basic old fashioned feudalism.

    It’s been a part of the national argument since day zero, but it’s reasonable to think that McCarthyism gave that faction a solid understanding of how to shape the national dialogue.

    Is any of the stuff I’ve said about actually true? Dunno. Is it nut-job conspiracy-crazy? I don’t think so.

  69. Professor Robert Altmeyer of the University of Manitoba provides the best answers to this question that I’ve seen.

    His psychological studies are detailed in his book The Authoritarians. As Prof. Altmeyer writes on his web page:

    “The studies explain so much about these people. Yes, the research shows they are very aggressive, but why are they so hostile? Yes, experiments show they are almost totally uninfluenced by reasoning and evidence, but why are they so dogmatic? Yes, studies show the Religious Right has more than its fair share of hypocrites, from top to bottom; but why are they two-faced, and how come one face never notices the other? Yes, their leaders can give the flimsiest of excuses and even outright lies about things they’ve done wrong, but why do the rank and file believe them? What happens when authoritarian followers find the authoritarian leaders they crave and start marching together?

    I think you’ll find this book “explains a lot.” Many scattered impressions about the enemies of freedom and equality become solidified by science and coherently connected here.

    You think I’m pulling your leg? Click the link.

    The book is available as a free PDF file.

  70. Wow! Shat a fascinating thread. I think the people who identified the basic problem as a lack of trust have the right idea. Lack of trust in government (cf. Reagan’s most frightening sentece: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”), in science, and reasoning. A Texas legislator introduced a bill last summer to ban the teaching of critical thinking in Texas schools, although it went nowhere. People who think critically might question frakking (see below) or think about global warming.

    Why do the capitalist classes care? I think partly to distract people from the fact that they are gradually taking over. I used to think that Steve was being overwrought in damning both major parties, but since money talks so loud, I am afraid that both parties are now under their control. I do want to take issue with Steve’s contention that anti-vaxxers are right wing. My daughter’s Park Slope area of Brooklyn is both a center of anti-vaxxers and very liberal. She lives just a couple blocks from DiBlasio. The common thread is distrust of science.

    To be sure, there are reasons to distrust science. Every active scientist is in a conflict of interest. I am not talking of the tobacco or pharma shills, but the government supported scientists who absolutely depend on grant money. This means that truly revolutionary resarch will never be funded. Someone mentioned above that a researcher at a second rate med school will not find results that counter some research at Harvard, so he will never be funded. Maybe he cannot even get it published.

    Let me say a few words about frakking. Can it be done safely? I don’t know the answer to that question but I accept the possibility that the answer might be yes. Will it be done safely? Here I am not in the slightest doubt that the answer is no. The cost of doing it safely (assuming it is possible) would lead to corner cutting that would inevitably lead to disaster. Government regulation? Hah! The well-known propensity of the capitalists to capture the regulators (brought about by lobbyists as well as the revolving door between regulators and industry) will prevent regulators from really regulating. An article in the Sunday Times magazine several weeks ago about an arctic oil explorer dusaster makes both the cost cutting and the neutralization of regulators perfectly clear. And the rigors of the arctic environment should have made it obvious, even to Shell, that this was not the place to cut corners. And it is things like this that contribute to the massive distrust of government. Unanswered question: why hasn’t it contributed to massive distrust of capitalism.

    I will end with a question; Is there anyone out there, anyone, who actually believes in free markets? Maybe at the beginning, but they all try to become monopolies.

  71. I am about half-way through the comments, and I must now ride one of my hobby horses: disliking ambiguity is not the same thing as not liking to think. Many people who enjoy complex problem-solving nevertheless have a very low tolerance for problems which do not have clear answers. I think there are pressures in modern life which exacerbate this dislike. I think a lot of marketing preys on this anxiety. It also seems to me that conflating a distaste for ambiguity for a lack of processing power is not only patronising, but a great way to create an unbridgeable communications gulf.

  72. Lots of problems have clear answers – which don’t fully answer the questions. Real life is mostly shades of gray – except using one spectrum is way to simple.

  73. Coming back around to the question of what the connection between chosen ignorance and capitalism is, I think that there are some interesting strands. The loss of trust is enormous, and it is built in complicated ways.

    Public health is best designed, pursued, and enforced by large institutions. It does not work well as individuals all doing something that seems individually reasonable. It most emphatically does not work well with the enlightened self-interest model. The large institutions that we have available are either governmental, quasi-governmental, or corporate. And we know that all these entities lie to us frequently. There are too many examples of governmental agencies like the FDA and big-pharma telling self-serving lies. When you throw in an admixture of people who gain power by casting doubt on the efficacy of governmental action, you create doubt about the concept of public health. The crisis isn’t exactly people not believing in vaccines, or not solely. It is also people who, for complex reasons, do not believe in public health.

    The lies that we are told have a complex genesis, often but not always rooted in a profit motive. This is mixed in with the failure of the press and the government to be able to disseminate useful information. Science reporting is hard. It requires a person well versed in the specialty at hand with a gift for communication. These people are rare, and can generally find more remunerative employment than being beat reporters. Mainstream media has been cutting back on costs, which means they are losing those people. MSM has also been promoting a very oppositional world view, where two sides are presented, and people are invited to look at the facts and decide for themselves. This allows them to fail to call liars on their lies. But it also leaves normal people facing extremely complicated situations without the ability to do useful triage on the available information. And there’s a lot of information out there. Lacking a good background in the material, confirmation bias tends to take over, and one reads a couple of studies that match one’s prejudices about the issue. I am so very not immune to this.

    In a lot of ways, the breakdown in trust mirrors capitalism’s failures as a system. As the contradictions a the heart of the capitalist system come more fully into conflict with themselves, the system is less and less able to create a coherent narrative for people about why it works, and so people start diving down rabbit holes. I think we often fail to note how completely many people rely upon the trappings of capitalism to understand their personal story. It may not be a happy story, but it is one they understand. As things start to fall apart, the story stops having coherence. This upsets people. And it upsets them not just because they are having trouble putting food on the table, but because they can’t adequately explain _why_ they are having trouble putting food on the table.

    The dive into irrational alternate realities where are are clear answers, is an attempt to deal with the fact that the mainstream narrative genuinely doesn’t make sense.

  74. Re: Public health. Even the most ardent anti-government person doesn’t want epidemics threatening what he values. But we act as if “socialism” (and other magic words) can only be on or off, which is obviously silly.

  75. Nobody wants epidemics. But the idea that prevention of epidemics is something that is done on a large scale, with individuals allowing their perceptions and preferences to take a back seat to a larger plan, is a different matter. Many of the anti-vaxxers talk about vaccines not being right for their child, as if that were a trump card, as if the individual risk was more important than the community risk. This is a problem. The truth is that the entire idea of public health is grounded in the understanding that we all give up a little autonomy and spread around a little bit of risk in order to dramatically reduce the incidence of illness in the community as a whole. It requires that people with little risk of disease comply with the same sorts of regulations which protect other people. Eventually, if too many people in secure and healthy environments refuse to act in ways which protect the less well and the less well off, the environmental and biological damage may turn around and bite them, but that result is far off and removed from the initial decision to opt out of the public health system. One of the fundamental flaws of capitalism is the ability to escape long term consequences. Damn, what’s the term. Externalities? The ability to pollute but not pay for the damage. Public health is like that. People can escape, to some extent, the damage that they do. If my unvaccinated child gives an infant the measles, who is to blame if that infant dies? Under the current system, no one.

  76. If I may alter the premise slightly, I would suggest that the mechanism is not merely ignorance, but a rejection of empiricism in general; facts are just regarded as another opinion.

    IMO, this is an assertion of privilege, wherein people believe themselves entitled to draw conclusions that protect their interests, be they material, emotional, or otherwise. It gives rise to extreme intellectual dishonesty; the anti-empiricists (or whatever you want to call them) are no longer bound by facts–or even consistency, to the point where they’ll deny inconvenient assertions they’ve made nearly as soon as they’ve made them.

  77. Certainly when you have invested so much of yourself in believing that trickle-down or austerity works, or that prayer will keep bad things from happening and reality disagrees – reality must be at fault.

  78. Joshua, I think you are conflating several different ways of denying empirical data, and then papering it all over with the word “privilege.” I think this is very unhelpful.

    There are several different sorts of things going on. The one which closest to what you are describing is the actions of cynical people in power who use any argument to hand in order to protect their position. These are frequently, although not always, people who are perfectly capable of understanding facts and figures, but have no real care for the truth. Their goals are short-term and selfish. They are, indeed, intellectually dishonest. But their refusal to engage with the actual real world isn’t exactly privilege. It’s something rawer and less pleasant. It’s abusive manipulation of power, position, and trust.

    People not so much in power end up having many complicated reasons why they don’t engage with empirical data in the ways that we would wish them to. Some of them come from a tradition and belief system which would utterly crumble if they accepted scientific data. I grew up with some of these people. They believe in the “literal” word of God. This belief system gives them a number of things, but one of the things that it steals from them is an ability to directly engage with the real world. They are stuck with a set of axioms which are frequently contradicted. They cannot accept the validity of science because the way they have constructed their world view requires that they affirm bat-shit crazy stuff. These people are not stupid or intellectually lazy. They are not even intellectually dishonest. They are, instead, deeply invested in a world view which cannot encompass what you and I understand to be facts. Moreover, I would argue that they are not functioning from a place of privilege.

    There are also a lot of people who reject scientific data because they have seen various claims which appeared to be backed up by good scientific data that turn out to be false. Some of these people genuinely do not understand how science works. They think that there is an answer, and when the “answer” changes over time because of the accumulation of contrary data, they don’t understand this as science actually doing its job, but rather as proof that science can’t find the answers in the first place. The reasons they feel this way are numerous, but some of it is the way science reporting works in the usual media, and some of it is a fear of the unknown spinning itself into a paranoia about received wisdom. These people are also not usually intellectually dishonest, so much as genuinely unable to deal with certain types of uncertainty coupled with an inability to adequately evaluate sources.

    Mostly, though, people make judgments about which set of facts to trust based on whether or not it confirms their existing biases. Everybody does this. There is an abundance of people trying to get or sell something who provide fact-like objects to support those goals, and we are utterly awash in all these claims, studies, fact-like objects. Me, I don’t believe anything that the government has to say about the physical or mental effects of recreational drugs that happen to be illegal. Thing is, there probably is some good data out there that was funded by the government. But they have demonstrably lied so many times, and they have a clear and vested interest in keeping those chemicals illegal, so I don’t believe anything they have to say. And I’m a bit too willing to believe various studies that show that marijuana and ecstacy and LSD are pretty safe. I don’t think I’m intellectually dishonest, but I come to the facts with personal experience and prejudices in place. So does everyone else. It’s a high bar to expect people to accept scientific data that contradicts their own personal experience.

    I do seriously doubt the claim that people don’t believe in empiricism anymore. I think that the problem is much more a case of dueling facts, and people having a very legitimately difficult time sorting out which facts are true. It doesn’t help that sometimes both fact-sets are true, but in different circumstances. And, yes, I think that people lie, a lot, about the facts. But that isn’t privilege, it’s corruption.

    It is important to distinguish between lying and believing in lies. There are a lot of people lying to us. There are a lot of people telling us the truth. Sometimes they are the same people.

  79. I would add to your categories people who are doing their best to apply the scientific method but have simply made errors. Science is all about facts. Scientists make mistakes and don’t notice them, sometimes through arrogance but sometimes through simple oversight.

    The US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recently withdrew its recommendation that people eat foods low in cholesterol in order to keep the amount of LDL Cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) in their blood low. That recommendation has stood for forty years, but it turns out to have been made in error. High saturated fat intake raises blood LDL cholesterol levels, high sugar intake may raise blood LDL cholesterol levels, but the (admittedly intuitive) assumption that eating lots of cholesterol raises your blood cholesterol does not appear to be true.

    Or for a more involved and potentially interesting challenge to accepted research, I humbly recommend Alfie Kohn’s “Punished by Rewards” as an interesting criticism of the Behaviorism school of psychology. Kohn’s writing is too verbose, though. I think Paarfi could have made the same argument with less text.

  80. People get biased by their own experience.

    Like, if you work in an emergency room, you will see people who are having problems with drugs. Your friends and acquaintances in other emergency rooms will tell you about other cases. But you will have no idea how many people take the same drugs and have no particular problems.

    But if you use drugs, you and your friends will have the idea that very few people have bad experiences with the drugs you use. If you do hear about a case, you will hear the reasons, what they did wrong and just why it happened. Those reasons might not be correct but they will be what people believe, and they will mostly fit the details that people knew about their friend. You won’t know how many people in the nation or the state or even your town actually take those drugs — because different social classes don’t talk about it much between them, and there are other social barriers too. But your experience will be very different from the EMTs etc.

    I don’t know whether anything can be done about this. It would help some if people didn’t lie so much about their experience, but when we punish people for doing things we disapprove of, we can’t expect them to tell the truth about anything we care about.

  81. Some of that bias about drugs is bias about any danger. Old dangers become relatively comfortable. New dangers can be much smaller risks – but we are scared of them.

  82. I’ve been thinking more, and I think there’s a thing I can’t quite tease out. Information is power. We are moving into an environment where information is considered political and so information is accreting around specific political/social/religious/economic axes. Fracturing the datasphere so that people choose a particular set of facts to live by means that there are a smaller number or people who can be controlled by feeding them particular information, but that they can be controlled more completely because the fracturing of the datasphere means that they are trained to reject certain types of information automatically, and so even when they come into contact with contradictory information, it doesn’t affect their perceptions/buying patterns/voting patterns/social interactions. I’m not sure exactly how this plays out in a Marxist perspective. Of course, I’m not actually a Marxist, either. But I do think something interesting is going on there in regards to the support of the status quo, but I’m not sure exactly what. Hey, Steven, any ideas?

  83. Rulers have always said that they get to define what knowledge they should be trusted with, and we should not be trusted with. The excuse is that the enemies could harm us if they knew what we are doing – but more often than not, their perceived enemy is us. (who should be their bosses). The less we know, the more we accept what they say.

    I’d be very happy if no state could keep something a secret for more than, say, 1 year maximum. I’d even be willing to give up my privacy if that was the cost of giving up our rulers’ privacy.

  84. With all of the fake medicine selling like crazy, we also see how the pharmaceutical industry manipulate studies. Since people very much want to be able to take pills to solve their problems, they want some answers. So whose lies do they believe?

  85. I think the point of the anti-vac campaign is to undermine the effectiveness of the press in determining fact definitively. Most reputable news agencies won’t cover anti-vac stories seriously. In the minds of those who are scared of vaccines, this proves the media’s bias and raises the credibility of the tin-foil blog they found this information on. This gives fake news leverage in the minds of many in both the right and left wings. What gets dismissed by most people as tripe is taken up by some as an inside track to the truth (which must be that pharmaceutical companies and doctors are secretly trying to build a race of autistics to murder chemically for maximum profit).

    This empowers people to outright dismiss any news they don’t like as mainstream lies. On the left, it can sway voters to be more receptive to the current brand of libertarianism as a serious alternative. On the right, this is the types of issues they have in place of progressive issues. They don’t usually affect the bottom line of the people who fund politicians, but instead motivate the base to vote against their better interest in favor of a pet issue.

  86. Apologies to Mr. Brust, if he should dislike having old topics resurrected; I defend my rash presumption by pretending to some answers to his question, not yet given. Explaining the rise of ignorance depends on explaining not just the mechanism by which ignorance has been increased, but also the mysterious effectiveness of that mechanism.

    As you say, misinformation about global warming needs no explanation, but the political purpose of vaccination or evolution misinformation is not so obvious. The answer lies, I believe, in a shift of propaganda methods on the right, in the late 60’s or 70’s, from a model wherein particular issues would be targeted by particular campaigns as needed, to a persistent, systematic, general campaign. Following the pioneering example of the John Birch Society, instead of disputing particular facts within the mainstream consensus, an all-encompassing alternative world-view was created and maintained; with key narratives repeated and reinforced regularly ever since.

    The less connected the political dialogue is to fact or reason, the easier it is to move it through emotion and repetition. One key set of these narratives is designed to discredit, systematically and continuously, every other potential source of information: the press, academia, science, school, historians, the courts, celebrities, smarty-pants, experts in general, every part of the government, the experience of other countries, and of course liberals. The audience is rehearsed in effortless, gratifyingly snappy dismissals of any evidence presented from any of these sources, rendering them nearly impervious to counter-persuasion. In this context, anti-vaxxers are useful because they provide anti-science and anti-government narratives to help fill the daily demand, and evolution is even more useful in presenting science as the enemy of one’s faith, particularly among fundamentalists. Several previous respondents mentioned the loss of trust; but it’s important to know that was in large part a deliberate effort sustained over decades, a key part of the corporate-conservative strategy.

    The other question is about why it is that the right seems to have a special propensity for those ideas, how they might be connected with such commonly co-presented symptoms as bigotry or support for corporate impunity. I think the answer is attitudinal rather than intellectual. American conservativism tried and failed to find a coherent intellectual core during the 50’s, eventually accepting that, in practice, they were no more and no less than a coalition of otherwise-opposite antiliberals: social conservatives with libertarians, conspiracy theorists with the bankers. And indeed, historically conservativism arises as the immediate reaction to liberalism; where liberalism demanded that power be distributed more widely, conservatives argued that power should be kept in the hands of those who already have it, and this is as close to a unifying concept of conservativism as I can find. When the power was in the hands of the king, they supported the king; when power was in the hands of the land-holding aristocracy, they supported the aristocracy; now that power is in the hands of the corporations, they support the corporations.

    This political traditionalism meshes with the attitudes of social traditionalists, especially fundamentalists and bigots, all on the basis that your prejudices are sacred, that things should always remain as you are used to them being: in particular, white, Christian, capitalist, and socially repressed. The notion of distributing power any more widely than that is then seen as a threat to one’s own power, as is any information source that identifies problems with traditional beliefs, perhaps starting with the conflict between science and literal readings of Genesis, but certainly including the entirety of the social sciences as well. Having rejected so much science in favor of reaffirmation of one’s prejudices seemingly makes it all the easier to then reject any particular scientific finding or expert that has the gall to contradict you on any point. I suspect, too, that the more they are lied to, even as they believe it, the more generalized unease and suspicion they develop – they really are, after all, constantly being lied to – and thus all the readier they are to cry liar. Thus, the fertile ground awaiting the efforts of the modern corporate-conservative propaganda machine.

    Well – I hope that wasn’t a waste of your time. Thanks for your many contributions to my well-being. I’d be interested to know how your thoughts on this subject have developed, in the years since you asked the question.

  87. Steven, I like that explanation. Too often, we are searching for a motive that is more finely focused. And then that motive doesn’t hold up well to analysis. This is not incompatible with other explanations, just more general.

    I think a lot of people are exhausted with the information and noise overload. That makes them susceptible to easy explanations and propaganda. Conservatives and fundamentalists feel that their world view is threatened, and they are right. Mainly because it is built on lies.

  88. Not only noise overload, the old bastions of (mostly) objective, centrist, wide audience news have been gutted by cable networks and the internet, pandering to ever smaller, ever more dogmatic groups – increasing the divide and furnishing any facts you can think up to BOTH sides of the aisle. I still remember CNN telling people it was illegal to view Wikileaks and cutting that Milwaukee lady’s video to make it seem like she’s calling for peace instead of the opposite… this is an ostensibly slightly left leaning network outright lying to people a la FOX. It’s not just conservatives who are getting their worldviews warped.

    Trust in all sources are down, attention spans are down, people usually spend what time they have with those they both find amusing and tend to agree with the most, pushing them further to the extremes. Pure, unbiased (as much as it can be) journalism is not fiscally sound any more; clickbait and exaggerated, if not outright lying, headlines and claims are now de rigueur. The journalist’s job is to ascertain facts and present them without prejudice or commentary, but that just doesn’t get the clicks.

    Addendum: Tim Pool, an independent journalist who covered Occupy Wall Street, Ferguson, the Ukrainian uprising, the Egyptian revolution, and recently Berkeley all on the ground, made a decent video on his personal insights into fake news, with a story from when he wasn’t independent: . I also recommend his video discussing this with the head of research at .

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