What is ignorance? According to most people, it’s when others don’t agree with them.
The vast majority of online discourse is along the lines of:

Make proposition. Disparagingly label those who disagree.

Affirmative Action is positive for the country. Don’t agree? Racist!

George Bush is a saint. Don’t agree? Liberal pinko terrorist supporter troop-killer!

Cellphones don’t cause cancer. Don’t agree? Hysterical hypochondriac! (it was today’s Sense Prevails post on Commentary, and my response which triggered this post).

etc etc. And I’m not saying I agree or disagree with any of the above, just making a point!

The first step towards banishing ignorance is to acknowledge the power of don’t know. Realising we know very little, and almost nothing for certain. Realising most of what we base our life on is a belief. So how do we choose what to believe? My post Were Bush and Blair responsible: Part 1 examines how I choose to believe that Bush and Blair were not directly responsible for the London bombings, and briefly explains my views on coherentism.

What’s powerful for me about the theory is that it allows the possibility that everything one holds as truth can change. Everything! Some Christians for example have a rigid foundationalist belief based upon the bible, and that limits their openness to new ideas, or their ability to question existing ones.

The same limiting thinking applies to many who hold onto orthodox western scientific belief. The cutting edge of human knowledge is never mainstream. By limiting beliefs to what’s accepted by the mainstream (as notoriously done by those who label all forms of alternative medicine as quackery), lumping acupuncture with the sale of snake oil), one is not open to new thought, and is the modern-day equivalent of those who refused to believe that earth was not literally the centre of the universe. They are the accepters of orthodoxy, not seekers of knowledge.

A rather different ally of ignorance is to be too accepting in what gets allowed into one’s body of knowledge. So urban legends perpetuate, Bill Gates could give you millions if you forward an email, and cellphones can blow up petrol stations.

What really interests me is why we believe what we do. Most of us have a tendency to accept or reject certain beliefs. Those who believe the Jewish holocaust didn’t happen are more likely to believe that the American miltary was directly responsible for blowing up the World Trade Centre, that the levees in New Orleans were blown up to worsen the flooding and drive out the locals, that there’re aliens on the moon, and so on. Those who believe that George Bush is a nice guy are more likely disbelieve that global warming is occurring (certainly not affected by humans), that everyone is jealous of the wonderful American way of life and is out to destroy it, and so on.

On one level, the answer’s obvious. None of us have the time to rigorously question all our beliefs, so we accept new ones from sources we trust. My trusted sources, and thus my biases, are visible on the links from this site. If I trust what I see as intelligent articles from Green Left rather more than the lunatic ravings from Right Wing News, I will absorb more of their beliefs into my existing body of beliefs. And as that makes my existing body of beliefs even more coherent, it’s even less likely that I’ll accept new, contrary beliefs. Similarly, someone who’s accepted much of David Icke’s reasonings will not find any new leaps of faith about a conspiracy behind the latest atrocity any more difficult to accept.

That’s a key point for me in why we believe what we do. As we get older, our body of knowledge grows, hopefully more coherently, making it more difficult to challenge. The younger we are, the more open we are to new ideas. And the first ideas we accept are powerful, and have a stronger than usual ability to influence us. Even more so the first time we reject most of the old body of knowledge, and accept a new one. When I first rejected my childhood Christianity, I was virulently against all that I saw as religious dogma. This could easily have led me into the clutches of Quackwatch or the like. Luckily I was exposed to and saw the sense in a wide range of beliefs.

So call me perverse. When someone is fulminating on about the evils of belief X, I’m wondering what childhood experiences created that tendency 🙂


  1. That’s a really excellent post, and also a good argument for the power of agnostisism as a grander ‘don’t know’. I guess I would say I don’t believe in anything ultimately, but I believe in many possible truths, and that there is truth in many seemingly contradictory ideas.
    At the same time, on a practical level I have ‘operational’ beliefs, things I choose to believe to I can function and take decisions on a day to day level, and these are determined by ‘trusted sources'(for which read ‘the left wing lunatic fringe’) and my intuation.
    Hopefully I’ll have the grace not to be too distraught when proved wrong on some pet belief.

  2. I did actually. Still experimenting with shameless self-promotion, mainly to see the response. Reddit doesn’t seem to like it though, and my karma’s sinking ever faster 🙂

  3. Ultimately everything is literally hearsay unless you have experienced it yourself or trust the person who tells it to you intrisically – even then you might be lied to.
    So life is about being selectively ignorant and choosing what to believe and whom to believe. We do this automatically, choosing what to believe to make sense of the world around us when we grow up. The older we get theoretically the less ignorant we should become. Not the case. Ignorance is just the easy way out, the procrastination on the way to wisom.

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