So, if we’ve lived with willful ignorance for our entire history, why is it now especially dangerous? I suspect it’s not so much that willful ignorance has changed, but rather the environment in which we find it.
The world we live in is more complex because it is more connected. But there are two sides to this connection, one in which we’re more connected, and one where we’re further apart than ever before.
Technology Connects Us…
Our world and our society are made of networks. And when it comes to our society, connection creates networks that are more interdependent, leading to complex behaviors and non-linear effects.
We must also realize that our rate of connection is accelerating. The pace of technology has always been governed by Moore's Law, the tenet that the speed and capability of our computers will double every two years. For almost 60 years, this law has been surprisingly accurate.
What this has meant for our ability to connect digitally is that the number and impact of our connections has also increased exponentially, and it will continue to increase in our future. This creates a much denser and more interconnected network, but it has also created a network that overcomes the naturally self-regulating effects of distance.
For the first time, we can have strong and influential connections with others on the other side of the globe. And, as we forge more connections through technology, we are starting to rely less on our physical connections.
And Drives Us Further Apart
The wear and tear of a life spent bumping into each other in a physical setting tends to smooth out our rougher ideological edges. In face-to-face settings, most of us are willing to moderate our own personal beliefs in order to conform to the rest of the crowd. Exactly 80 years ago, psychologist Solomon Asch showed how willing we were to ignore the evidence of our own eyes in order to conform to the majority opinion of a crowd.
For the vast majority of our history, physical proximity has forced social conformity upon us. It leavens out our own belief structure in order to keep the peace with those closest to us, fulfilling one of our strongest evolutionary urges.
But, thanks to technology, that’s also changing. We are spending more time physically separated but technically connected. Our social conformity mechanisms are being short-circuited by filter bubbles where everyone seems to share our beliefs. This creates something called an availability bias: the things we see coming through our social media feeds forms our view of what the world must be like, even though statistically it is not representative of reality.
It gives the willfully ignorant the illusion that everyone agrees with them -- or, at least, enough people agree with them that it overcomes the urge to conform to the majority opinion.
Ignorance in a Chaotic World
These two things make our world increasingly fragile and subject to what chaos theorists call the Butterfly Effect, where seemingly small things can make massive differences.
It’s this unique nature of our world, which is connected in ways it never has been before, that creates at least three reasons why willful ignorance is now more dangerous than ever:
One: The impact of ignorance can be quickly amplified through social media, causing a Butterfly Effect cascade. Case in point, the falsehood that the U.S. election results weren’t valid, leading to the Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6.
The mechanics of social media that led to this issue are many, and I have cataloged most of them in previous columns: the nastiness that comes from arm’s-length discourse, a rewiring of our morality, and the impact of filter bubbles on our collective thresholds governing anti-social behaviors.
Secondly, and what is probably a bigger cause for concern, the willfully ignorant are very easily consolidated into a power base for politicians willing to play to their beliefs. The far right -- and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the far left -- has learned this to devastating impact. All you have to do is abandon your predilection for telling the truth so you can help them rationalize their deliberate denial of facts. Do this and you have tribal support that is almost impossible to shake.
The move of populist politicians to use the willfully ignorant as a launch pad for their own purposes further amplifies the Butterfly Effect, ensuring that the previously unimaginable will continue to be the new state of normal.
Finally, there is the third factor: our expanding impact on the physical world. It’s not just our degree of connection that technology is changing exponentially. It’s also the degree of impact we have on our physical world.
For almost our entire time on earth, the world has made us. We have evolved to survive in our physical environment, where we have been subject to the whims of nature.
But now, increasingly, we humans are shaping the nature of the world we live in. Our footprint has an ever-increasing impact on our environment, and that footprint is also increasing exponentially, thanks to technology.
The earth and our ability to survive on it are -- unfortunately -- now dependent on our stewardship. And that stewardship is particularly susceptible to the impact of willful ignorance. In the area of climate change alone, willful ignorance could -- and has -- led to events with massive consequences. A recent study estimates that climate change is directly responsible for 5 million deaths a year.
For all these reasons, willful ignorance is now something that can have life and death consequences.
Willful ignorance can be a two-way street. "The science is settled!" seems a convenient pretext to disregard new information. It certainly seems unscientific, where theories should always be open to examination, predictions to verification, measurements and statistics to validation.
Labeling inconvenient facts as "misinformation" seems to aggravate ignorance.