The Effects of Anti-Knowledge on Democracy

Mike Lofgren, former Republican Congressional staffer, has written an important article titled: The GOP and the Rise of Anti-Knowledge.

In the realm of physics, the opposite of matter is not nothingness, but antimatter. In the realm of practical epistemology, the opposite of knowledge is not ignorance but anti-knowledge. This seldom recognized fact is one of the prime forces behind the decay of political and civic culture in America.

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

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

This brings us inevitably to celebrity presidential candidate Ben Carson. The man is anti-knowledge incarnated, a walking compendium of every imbecility ever uttered during the last three decades.

Lofgren goes on to take Christian fundamentalists to task for the fact that the Republican Party is mired in anti-knowledge. While it’s true that the candidacy of Ben Carson draws heavily on his support from Christian fundamentalists, I’m not sure that he’s reached the source of the problem yet.

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

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

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

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

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

This is why Marilynne Robinson’s concern about the danger this dynamic poses to our democracy rings so true.

I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with—you know?…because [of] the idea of the “sinister other.” And I mean, that’s bad under all circumstances. But when it’s brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.

It is important to recognize the effect an embrace of anti-knowledge has had on our political discourse. But shutting down curiosity and an open mind are too high a price to pay in response. That is a sure-fire route to inertia – which is anathema to liberalism.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.