“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” -Charles Darwin
I was once driving around with a colleague, an actor of sorts who I will call Harry Hotdoggen, when the subject of William Shakespeare came up.
“Shakespeare is the Emperor’s New Clothes,” Harry said in a statement so definitive that I thought I could perceive the stone tablet he was burning the words onto.
“What?” I said, never really liking stone tablets.
“Everybody thinks he’s this great writer, but his plays are really crap,” Harry said, happy to elucidate. “You know, it’s just that English teachers and intellectuals tell you Shakespeare is great, so everybody has to believe it, when, really, his plays are crap. I know, because I’ve done some Shakespeare, and I’m telling ya, ya can’t understand what the hell he’s talking about.”
“What?” I said again thinking maybe some carbon monoxide had leaked into the car and I was just imagining this conversation.
“And Sondheim too, he’s also the Emperor’s New Clothes. The only people who like his musicals are effete snobs, and they don’t really like his work, they’re just pressured to say they do, refusing to admit that his tunes are not singable — they’re awful.”
I love Sondheim. I love Shakespeare. I would have said, “What?” again, but What? was the use?
Harry Hotdoggen is an actor with a particular talent — some might call it a peculiar talent — and what he does, he has wanted to do from a very early age, and he has known success doing it. Because he was convinced from that early age that he would achieve this success, he paid little if any attention in school, did not achieve any academic standing at all (and is proud of it), and has never considered for a minute wasting time suffering “higher” education — except that which he could achieve through AM talk radio. William Shakespeare has been judged the greatest writer of the English language, and possibly any language; Stephen Sondheim is considered by his fellow professionals and devoted fans as the greatest composer and lyricist of the last fifty years of musical theater. But the ill-educated Harry, a man and talent with his own fans to be sure, but one not destined, I would be willing to wager, to go down in history; Harry, with unshakable conviction in his assessment; Harry has spoken the Word: Both Mister S’s are nothing but frauds and shams.
Harry Hotdoggen’s greatest role may be as a stand-in for the Great American Anti-intellectual. He is the perfect example. I do mean anti-intellectual, not nonintellectual; there are people who are nonintellectual but not, necessarily, willfully ignorant. The Harry Hotdoggens of the world are not the type who, when confronted with a complex idea or a challenging work of art, say, “Wow, that’s hard for me to get my head around, I’ll have to give that some thought, but, jeez, interesting if nothing else.” Harry Hotdoggens are the type who immediately resent the idea or work of art. I have known Harry (and Harriet) Hotdoggens who take other people’s intelligence as a personal insult, as if they (the intelligent) have passed through their (the anti-intellectuals) lives only to diminish them by example. Which, if you think about it, is a bit of a backhanded compliment.
Harry Hotdoggens don’t see it that way, of course, their egos — as strong, individualistic, and inwardly directed as all of our egos are — will not allow for such a vision, nor allow that those more intelligent than they may truly be intelligent. The Harry Hotdoggens are not saying, If you can’t say something stupid, then don’t say anything at all. They are saying, If I don’t get it, it ain’t got nothing worth getting.
This arrogance of ignorance is especially true if an idea, some knowledge, a few well-established facts, or an intellectually rigorous conclusion goes against a deeply held belief, either social or religious. This arrogance of ignorance rests at the core of the proponents of Creationism and Intelligent Design, and gives spines of steel to homophobes defining marriage as only the type they have or wish to have; shouters for small government who still happily cash their unemployment, disability, and social security checks; climate change deniers who stand in the storm like a million mad Lears and shout, “It’s not our fault!” It is the arrogance of ignorance displayed by all those who would rather take the revelations of ancient, antiquated, and inadequate, supposedly written-in-stone, yet much too open to interpretation, “sacred” texts; rather than the most current understanding of the workings of the universe that we have wrestled from nature by the scientific method, which is not open to interpretation, but always open to refinement and even — if new data justify it — falsification.
This arrogance of ignorance leads to ideology, not ideas; madness, not method; hate, not the humane.
We talk often about how America is divided between the Right and the Left, the Red and the Blue, the Conservative and the Liberal. But is that the true divide that is doing us harm — if it is doing harm and is not just a reflection of normal differences in human nature? Could the real harm possibly be coming from the divide between the ignorant and the knowledgeable?
I am not implying by placement that all Red Right Conservatives are ignorant and all Blue Left Liberals are knowledgable; neither ignorance nor knowledge discriminates, especially regarding specifics. Certain conservatives may reject the facts of climate change; certain liberals may reject the facts of the benefits of animal experimentation. I have very consciously not used the words “Stupid” and “Smart.” Stupid and Smart come with each individual’s biological territory. Ignorance and knowledge come from actions taken and not taken; effort, or the lack thereof, is the telling factor here.
By ignorance I mean the willful ignoring of facts. By knowledgable I mean quite specifically, that which we have learned by the application of the scientific method.
I’m specific in the type of knowledge I’m speaking about here because not all knowledge is equal, although all knowledge comes from experience. I can best illuminate this point by defining the difference between information and knowledge, which are not the same thing, as information comes from the outside and knowledge is born on the inside. For example: when you tell your young child that the stove is hot and that if she touches it she will burn her fingers, she now has that information. But it is not until she, despite having the information, touches the stove and burns her fingers that she has the knowledge. Information can be wrong — you could be lying to your child, or be misinformed yourself. And knowledge can be subjective and biased — the stove may only be warm, but the child may have a low threshold of pain, or desire the sympathetic soothing of a parent, and therefore reports a burn where none has occurred.
In his book of essays, The Identity of Man, Jacob Bronowski speaks about self-knowledge or, better said, knowledge of the self, and how such knowledge can be engendered by each of us living with (experiencing) our own consciousnesses, and, interestingly, through art, whether music, pictorial or, most ideally, literature. For art is, after all, nothing but manufactured and manipulated experience that, if it is honest and true, can speak to us by allowing us to share the experiences it provides, giving us a possibly more refined, if generalized, knowledge of ourselves. But if that art is either difficult (Shakespeare, writing in an English that is now archaic, can be extremely difficult upon first reading), or challenging (Sondheim made a career of challenging the conventions of musical theater), then it can, if no effort is made to appreciate the art, be a bad experience that leads to no knowledge of the self but does become a highly biased knowledge of the work of art itself. Unfortunately such knowledge is often expressed as an opinion that demands to be taken as fact — and so the artist is “crap” and wears the Emperor’s new clothes.
This is just the way things are concerning us as individual selfs with our individual tastes, and it may always be this way. While it really does no harm for people to have their personal biases regarding art, in the larger context, in a world we all share as members of the same species, and in communities of which we are all members — from townships to cities to states to nations — toxic ignorance, false information, and highly subjective and biased knowledge can do much harm both locally and globally.
To stave off ignorance (and to combat it when we haven’t) it’s not just information we need, but accurate information; it is not just knowledge we require, but knowledge as objective and true as we can achieve. Such information and knowledge can only be derived from the scientific method, which, like art, manufactures experience, but unlike art, does not or should not, ever, manipulate it. This is the case because this method of inquiry (through observation, exploration, and experimentation) into reality, into nature, into, as Douglas Adams put it, Life, the Universe and Everything, guards against false information and is intolerant of biased and subjective knowledge. It is a method that reveals information and knowledge that, unlike ancient, antiquated, and inadequate information and knowledge revealed in “sacred texts,” are revelations that beg to be questioned, challenged, put on the spot, and tested. Science does not look for sacred truths, but elegant truths that effortlessly fit the facts no matter what one may prefer the truths to be.
The scientific method is not arcane, even if it takes much hard study to master the details of any one science, and a great deal of patience, thought, attention to details, and often mind-numbing, even back breaking grunt work to rigorously apply the method.
In the quest to understand Life, the Universe and Everything, this is a method that has proven over the last three hundred or so years to work remarkably well. Our understanding of L, U and E has grown rapidly if not exponentially, the highly technological world we live in being only the obvious manifestation of that growth, the one most happily embraced. The copious number of successes science has had in unlocking Nature’s secrets has made it worthy of a high degree of confidence, in contrast to strictly opinion-based belief systems or philosophies, and certainly to the irrationality of faith, whether in the tenets of one of the three major Abrahamic religions, or any of the many other religions that dot the face of our planet.
When faced with such advocacy for the scientific method over belief systems or faith, people often accuse the advocate of being, “Just the same as us, you just believe in science; you just have a faith in science.” But the hallmark of science and the method that makes it strong is neither belief nor faith, but trust. Science relies on dispassionate and objective (as far as it is possible) evidence and has thus proven itself. Beliefs and faith rely only on the passions of their adherents. As passions can and often do differ, no one belief or faith has universally proven itself, even if certain beliefs and faiths may claim they have simply by the number of their adherents.
Since the core of beliefs and faith is opinion and not an evidence seeking method, any strength they have can come from only one thing: authority. In most of human history authority has been derived from either one of two methods, or often a combination of both: convincing people that you are tapped into the mind of the Divine, or demonstrating for them the strength of your armies. Emperors, popes, priests, monarchs, dictators, and the self-deified have relied on these two methods for millennia. In recent history a third way has been added, authority derived from “the people.” Democracy, it is called, although it has never really been pure, and so we have constitutions to codify and politicians to execute that authority, relying on a majority to keep it intact. The good or bad exercise of that authority, then, depends on the quality of the majority. The quality of the majority relies on the information and knowledge it has. If the majority consists of Hotdoggens, the willfully ignorant — for false information and biased and subjective knowledge amounts to the same thing as ignorance — then the exercise of that authority has a good chance to be bad. But if the majority has information and knowledge that can be trusted, because it has come from a method that can be tested, then the exercise of that authority has a much better chance of being good. To put it another way: information and knowledge should not come from authority; authority should come from information and knowledge.
It should be simple. Information and knowledge that can be trusted because it has come from a rigorous method that has as little room for biases and as little tolerance for subjectivity as possible seems much the better basis for an authority and the decisions it needs to make, especially in this world of ours that is currently facing so many obstacles. And yet, so often, the Harry and Harriet Hotdoggens of the world seem to rule it instead.
Why? The arrogance of ignorance. What can be done about it? Now there is a question to contemplate.
Steven Paul Leiva is a novelist, essayist, and a refugee from Hollywood. His latest novel, Traveling in Space, a science fiction first contact novel written from the point-of-view of the aliens, deals much with knowledge and ignorance, and the tensions between them.