In the depths of winter, Research and Findings invites you to get into the weeds somewhat, with a subject that can cause headaches and heartaches: Ignorance. As a teacher, you’re confronted by some students—or colleagues—who deny the reality of climate change, and/or vociferously spout anti-vaccine rhetoric. You’re stymied by your inability to change their minds—or even to convince them to examine the evidence that proves their claims wrong. They argue, “We have a right to our opinion, just as you do to yours.” You respond, “But you don’t have a right to your own facts,” to which they respond, “We don’t need your facts, we already know the truth.”

Is this a neutral impasse, or do you—and they—have an ethical responsibility to change their minds? In our continuing series on clarity in thinking and expression, this month we ask the questions: is ignorance merely the absence of knowledge, or can it also be an achieved condition, a deliberate construct? Can a person be considered morally responsible for what they know/don’t know— in other words, for being ignorant?

Of course, philosophers have carved out a niche to address precisely questions like this. They call it, “Agnotology: The study of the making and unmaking of ignorance.” Making ignorance? Indeed. These scholars claim that ignorance can be acquired, constructed passively or actively to serve various purposes. Actively, by deliberately refusing to engage with the overwhelming evidence proving the benefits of vaccines, for example, possibly because of an overriding belief that alternative health care is always superior to traditional medicine. This is known as a form of wilful ignorance, since it could be dispelled by accepting existing, available, evidence. Ignorance can be acquired passively, as a child, for example, by being fed a diet of unsupportable beliefs or misinformation from authority figures. Ignorance can be a product of your circumstances—the time, or location, in which you live. For example, a scientist in the sixteenth century, two centuries before Darwin, would be blamelessly ignorant of evolution science.

Ignorance can also be useful. For example, a person may not want to know the gory details of a crime and avoid reading about them, whereas a jury member may not have that choice. We are not all morally obliged to know everything that is reported as fact. This applies only when we have an obligation to know, as in the case of a jury. In law, it is an accepted principle that ignorance is not an excuse for committing crime. If, while speeding in your car, you cause a death, your defence, “I did not know the speed limit on that road,” will meet with the response, “As a driver, you have an obligation to know.”

Let’s return to the anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers. As a teacher, you can have an ethical responsibility to confront this form of ignorance, since remaining ignorant can cause harm to occur—to children who are not vaccinated, for example, and to those with whom they come in contact while infected; and to life on the planet, relative to climate-change deniers. Thus, for students and others not to attempt to overcome their ignorance would be considered a moral failing, but only if they are aware of the potential consequences of their ignorance. A moral decision requires an informed choice.

So, in dealing with students or colleagues who are afflicted with stubborn ignorance, a first step could be to ask them to imagine the consequences of being wrong. Since your claims are established science, like the theory of gravity, you need not engage with them on proving your position. Consider asking them what evidence they would find acceptable that would cause them to change their minds. If none, theirs is not a reasoned position, but one predicated on beliefs in the absence of fact. As for their opinion being as valid as anyone’s, this is simply not true. An informed opinion is valuable; an uniformed/misinformed opinion is not.

For more on ignorance, wilful and otherwise, see these links:

  • Willful ignorance in law and moralityNot light reading—none of this is—but worth a scan, at least, Alexander Sarch’s legalistic essay includes bits like this: “…one is willfully ignorant if one ‘has his suspicions aroused but then deliberately omits to make further enquiries.’”
  • Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of IgnoranceEdited by Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, this collection of essays on ignorance is considered groundbreaking by many scholars. Not light reading, but not dense philosophy, either, it is the book that launched hundreds of scholarly papers and discussions. Cherrypick it for material you find engaging.

And for true keeners, here’s a brief bibliography of a few more pieces on the subject of ignorance:

  • Bailey, Alison. 2007. Strategic ignorance. In Race and epistemologies of ignorance,edited by Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana, 77-94. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Code, Lorraine. 1987. Epistemic responsibility.Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.
  • Dieleman, Susan. 2012. Review Essay: ‘Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance’ and ‘Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance’. Social Epistemology and Reply Collective.http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-7J
  • Firestein, Stuart. 2012. Ignorance: How it drives science.Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Sullivan, Shannon and Nancy Tuana, eds. 2007. Race and epistemologies of ignorance. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Townley, Cynthia. 2011. A Defence of Ignorance: Its value for knowers and roles in feminist and social epistemologies.Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books.

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