Three Faces of Ignorance

Education trumps ignorance every time. Universal education, I believe, is the recipe for a happy and prosperous world. Unfortunately, it frequently seems unattainable. Ignorance flourishes despite best intentions.

Ignorance, like education, comes in various shapes and forms. I give examples here of three particular ‘faces’ of ignorance I have come across in my wanderings. I am sure there are more than just these three. You, surely, have encountered these three faces. And many more besides.

(1) Ruinous Ignorance

Some years ago, I found myself in Walnut Creek, a town in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. It looked and felt prosperous. Though quite some distance from Silicon Valley, it had a similar feel.

On a bustling street corner in the middle of the day, a woman in her thirties was engaged, very publicly, in a knock-down drag-out fight with somebody I assumed to be her boyfriend. Wisely, he left the scene, and left her at a loss. She turned to the nearest person, who happened to be me.

Can you tell me where the closest bar is? she asked.

As it turned out, I was able to oblige. I gave her directions. She heard my accent, and was curious. [I give her full marks for curiosity.]

Where are you from? she asked.

Australia, I said.

Oh, that’s in Italy is it?

No, I replied, it’s a bit further south.

Oh, in Africa?

No, it’s —

But there was no sensible answer I could give. How would you reply to a person who had such a woeful grounding in geography? She headed off to look for the closest bar. I suspected geography – or the lack of – was not her only problem.

I thought about our encounter, and began to feel pity for her. What hope was there for her? She was adrift. She had no anchor. Or, at best, her anchor was dragging. She was not equipped to cope with an unsympathetic and unforgiving world. She was doomed.

Her ignorance would be her ruin.

(2) Blissful Ignorance

Then there was the time I drove with my partner, Janet, through the Amish country in Eastern Pennsylvania. It was July. Janet was on the look-out for a quilt to buy. Amish women are known for the quality hand-made patchwork quilts they produce.

It was a fine day. On the road we travelled, there was no shortage of quaint farms, cottages, and horse-drawn buggies of the stripe that shouted Amish. Colourful quilts for sale were on display in the front yards of nearly every property.

Janet saw the quilt she liked, and we drove in. The woman, in late middle-age, who had made the quilt, greeted us. She was dressed traditionally and severely in bonnet and ankle-length costume. She was relaxed, serene, and as if transplanted from another age. I shall call her Grace. That was not her real name.

We expressed admiration of the many quilts she had produced. She retrieved the one we wanted. We paid her – by credit card! Then we engaged her in casual conversation. I wouldn’t give her any marks for curiosity. She did not ask where we were from, but we told her anyway.

Australia, I said. Do you know where that is?

No, Grace replied.

… I was beginning to wonder about Americans and their grasp of geography …

It’s on the other side of the world, I said. Right now, it’s night time there. And winter.

Grace nodded, politely but distantly.

Can you imagine that? I asked.

No, she replied.

We left, Janet with the beautiful quilt of her choice tucked under her arm, and both of us with thoughts in our heads to mull over. Grace’s world was circumscribed. That patch of flat earth west of Philadelphia was all she knew. But, despite its geographic limitations, and the lack of conceptual breadth it fostered, she was cool with it. She was grounded in it. She was not unhappy. She was not ruined. She was not doomed.

Just blissfully ignorant.

(3) Wilful Ignorance

Many of you, here in Australia, would be familiar with the national broadcaster. The much-loved ABC. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Perhaps, like me, you tune into it frequently.

I was tuned in one fine afternoon, on my car radio, while driving from Rockhampton to my home in beautiful Keppel Sands. I was listening to a former cabinet minister in a former federal government who, these days, hosts a forum on Auntie. That’s the affectionate name many of us have chosen to give the ABC. To show our love. Auntie.

I shall not name the host of this forum. But many of you will have listened to her, and will know exactly to whom I refer.

On this particular occasion, she was interviewing the editor of a UK journal often described as ‘right wing’. Personally, I dislike this label. It suggests that political standpoints in the 21st century are restricted to a one-dimensional continuum, with ‘left’ at one end and ‘right’ at the other, when clearly they are not. Not all viewpoints fall on a single straight line. Mine doesn’t, for one.

I would have preferred that the host challenge her guest and vice versa. But this did not happen. There was no element of debate in their discourse. They simply backed up each other’s views, with a minimum of substantive argument. They put me in mind of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Or of Little Sir Echo. In fact I believe, in the trade, the metaphor for this type of forum is ‘echo chamber’.

What views were they espousing? That the young climate activist Greta Thunberg should go back to her classroom in Sweden and stop allowing herself to be used by ‘adults’. Little or no critique was made of Greta’s views. They seemed content instead just to shoot the messenger. And when words such as ‘autism’, ‘used’, and ‘exploitation’ were spat out, and phrases such as ‘— history of mental health issues —‘, ‘— go back to school —‘, and ‘— adults know better —‘ were bandied about, it sounded more like character assassination. Always a very bad look. Health and age should not be issues. Viewpoint, and the substance behind it, should.

I could say many more things, but I shall mention just two.

The ABC audience was told by the echo chamber that Greta should skip her own free time not class time. Now Greta has made clear from the word go that education is pointless if it is offered to someone without a future. What better way is there to make this point than by skipping classes? Her creed is: Do what I do, not what I say.

The ABC audience was also told that ‘end of days’ scenarios in the past have always turned out to be false. Malthus was given as an example, and I shall help their cause by naming another: Club of Rome. But the present climate emergency is different in a very important respect.

Just a few decades ago, the designation ‘climate scientist’ did not exist. Now, as we can’t help but be aware, the designation absolutely does exist, and there are thousands of such scientists around the world. The consensus of virtually all these scientists is that a climate emergency exists with consequences for our planet that are dire.

Neither Malthus nor the Club of Rome had the advantage of a consensus of thousands of researchers. And, without it, they made mistakes, particularly in the timing of their predictions.

Greta has always said ‘listen to the scientists’. And she is right. The methodological pillars of modern science are (1) investigation without preconception, (2) an evidence base, and (3) rigorous peer review. This makes their findings as foolproof as findings are able to be in the real world.

A climate emergency is upon us.

I cannot believe host and guest in the forum on ABC are not fully aware of what I say above. And I’m sure they know about shooting the messenger and character assassination. Theirs is ignorance by choice.

Wilful ignorance.

The few scientists who oppose what the thousands tell us can be counted in single digits. Yet their voice is so loud it drowns out the consensus view. Why? Because their views invariably get heard in an echo chamber, composed of an army of Little Sir Echos, and endorsed by more powerful forces. Call them Big Sir Echos. Those who conspire in this fashion know full well where the real truth lies. So again, this is wilful ignorance.

There is so much of it about.