Friday, November 28, 2014

Ignoring the Ignorant

STANFORD – People have a right to be ignorant. Just as we can choose to damage our health by overeating, smoking cigarettes, and neglecting to take prescribed medications, we can also choose to remain uninformed on policy issues.

Perhaps ignorance makes sense sometimes. According to economists, “rational ignorance” comes into play when the cost of gaining enough understanding of an issue to make an informed decision relating to it outweighs the benefit that one could reasonably expect from doing so. For example, many who are preoccupied with family, school, work, and mortgages may not consider it cost-effective to sift through a mass of often-inconsistent data to understand, say, the risks and benefits of nuclear power, plasticizers in children’s toys, or the Mediterranean diet.

The deluge of conflicting data relating to various foods’ costs and benefits exemplifies the challenge inherent in making informed decisions. In a recent study, Jonathan Schoenfeld and John Ioannidis found that, despite the media hype, “scientific” claims that various foods cause or protect against cancer are frequently not supported by meta-analysis (analysis of pooled results from multiple studies). As Ioannidis put it, “People get scared or they think that they should change their lives and make big decisions, and then things get refuted very quickly.”

People are particularly likely to exercise their right to ignorance – rational or not – when it comes to issues of science and technology. A 2001 study sponsored by the US National Science Foundation found that roughly half of people surveyed understood that the earth circles the sun once a year, 45% could give an “acceptable definition” for DNA, and only 22% understood what a molecule was.

In 1995, the cosmologist Carl Sagan expressed concern about the trend toward a society in which, “clutching our crystals and religiously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in steep decline…we slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness.” More recently, British polymath Dick Taverne warned that, “in the practice of medicine, popular approaches to farming and food, policies to reduce hunger and disease, and many other practical issues, there is an undercurrent of irrationality that threatens science-dependent progress, and even the civilized basis of our democracy.”

Indeed, while people are entitled to believe in horoscopes, trust in crystals to bring good luck, or buy into quack medicine, such “junk science” becomes a serious threat to society when it is allowed to influence public policy. Consider, for example, the response last year by some activists in Key West, Florida, to efforts aimed at stemming the spread of dengue fever, a serious, potentially life-threatening disease, which reappeared in the area in 2009 after being absent for more than 70 years.

Using genetic-engineering techniques, the British company Oxitec has created new varieties of the mosquito species that transmit dengue fever. The new mosquitos contain a gene that produces high levels of a protein that stops their cells from functioning normally, ultimately killing them. As long as the modified male mosquitos are fed a special diet, the protein does not affect them. When released, they survive just long enough to mate with wild females, passing along the protein-producing gene, which kills their offspring before they reach maturity – resulting in the species’ elimination after a few generations.

After receiving the needed approvals, Oxitec worked with local scientists to release the modified mosquitos in the Cayman Islands and in the Juazeiro region of Brazil. According to the published accounts of these experimental releases, the approach was highly effective, reducing the infected mosquito population by 80% in the Cayman Islands and by 90% in Brazil. The company is awaiting approval from Brazil’s health ministry to implement this approach as a dengue-control policy.

While similar releases in Florida are years away, some locals have already reacted forcefully. One activist gathered 100,000 signatures on a petition to oppose using the mosquitoes in eradication efforts. But her concerns – “What if these mosquitoes bite my boys or my dogs? What will they do to the ecosystem?” – have no scientific basis, and thus reflect voluntary ignorance. With a little research, she would have discovered that male mosquitoes do not bite, and that the released mosquitoes (all male) die in the absence of their specially supplemented diet.

In fact, the experimental releases revealed no detectable adverse effects of any kind. But presenting the facts in a reasonable manner, as Florida mosquito-control authorities have attempted to do, has not been enough to change opponents’ minds. Unfortunately, those who choose ignorance are immune to – or simply prefer to ignore – reason.

Why are so many people afraid of so many things? Cancer epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat identifies several factors, including “the success of the environmental movement; a deep-seated distrust of industry; the public’s insatiable appetite for stories related to health, which the media duly cater to; and – not least – the striking expansion of the fields of epidemiology and environmental health sciences and their burgeoning literature.”

Regardless of their reasoning, people have a right to choose ignorance. But allowing that choice to drive public policy constitutes a serious threat to scientific, social, and economic development.

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    1. CommentedMike Hugh-jass

      "Unfortunately, those who choose ignorance are immune to – or simply prefer to ignore – reason"

      That to me is the core issue. People choosing rational ignorance is fine ***ONLY IF**** they have been educated in logical fallacies, rhetoric, and basic probability / statistics. With that knowledge base they are much less likely to be duped by TV talking heads, infortainment posing as news, and ideological and theological dogma.

    2. CommentedMartin Erlic

      Existentialism meets rationality and social contract plus other philosophical buzzwords. This debate is a giant can of worms...

      My take: People have the right to be ignorant so long as they are indifferent to the emergent social consequences which may or may not befall upon them as a function of their actions... For example. You have the existential right to murder someone and as well, the right to complain about sitting in a jail cell for the rest of your life, which is a probable outcome of just such an action... However, whatever your opinion in the moment, to rot in prison you most likely will. It's just probabilistically what is most likely to occur to you given that you are, in fact, just one agent in a massively parallel dynamical system which will push as much against you as you against it.

    3. CommentedErvin Prifti

      yes it is dangerous to let policy making be driven or conditiioned by social ignorance...but how about lobbies...are they less dangerous for public health and wellbeing. what the authors calls social ignorance might be simply fear and distrust towards policy choices perpetrated by public authorities that respond more to lobbies than to citizens.

    4. CommentedStamatis Kavvadias

      Long discussion of examples and an example "case study", pointers to abstractly indicative statistics, but a conclusion supported by no arguments. What could be motivating this logical gap?

      People do what they want, using the criteria they want. In fact, decisions taken on scientific basis can easily be disastrous. The path of social evolution goes through imitation of successful efforts of more progressive societies. There is no danger in policy being conservative, in agreement with conservative public sentiment, as the author attempts to advance; this is just an effort to marginalize people of a lower educational level, by excluding them from policy decision influence. In other words, this is discrimination.

      If there was any honesty in the author's concerns, he would urge policy to set targets to improve the educational level of less lucky (i.e., less wealthy) parts of the population, which are more prone to ignorance, within one or two generations. But the author raises suspicion of dishonesty and some possible hidden agenda.

    5. CommentedSean Mac

      May I add one more thought--The Internet is a huge brewing ground for ignorance just by reading many of the posts and opinions circling everywhere. It seems the information flow has not improved our collective intelligence and it may not enlighten rather confuse and mislead people or people are willing to be confused and misled.

    6. CommentedLucio D

      For those complaining that scientists also make mistakes: like Wolfgang Pauli would say, the alternative to scientists is not even wrong.

    7. CommentedNate Kratzer

      Your two premises (1) People can be ignorant and (2) We should not allow their ignorance to influence public policy cannot coexist with a third premise that most people believe to be true, (3) Government should be responsive to the wishes of its citizens.

      How a democracy can make sound public policy in the midst of public ignorance is a difficult question, but it's not one you can escape by suggesting we ignore the intentionally ignorant. The failure of our educational systems also calls into question just how intentional this ignorance actually is. Most people cannot read scientific research, so it is not a matter of looking up the data. Even educated individuals such as you or I would need to expend a great deal of time and energy to figure out the literature in a field we are not familiar with. We'd probably opt instead to just talk to someone who is an expert in the field, but that's not an option for most people.

      It's not easy, but improving the education system and the state of public discourse is an absolute necessity if we are committed to both (1) good public policy and (2) some form of representative democracy. Your proposed solution comes far to close to simply being rule by a technocratic elite, which does not even insure good public policy.

        CommentedJosé Luiz Sarmento Ferreira

        America's Founding Fathers were well aware of your trilema and tried to get around it by erecting strong bulwarks between the irrational, immediate whims of the masses and the thought-out, institutionally mediated and carefully considered will of the People. In an age of light-speed communications, these bulwarks are considerably weakened - it is increasingly difficult to conceptually separate the masses from the People - but they are still in place and can still be used to protect the Republic against wilful or manufactured ignorance.

    8. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      In theory the article is right.
      But in truth it would only be right if we had some absolute truth, an absolute reality we can research, and thus we could all arrive to the same conclusions, same results, following the same experiments, methods.
      But it is not the case.
      As the latest findings of quantum physics show we are now arriving to seemingly unbreakable barriers in between an absolute reality we cannot perceive and comprehend and our own subjective perception.
      And individual genius, or even a small group of such geniuses cannot arrive to truth any better than simple people of the street as they can only examine reality from within their own subjective perception. They might be able to make "more educated" guesses at an absolute phenomena but they could be just as far from the truth as anybody else.
      Moreover what the "wisdom of the crowd" experiments show is that a large enough collection of "ignorant" simpletons would arrive to a much more correct and precise result than a couple of Nobel laureates trying to find the answer to the same question.
      Based on the findings of the "wisdom of the crowd" we can deduct the future direction scientific findings, research needs to progress.
      Human beings who are by default highly self-centered and subjective can only arrive to true results, absolute truth, if they find that truth in between them, within their collective mind, in an area that is disconnected from each individual's subjective perception.

        CommentedEdward Ponderer

        Crowd-sourcing is becoming a very powerful tool in accomplishing of great research and ideation by the "ignorant," whose very ignorance gives them the ability to see matters from a different angle. True mostly it will go nowhere, but there is that 1 in a thousand that will bring in an important radical perspective, or catch something critical missed by the experts.

        We don't know it all. The US Army Core of Engineers had precise computer simulations of the clay basin near Mexico city, I believe it was, and the clay used in inexpensive private dwellings and made very accurate simulations of the vibration modes of said dwellings--specifying a height requirement to guarantee a null. Thousands of deaths later, they discovered that their simulations were correct, only the dynamic constants of tension and density change dramatically from the static numbers due to the at least partial onset of the liquid state.

        Many years ago, there was a wonderful new anesthetic used very successfully on young children for surgery. Problem was that over time, some traumas became realized in these young patients. Then the "small" error was discovered. The anasthetic did not render the patient unconscious or in any way dampen pain. It just made these children incapable of any muscle movement in relief of the agony they felt every moment of the surgery!

        Not all stories of scientific oversight are as horrific as these -- but there are plenty, and arrogance of experts don't help. Open round tables with the public, explaining positions and apparent risks, and asking for the public's feelings on this--and where there is simply a mistake in an established fact, pointing that out frankly but respectfully--would accomplish a lot more than looking down on a frightened public, with good historic precedent for mistrust.

        And yes, there have been a lot of environmental catastrophe's where scientists were indeed correct about the component facts, but missed the power of Murphy's laws on large systems that include economic elements (human greed in skipping test or bypassing expensive safe guards), larger environment considerations as well as complexities that couldn't be properly simulated and were just "assumed" (making an "ass" out of "u" and "me"), and simple human error on the part of the technicians on the ground who have to carry out the details of complex operations by instructions, not deep understanding. ["Hey, our supervisor never told us before he went to lunch that the mosquitoes had to be gender selected--don't go blaming us!"]

        Finally, one might think that Mr. Hermann bringing something as abstract as quantum mechanics into such an argument is just too far afield. Wanna bet?

        I believe it was Eugene Wigner that suggested that quantum mechanics would be required to explain the stability of living organisms against the onslaught of thermodynamics. Brilliant physicist that he was, his "ignorance" of modern biology was written off as the matter of stability was quite taken care of with enzyme-assisted protein synthesis. The bootstrapping logic here didn't click until it was realized that enzymes were themselves mysterious--and as it turned out about 2005/2006, actually functioned via quantum mechanical tunneling.

        Ah, but Wigner was after all an "expert." Well, when I was a graduate student in electrical engineering--I was not expert. How could I think to challenge a term project given in operational amplifier circuits by one of the finest minds in analog electronics in the United States. But somehow, I felt very uneasy about it, and despite my ignorance, I played around with the numbers given for the speed and power requirements of the project. Finally, by the evening after it was assigned, I had the courage to called the professor at home. Before I could explain that his engineering goal violated the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle by a factor of about 100, he answered, "I know, I know--I'll be changing the project at Thursday's lecture." Fortunately it seems, when you have a large enough lecture hall, there are a sufficient number of ignoramuses available that a few of us might just catch something important.

    9. CommentedMK Anon

      What a presomptous article. As if the author always knew what's wrong and not.
      1) science can be wrong.. remember that so called scientist pretended that earth was flat. As Ravi shows well, well conduct science still has mistakes, because ecology, climatology and other fields are way too complex. In these fields, it should be the precaution that prevails over the arrogance of a couple of scientist's incomplete models

      2) Science is not about lab only. it's a social object that can be studied. What are its laws? Is it always the most clever or "reasonable" that "win" the debate, or is it that it's the most powerful?
      What about homologation of drugs? Take Aspartam: it was rejected by the FDA in an official commission, because the firm, monsanto, did bad science... Until Rumsfled and other 4 persons previously working for Monsanto approuved it a couple of weeks after taking power and without any new evidences. This is only one example, they are many others.
      We could also talk about the "scientific" protocol to approve a product.. how many generation of rats? How independent are the researchers? Who finance the study and pick the lab to perform the test used to validate the product as safe?

      What about the funding of labs and universities? What if a lab found a drug is bad for health and publishes it? Will they keep on being funded by the big corporations? Obviously no. They can even expel the bad researcher who found that a product is bad for the health.. and worse, communicate about it - making the mass less ignorant.
      Now, what about publications? Can you publish anything in peered review journal,or is there a bias too. Are the editors of these journals also membres of "scientific committes" of big corporations? What is their main source of income? Their wage as an academician or is it the consultancies they do on the side? I also question their independance, and therefore the visibility of articles against big corporations.

      So we have a biased people with their own agenda financing biased researchers, publishing biased "scientific" papers in biased journals that, even when performed by serious scientists, still has a large magin of error, or worse, uncertainty. Don't take me wrong, I don't reject science and rationality. I am just asking the author here to acknowledge the flawed decision making process.. a decision process that just avoids directly imputable deaths to the corporations, but doesn't care of long term consequences of their actions, because they maintain us ignorant of these.

        CommentedMike Hugh-jass

        You seem to conflate "science" with individual people or individual research results. One published study is not "Science." The fact that you can use these as examples proves that Science will correct itself.

    10. CommentedRavi Mantha

      The story of modern science is rife with disastrous experiments. Introducing cane toads in Australia, destroying sparrows in China, and use of DDT in India are only three horrible examples of so-called science causing untold destruction.
      The notion that the powerful evolutionary engine of nature can be bested by simple science is laughable. You need much more complicated thinking done over a very long period to time to understand, let alone manipulate, ecology. Many scientists and their friends in government tend to think of ecology as an engineering problem that can be solved using math and physics, but ecology is actually a complex issue involving states of equilibria between dozens, sometimes hundreds or thousands of species. The other issue is that most science these days is done by corporations who have a pre-determined agenda and that distorts the truth in favour of ideas that make money. Consider the extraordinary mis-selling of statin drugs to the general public as just one example of how the US FDA is either in cahoots with, or is hood-winked by, the pharma industry. You can ignore the ignorant if you wish, but real harm is caused by scientists who think they know what they are doing and are later proven wrong. Plenty of smart people also question bad things that are done in the name of science.
      The only protection against possible large scale destruction that we have is to err on the side of caution, and use lots of small experiments and field tests over a sustained period of time, and try and remove the financial incentive from decision-making on what is good for the ecology. Until the framework for something like this emerges out of the scientific consensus, it is best to err on the side of caution and leave ecology alone. I wouldn’t even bring the ignorant into this debate. It is a debate between tinkering engineers on one hand, and people who believe in the awesome power of the engine of evolution on the other.

    11. Commentedhari naidu

      With due respect to your underlying assumptions about ignorance, it's people like you (USDA) who have the intellectual temerity to disenfranchise the un-informed and un-educated - without rationally understanding underlying cause of basic ignorance about science and scientific method.

      The old saying - Ignorance is bliss...Knowledge power!

      Having been educated in Bay Area, during the heydays of 1960s, I can vouch that today's American ignorance is generally a function of education in modern society.

      Just imagine how many citizens understand the exogenous world - let alone their own - because media has become so central to their ignorance.

      US Senators and Congress Reps are even more stupid and ignorant...otherwise US wouldn't be in such a terrible juncture of historical development where knowledge and ignorance are competing for power and influence.

      Try and define what constitutes decline and fall of nations from Roman times...

      For example, climate change and scientific evidence of earth warming due to CO2 emissions.

    12. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

      The wisdom of the market, by collection, is an ensemble of individual ignorance; market failures happen when behavioral responses to stimuli are governed by informed choices that are either irrational or rational inattention to disclosures, guidelines and to paternalism gets the better of irrational attention to ill-informed judgment calls that we keep taking. The solution is somewhat addressed in Storr Lecture series paper, titled, "Behavioral Economics and Paternalism" by Cass R. Sunstein.

    13. CommentedJohn McDonald

      Great article.
      Many seem to think ignorance is okay as long as it is used to promote certain cherished causes.

    14. CommentedPatrick Lietz

      The article was rational until the second last paragraph. The gratuitous snipe at the "environmental movement" who harbor a "deep-seated distrust of industry" is quite an ignorant irrationality in itself. And, as you state so correctly, it is dangerous as it drives policy.

      If you think that an economic system, built on the beliefs of eternal growth, will not experience limits on this physical space called earth, then you sound as irrational and as ignorant as those people who believe in horoscopes and don't know the make up of a molecule.

    15. CommentedMarc Laventurier

      Tending the Tendentious

      Time to Chill Out on Global Warming
      by Charles L. Hooper (Hoover Visiting Fellow)

      'Scientific models of climate change are incomplete and unconvincing.' See

      In the 'free market', peeing in the epistemological pool is standard operating procedure. By the time you're up to your neck in it, the mosquitoes who will have prospered pari passu polluting industries, will have to concentrate on your head, 'cause 'that's where the money is'.