Revisiting the “Cult of Ignorance”

Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov’s 1980 article, “Cult of Ignorance” has been pontificated about since it was written. The most often cited passage of this essay involves the titular phrase, and is still apropos today.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’

The overall message of this passage is very clear: Being ignorant is no replacement for facts and knowledge. However, when I read it, I wonder: What does “always” mean, here? Could there have been a cult of ignorance for the entire duration of the United States? What does it mean for there to be a cult of ignorance, anyway? I believe the answers are as follows: literally always; yes, the entire duration; people worship not-knowing over knowing. Even answered as such, there is more to glean from a nuanced look at the rest of Asimov’s article. Keeping this in mind, let’s continue.

Moving to language, Asimov describes, in particular, how many politicians stretching back through time immemorial, endeavor greatly to not be seen as “distant” from the people.

Politicians have routinely striven to speak the language of Shakespeare and Milton as ungrammatically as possible in order to avoid offending their audiences by appearing to have gone to school.

His charge, though colorful, has certainly been borne out. From Reagan (the person he was sub-tweeting here), who would get re-elected, to George HW Bush, to Bill Clinton, culminating in George W Bush, varying levels of the dumbing-down of language were manifested in our presidents.

While it’s at least arguable how well Obama did this (he often sounded “professorial”), he did also heavily borrow from the colloquial: “Fired up! Ready to go!”

In Trump, however, we’ve reached new heights of nonsense, with entire sentences being almost completely devoid of meaning. The point, in any case, stands: politicians run away from their intelligence, whether they have it in excess, or nearly none at all. They must not appear to have gone to school.

In 1980, one of the most pernicious concepts to ever enter the minds of Americans was invented, with a word as foul as they come: ‘elitism’. The prescience in this section, near it’s invention, is chilling.

We have a new buzzword, too, for anyone who admires competence, knowledge, learning and skill, and who wishes to spread it around. People like that are called ‘elitists’. That’s the funniest buzzword ever invented because people who are not members of the intellectual elite don’t know what an ‘elitist’ is or how to pronounce the word. As soon as someone shouts ‘elitist’ it becomes clear that he or she is a closet elitist who is feeling guilty about having gone to school.

Even with this prescience, it is almost quaint how optimistic Asimov was. Now, the pervasiveness of claims railing against the elitism of scientists, academics, and other people who have “gone to school” is embedded in our divided politics so much it’s hard to even believe this word was ever invented at all. Today, to use and understand the word elitist, it is definitely not required to be a closet elitist any longer. “Elitism” has gone mainstream.

In fact, it could easily be argued we’ve entered a hyper elitism-fearing era. Even the completely unhinged ramblings of Donald Trump are seen as “good” because he’s “telling it like it is.” This occurs even when he’s not making any sense at all, upon reflection, or even close reading:

This thing called nuclear weapons and other things and like lots of things are done with uranium including some bad things.

On the other hand, and just as nefariously, people now pretend to be knowledgeable about things which they are not. In fact, there’s evidence that they actually believe it (due to the Dunning Kruger Effect). From Jenny McCarthy to Alex Jones, people not equipped to evaluate evidence hear something from a source they trust, don’t check where the information actually originated, or how credible it is, and then transmit this information to as many people as they can. From these people with large platforms, to the tiniest of Twitter trolls (or even legitimate users), the underlying behavioral profile is the same. Such transmissions range from mere wastes of time (astrology) to hugely consequential (vaccines, the Trump presidency, etc.). In general, the effect is similar: new “information” which supports what one already believes gets transmitted over and over again, while corrections, new beliefs, and well thought-out reasoning do not. Expertise, one could say, is dead (as a social force).

However, I’d like to strike a cautionary note. Don’t be too quick to demonize people who use the term “elitist” to declare you their enemy. Reach out to them. Converse with them. Convince them. I leave you with the words of Asimov. Something unique, striking, and poignant, with which I agree completely.

I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we need badly is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning.
We can *all* be members of the intellectual elite and then, and only then, will a phrase like ‘Americans’ right to know’, and, indeed, any true concept of democracy, have any meaning.