On Whether All Ignorance Is Willful

I’ve been thinking about this idea that people who don’t know about evolution (or vaccines, or whatever) in this age of the Internet are willfully ignorant, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I disagree quite strongly.

Yes, all the evidence is online. Yes, the evidence for these scientific discoveries is overwhelming. Yes, pretty much all of us have internet access. But there’s another side to this story.

First, can we really expect people to have the curiosity to go learn something new all on their own, especially if it could endanger their place in life? Many creationists are taught that evolution in particular is a hoax that leads people away from God and therefore into Hell. If you believed you were risking eternal damnation, would you really go looking for evidence for evolution? Would you really go through the effort of searching through the Google results for a site that looked legitimate? Of course not, you would stick to nice safe sites like icr.org. Even if someone does learn about evolution, they might lose their whole community and even their job, in some cases, by coming to accept it and its implications for Christianity.

Not only that, but most people simply aren’t that curious. It takes effort to learn about evolution (or vaccines); evolution is counter-intuitive in some ways, and you’re just as likely to find bad information as good if you don’t already know what you’re looking for. It isn’t like learning who is the governor of Arizona or what movies Nicholas Cage starred in or some little factoid question like that. Many, perhaps most, people are just going to stick with what they learned growing up and never question it.

Second, even if someone is curious, they might simply not have the time. Many people work extremely long hours and simply can’t take up a side research project, especially if they want to do the honest thing and read as much as they can from experts on both sides. There’s too much data to take in and analyze when you only have a spare 15 minutes every few days.

Third, even if someone is curious and has time, there is no guarantee that they will look in the right place. There are tons and tons and tons of information on the internet, and no good way to tell which is true and which is false. It simply makes more sense to ask a trusted friend or family member for a starting place, which is likely to only give the searcher evidence for the position they already hold.

Fourth, even if someone is curious, has time, and looks in the right place(s), they may still not be able to tell which of two opposing viewpoints presents a better argument or has more evidence. Maybe they don’t have critical thinking skills, or maybe they aren’t overly intelligent, or maybe they have a vested interest in believing one side over the other, or maybe there is a combination of all three going on. In any case, even the best someone has might still not be good enough to help them draw the right conclusion, especially if they live fairly withdrawn from varying opinions (and many people do).

Therefore, painting everyone who holds any opinion with the same brush of “willfully ignorant” is committing the hasty generalization fallacy. Of course some people who hold opinions like young earth creationism are willfully ignorant, and of course it is frustrating that so many people hold false opinions, but to assume that any ignorance is willful is foolish and ignorant. Almost, I would say, willfully ignorant, but it is more likely that people who claim those with false opinions (like young earth creationism) are willfully ignorant simply haven’t considered points like the ones I just brought up.

6 thoughts on “On Whether All Ignorance Is Willful

  1. Yes but when someone comes along and explains the science to them and they say “la la la la I can’t hear you” that’s where the willful part comes in. I agree, but there are a lot of willfully ignorant people out there.

    1. You’re certainly right; I have encountered willfully ignorant people more than I would prefer. I wrote this post mainly out of frustration that I was repeatedly encountering the obviously foolish idea that all ignorance is willful because we live in the internet age, where essentially all information is available for almost no effort or money.

      I can’t help but think that somebody trusting their parents or not knowing a topic exists are very valid reasons for them to be ignorant; in such a situation, how can their ignorance be called willful?

      1. There is also the phenomenon of people who essentially become experts in anti-science bullshit. You could read answers in genesis articles that seem professional and scientific for hours a day and think you’re educating yourself, when in reality they’re biased to say the least and inaccurate and unscientific to the extreme.

      2. They dress up pseudoscience very well. Especially when creationist websites title all their articles “by so n’ so, PhD” but don’t tell you the person has a PhD in a completely unrelated field, often not even related to natural science at all. I remember seeing a creationist website where a guy was wearing a white lab coat, calling himself doctor and lecturing about genetics and his credentials were that he was a chemist and an automotive technician. The degrees of the “scientists who reject evolution” list are often things like law degrees, engineering degrees, criminology degrees etc. It’s like if I had a philosophy degree and walked around hospitals in a white coat calling myself doctor and asking everyone how they’re feeling today.

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