Why do people and groups ignore, deny and resist knowledge about society’s many problems? In a world of ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’, and ‘fact resistance’ that some believe could be remedied by ‘factfulness’ or ‘enlightenment’, the question has never been more pressing. Following years of ideologically polarised debates on this topic, the book seeks to further advance our understanding of the phenomenon of knowledge resistance by integrating insights from the social, economic, and evolutionary sciences. In current debates and studies, several vital factors are downplayed: that all people and institutions – even science – occasionally resist knowledge while calling their resistance ‘scepticism’, that knowledge resistance is not always irrational, that facts don’t equal truth, and that knowledge claims continuously need to be re-evaluated. Ignoring such key factors undermines the chances of reducing problematic knowledge resistance. Examples used in the book include controversies over climate change, the roots of violence, gender roles, religion, child-rearing, vaccination, genetically modified food, and artificial intelligence. In addition to accessible discussion of the scholarly literature and media sources, in-depth interviews with other renowned human scientists in the UK about their perspectives on knowledge resistance contribute to understanding this intriguing phenomenon. Moreover, the author shares his personal experiences of cultural clashes between different knowledge claims. The book is written for the educated public, students, and scholars interested in how people and groups handle knowledge controversies, and how such disputes can be resolved in the service of better managing the urgent social, environmental, and health-related problems of today.
When something needs to be done
So far, we have learned how and why people in all cultures sometimes resist knowledge. This understanding already exceeds by far the insight gained from merely following the one-sided, common-sense approach in the public debate about ‘fact resistance’ among ‘the others’, whoever they might be. Also, we have seen many examples where knowledgeresistance doesn’t need to be an entirely bad thing. A significant share of the population reports feeling better by resisting some
dictates – nonconsciously or consciously – that we should prioritise social bonds and esteem. This is where knowledgeresistance comes in. Evolution even allows us to sometimes deceive ourselves in order to convincingly signal to others in our group that we are loyal to the dominant knowledge beliefs in the group.
What’s the difference between sound scepticism and knowledgeresistance?
Scepticism and knowledgeresistance might at first glance seem like degrees of the same concept. If this were true, scepticism
When you started reading this book, you brought with you terms, associations, and experiences that relate to knowledgeresistance. This chapter fleshes out some phenomena that in one way or another are typically discussed in the same breath as the topic of knowledgeresistance. Here I challenge some things that most of us take for granted: what knowledge is, and whether or not knowledgeresistance is merely letting our passion override our reason. Some important things that are typically ignored about knowledgeresistance – in the
Charlie the winner and inheritor of the chocolate factory. But unlike these benevolent adults, Dahl had no chance of saving his daughter. She died from measles one year before a reliable vaccine was available. He didn’t tell us more precisely how Olivia died. That’s none of our business, of course. The most frequent complication with measles is pneumonia. Swelling of the brain is another complication, as are convulsions, blindness, and loss of hearing. Extensive knowledgeresistance among the public about the measles vaccine is the reason Roald Dahl wrote an article
Your refusal to say the emperor has no clothes is a signal that you belong to the group.
Allan Dafoe, AI researcher, in an interview for this book, 26 April 2018
The social warmth of the emperor’s new clothes
So far, we have seen examples of knowledgeresistance concerning grave matters: vaccination, the physical punishment of children, climate change, and so forth. But there
think of libertarian, laissez-fair ideology. And so on.
In many kinds of knowledge production, some people make such connections. This happens even when the strength and inevitability of these connections are far from evident. Associating knowledge with its background context and possible consequences may reflect fear. People and groups occasionally turn their fears about assumed consequences into worries about the knowledge as such. A lot of knowledgeresistance at all levels of society is derived from such worries. However, is this type
Knowledgeresistance as strategy
As we learned in the previous chapter, knowledge is costly in substantive terms. Yet it is not only demanding concerning the resources of time, money, and effort it takes to increase our understanding. In this chapter, we’ll look at two additional sides of knowledge. The first is how knowledge carries with it a moral and social responsibility. The second is the reverse of this: how ignorance may open up to opportunities that would have been difficult if you knew ‘too much
distortions, which they call ‘biases’, have evolved biologically. A concept relevant to knowledgeresistance is confirmation bias – in short, how people have a tendency to confirm and select support for previous beliefs. I will describe and explain this and related biases later in the book. For now, it suffices to draw upon a couple of foundational claims of behavioural economics. The human biases are rooted in biological evolution, and are therefore universal, existing in all cultures. Some biases exist and are expressed separately from the social and cultural context
classic, you could have stayed a bit longer in your office doing some extra paid work.
Although the idea of the ubiquitous opportunity costs of knowledge may appear valid – albeit stressful to some of us – a few things need to be clarified. What – if anything – do strategic calculations of costs have to do with knowledgeresistance in our daily lives? The first challenge I ran into when investigating the idea of knowledge costs was the idea in classical economics of Homo economicus – the perfectly economically rational person. The idea