Spouting off about stuff you know nothing about is traditionally considered unwise. But as the Republican war on science intensifies, ignorance has started to become not only less of a handicap, but a point of pride. In the face of expertise and facts, being belligerently ignorant—and offended that anyone dare suggest ignorance is less desirable than knowledge—has become the go-to position for many conservative politicians and pundits. Sadly, it’s a strategy that’s working, making it harder every day for liberals to argue the value of evidence and reason over wishful thinking and unblinking prejudice.
The strategy of holding out ignorance to be the equivalent of expertise and simply daring your opponents to try to do anything about it was epitomized recently in the Ohio legislature. Republican state legislator John Becker introduced a bill that would ban all insurance plans in the state from covering abortion. It was a horribly misogynist and intrusive bill, but Becker didn’t stop at just trying to outlaw abortion coverage. He also insisted that IUDs, the most effective contraception available, be outlawed from insurance coverage. His reasoning was that he believes IUDs cause abortion, because he believes they work by killing fertilized eggs.
He is, of course, factually wrong in multiple ways.
An “abortion” is a procedure that stops a pregnancy, and if a fertilized egg fails to implant—and about half fail to implant, regardless of a woman’s choices—then you were never pregnant in the first place and therefore cannot get an abortion. But it’s also factually wrong that IUDs work by killing fertilized eggs. Like nearly all other forms of contraception, IUDs work by preventing sperm from meeting egg.
When confronted with the facts, Rep. Becker just blew them off. “This is just a personal view,” he said. “I’m not a medical doctor.”
Well then, sir, by all means. Let your random “view” pulled directly out of your hiney supersede the actual opinions of people who are considering the evidence before drawing conclusions.
But for modern Republicans, being downright proud of their ignorance has become a badge of honor, a way to demonstrate loyalty to the right-wing cause while also sticking it to those liberal pinheads who think there’s some kind of value in knowing what they're talking about before offering an opinion.
This mentality, in its modern form, can be traced back to the Bush White House. In 2004, Ron Suskind of the New York Times interviewed an unnamed Bush official who famously pooh-poohed what he believed to be the shortcomings of journalists who insist that the truth matters more than fantasy:
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."
The sense that you could stick it to the liberals by being utterly indifferent to reality actually grew worse on the right after Bush left office, starting with the adoption of Sarah Palin as a right-wing hero. Palin represents this new era of treating the truth like it’s a horrible force of oppression trying to squelch conservative America. Subsequently, any utterance from her mouth is far more likely to be a blatant and aggressive falsehood than anything resembling fact.
The thing is, shameless lying and ignorance works surprisingly well as a debate tactic. It’s hard to argue with someone who not only has signaled that he doesn’t care what the truth is but is downright proud of how little he actually knows. Such a person is not amenable to being educated. Once the pretense of really caring one way or another about what is right and what is wrong has been abandoned, all avenue of discourse is shut down.
Take Rep. Jeff Miller’s recent appearance on MSNBC. It was a performance that has become standard on the right when talking about climate change: Dismissively wave away the scientific consensus and spout ignorance in the most condescending tone possible, as if nothing could be sillier than those scientists with their interests in facts and research. Miller repeatedly dismissed decades of scientific research showing the reality of global warming as “foolish." Then he went above and beyond the call of duty, really showing off how proud he was to know so very little. “Then why did the dinosaurs go extinct? Were there men that were causing — were there cars running around at that point, that were causing global warming? No,” he said, full of contempt for people who aren’t nearly as stupid as he is.
If Miller wasn’t such a major idiot, he would know that, in fact, the death of the dinosaurs was caused by an outside force that disrupted the Earth’s atmosphere; not cars, but a meteor that hit the planet with such impact it caused a massive cooling and then—wait for it—major global warming effect that wiped out 70% of the species on the planet. It’s one of the major reasons we know that outside forces, whether meteors or cars, that have major impact on the planet’s atmosphere can create temperature changes that permanently affect life on this planet.
The problem here is that someone who is not only so catastrophically wrong but downright proud of being an ignoramus is not going to actually bother to listen to an explanation like that. That’s why the wall of ignorance is such a powerful rhetorical tool. When you have nothing but contempt for the facts, attempts to educate you will only make your pride in your own ignorance grow stronger. The more you try to educate the proudly ignorant, the dumber they get.
At the end of the day, the problem is one of identity. The conservative identity is one of being opposed to everything liberal, to the point of despising anything even associated with liberalism. As liberalism has increasingly been aligned with the values of empiricism and reason, the incentives for conservatives to reject empiricism and reason multiply. To be a “conservative” increasingly means taking a contemptuous view of reality. And so the proudly ignorant grow more belligerent, day after day.