10/02/2012 10:21 am ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

The Arrogance of Ignorance--The Authority of Knowledge

We talk often about how America is divided between the Right and the Left, the Red and the Blue, the Conservative and the Liberal. But is that the true divide that is doing us harm -- if it is doing harm and is not just a reflection of a division in human nature? Could the real harm possibly be coming from the divide between the ignorant and the knowledgeable?

I am not implying by placement that all Red Right Conservatives are ignorant and all Blue Left Liberals are knowledgable; neither ignorance nor knowledge discriminates, especially regarding specifics. Certain conservatives may reject the facts of climate change; certain liberals may reject the facts of the benefits of animal experimentation. I have very consciously not used the words "Stupid" and "Smart." Stupid and Smart come with each individual's biological territory. Ignorance and knowledge come from actions taken and not taken; effort, or the lack thereof, is the telling factor here.

By ignorance I mean the willful and arrogant ignoring of facts. By knowledgable I mean, quite specifically, that which we have learned by the application of the scientific method.

I'm specific in the type of knowledge I'm speaking about here because not all knowledge is equal, although all knowledge comes from experience. I can best illuminate this point by defining the difference between information and knowledge, which are not the same thing, as information comes from the outside and knowledge is born on the inside. For example: When you tell your young child that the stove is hot and that if she touches it she will burn her fingers, she now has that information. But it is not until she, despite having the information, touches the stove and burns her fingers that she has the knowledge. Information, though, can be wrong -- you could be lying to your child, or be misinformed yourself. And knowledge can be subjective and biased--the stove may only be warm, but the child may have a low threshold of pain, or desire the sympathetic soothing of a parent, and therefore reports a burn where none has occurred.

In his book of essays, The Identity of Man, Jacob Bronowski speaks about self-knowledge or, better said, knowledge of the self, and how such knowledge can be engendered by each of us living with (experiencing) our own consciousnesses, and, interestingly, through art, whether music, pictorial or, most ideally, literature. For art is, after all, nothing but manufactured and manipulated experience that, if it is honest and true, can speak to us by allowing us to share the experiences it provides, giving us a possibly more refined, if generalized, knowledge of ourselves, although rarely, if ever, particular and actionable knowledge of the world around us. But if that art is either difficult or challenging, then it can, if no effort is made to appreciate the art, be a bad experience that leads to no knowledge of the self but does become a highly biased knowledge of the work of art itself. Unfortunately such "knowledge" is often expressed as an opinion that demands to be taken as fact that the art or artist is "crap," a perfect example of the arrogance of ignorance.

While it really does little harm for people to be arrogantly ignorant about art, in the larger civic world we all share, toxic ignorance, false information, and highly subjective and biased knowledge can do much harm, both locally and globally.

To stave off ignorance (and to combat it when we haven't) it is not just information we need, but accurate information; it is not just knowledge we require, but knowledge as objective and true as we can achieve. Such information and knowledge can only be derived from the scientific method, which, like art, manufactures experience, but unlike art, does not or should not, ever, manipulate it. This is true because this method of inquiry (through observation, exploration, and experimentation) into reality guards against false information and is intolerant of biased and subjective knowledge. It is a method that reveals information and knowledge that, unlike, say, ancient, antique, antiquated and inadequate information and knowledge revealed in "sacred texts," are revelations that beg to be questioned, challenged, and tested. Science does not look for sacred truths, but, rather, elegant truths that effortlessly fit the facts no matter what one may prefer the truths to be.

The scientific method has proven over the last three hundred or so years to work remarkably well. Our understanding of reality has grown rapidly if not exponentially, the highly technological world we live in being only the obvious manifestation of that growth, the one most happily embraced. The copious number of successes science has had in unlocking Nature's secrets has made it worthy of a high degree of confidence, in contrast to strictly opinion-based belief systems or philosophies, and certainly to the irrationality of faith, whether in the tenets of one of the three major Abrahamic religions, or any of the many smaller religions that dot the face of our planet.

When faced with such advocacy for the scientific method over belief systems or faith, people often accused the advocate of being, "Just the same as us, you just believe in, have faith in science." But the hallmark of science and the method that makes it strong is neither belief nor faith, but trust. Science relies on dispassionate and objective (as far as it is possible) evidence and proofs, and therefore has proven itself. Beliefs and faith rely only on the passions of their adherents. As passions can and often do differ, no one belief or faith has universally proven itself, even if certain beliefs and faiths may claim they have simply by the number of their adherents.

Since the core of beliefs and faith is opinion and not an evidence seeking method, any strength they have can only come from one thing: authority. In most of human history authority has been derived from one of two methods, or often a combination of both: Convincing people that you are tapped into the mind of the Divine, or demonstrating for them the strength of your armies. Emperors, popes, priests, monarchs, dictators, and the self-deified have relied on these two methods for millennia.

In recent history a third way has been added, authority derived from "the people." Democracy, it is called, although it has never really been pure, and so we have constitutions to codify and politicians to execute that authority, relying on a majority to keep it intact. The good or bad exercise of that authority, then, depends on the quality of the majority. The quality of the majority relies on the information and knowledge it has. If the majority consists of the willfully ignorant--for false information and biased and subjective knowledge amounts to the same thing as ignorance--then the exercise of that authority has a good chance to be bad. But if the majority has information and knowledge that can be trusted, because it has come from a method that can be tested, then the exercise of that authority has a much better chance of being good.

To put it another way: Information and knowledge should not come from authority; authority should come from information and knowledge.

This is the second of two related blogs. The first was New Clothes for Shakespeare and Sondheim, or The "Wisdom" of Harry Hotdoggen.