Recently in the car I heard part of an OPB broadcast about changes in Oregon law removing religious belief in faith healing as a valid defense for failing to seek needed medical attention for a child. (This in the context of manslaughter and child abuse charges on the death of a child with an otherwise treatable condition.) The host challenged the legislator behind the law as to why they were targeting religious believers as opposed to vaccination deniers.
My reaction was to think that both positions — faith healing and vaccination denial — are positions of wilful ignorance in the face of plain fact. And fundamentally, while adults are free to neglect themselves as see fit, when a parent applies either of those approaches to a child, they are committing abuse. Plain and simple. The child has no choice about participating in the explicitly counterfactual and risky behavior being chosen by the parent. Children deserve better than that kind of wilful ignorance.
Even filtered through my confirmation bias as a liberal-progressive, most of the privileged wilful ignorance I see in our society these days emanates from the religious and political Right wing of our culture. The notable exception to this is the anti-vaccination movement, which is entirely founded on precisely one widely discredited study two decades old, and seems to be a pet theory of a certain New Age-left perspective. Every other significant example I can think of comes from the Right.
I’m talking here specifically about wilful ignorance with a broad base of support or a broad impact. Moon landing denial is a wilful ignorance, but it’s the hobby of a selected few cranks. Holocaust denial has more serious roots and implications, but it’s hardly a major fixture of the American political or social scene. On the other hand, there’s a whole array of conservative hobby horses ranging from evolution denial to climate change denial to stem cell research that have wide ranging implications in electoral politics and educational policy alike.
All of these fixations, no matter where they emanate from, require a belief in a broad-based conspiracy of suppression, a denial of widely available data and plain facts, and a “where there’s smoke there’s fire” kind of logic that says if enough people believe something, it must have validity.
Part of the privileging comes from that idea that if enough people believe something, it must be true. This is the basis of Creationism’s moronic “teach the controversy” mantra. There is no controversy except one arising from wilful ignorance, and that doesn’t deserve privileging as political or social discourse.
Likewise, part of the privileging comes from some of these positions being articles of certain sects of this country’s mainstream Christian faith. Because it’s been defined as an article of faith, evolution denialists can cry foul and claim anti-Christian bigotry to privilege their position. That doesn’t make them an less wrong, of course.
But most of the privileging comes from a deeply cynical long term conservative strategy of building on fear and ignorance to keep the GOP voting base engaged. One of the two major parties of the most powerful country in the world deliberately indulges in all sorts of weirdness from Birtherism to evolution denial to keep their voters activated. That kind of short term electoral thinking comes at the expense of both good government and a rational society.
The principle of crank magnetism weighs in here. (HT to Orac, where I picked this term up.) Once you surrender evidence-based thinking and logic chains in favor of a cherished illogical belief, you strongly risk decoupling your ability to think critically about other matters. Frankly, this is one reason I am an atheist — all faith-based thinking creates this mindset, insofar as I can see. And we can see the evidence in the rapid drift of the Republican party and its standard bearers into increasingly weird territory on a whole host of science and reality type issues. Which then feeds back into deep counterfactual thinking on blackletter issues like budget and tax policy.
I don’t really have any notion how to address this. I do know that undermining the American way of thinking is a great way to score electoral votes, but it’s a lousy way to chart the future course of our country. This is the kind of problem we ought to be able to educate ourselves out of, on the Right and elsewhere (we don’t really have a Left in America), if we’d only listen to reality.