When ignorance is embraced.

By Bernadette Meaden
August 3, 2014

Conservative climate change deniers in the USA have started to adapt their vehicles so that they spew out the maximum amount of noxious black smoke. They see this as some sort of defiant political protest. A dealer who sells the equipment to make these adaptations said the message people were sending was ‘You want clean air and a tiny carbon footprint? Well, screw you."

This is an extreme example of what seems to be a growing global tendency for people and politicians, particularly those on the right, to positively embrace ignorance in many areas. It is strongest in the US, but is spreading rapidly.

In Australia, Prime Minster Tony Abbott, himself a climate change denier, has abolished the role of Science Minister, incorporating it into the portfolio of the Business Minister. As one Australian commentator has said, "There is an undeclared war going on between business and science, and the Abbott government has made it clear that it prefers to side with business."

Here in the UK, we do have a Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and the Science portfolio is combined, appropriately, with Universities. But the former Secretary of State at the Department For Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, ‘climate change sceptic’, Owen Patterson, has been succeeded by Liz Truss, who is said to be "scornful of the climate change agenda".

There is perhaps a growing and worrying tendency to reject science. The government commissioned and then rejected scientific advice on the badger cull and recently David Tredinnick MP, who is a member of both the health committee and the science and technology committee, has advocated that astrology be adopted by the NHS. The Health Secretary himself, Jeremy Hunt, is a strong advocate for homeopathy despite the fact that scientists dismiss it as worthless.

In social and economic policy, ignorance and misinformation have been strikingly effective weapons in the hands of the Coalition, aided and abetted by a largely sympathetic media. From hordes of benefit tourists to a million fake disabled people, Ministers have conjured up phantom problems to which their policies are offered as the only solution.

In The Myth of Broken Britain: Welfare Reform and the Cultural Production of Ignorance Tom Slater of the University of Edinburgh pointed out: "Despite wide-ranging social scientific evidence challenging the numerous policies on work, welfare and poverty that have been set in motion by the Coalition…a familiar litany of social pathologies …is repeatedly invoked in a strategic deployment of ignorance with respect to alternative ways of addressing poverty and social injustice. Powerful structural forces that involve major political and economic institutions have been conflated into a single behavioural and cultural explanation – ‘Broken Britain'".

Thus, through the ‘strategic deployment of ignorance’ the Coalition gained public support for policies, particularly on welfare reform, which placed the burden of austerity squarely on the shoulders of the poorest and most disadvantaged.

In a new analysis of tax and benefit changes for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Jonathan Portes and Howard Reed concluded that, "Poor families that have a disabled adult or child lose perhaps five times as much proportionally as better-off able-bodied families."

Imagine if any party had gone into the last election saying, "We’ll make cuts, and we’ll take most from the poorest disabled people." Would that have been a vote winner? One sincerely hopes not, but with commentators now saying that the Coalition has won the argument on welfare, that appears to be what the public has unwittingly endorsed, due to a skillful deployment of ignorance.

If the government is to be held to account for making policies based on little more than myths and prejudice, and future policies are to be more soundly based, politicians and members of the public need greater access to robust evidence. This is where the new Evidence Information Service comes in.

As its founders explain, "The EIS will be a rapid matchmaker for connecting politicians with thousands of UK researchers in science, social science, and the humanities…to get evidence on the map we not only have to make it accessible, we need to make ourselves – the academic community – more accessible to the policy makers."

The EIS is also looking for ‘local champions’ who are willing to interview their MP. You don't need to be a scientist or research professional – you just need to be eligible to vote. The results of the interviews will determine the shape of the service, and be reported in a peer-reviewed journal and made freely accessible to the public.

And of course, journalists also have a crucial part to play. In recent years too many have appeared happy to accept the government’s version of events on issues, even when the evidence was available to call it into question. Is this laziness, political partiality, or simply pressure of time in a 24 hour news environment? Whatever the reason, we really need journalists to up their game if we are to get policies based on evidence, and an end to the strategic deployment of ignorance.

© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.