Asimov’s Cult Of Ignorance

Russian-born American author Isaac Asimov is seen in 1974.  (AP Photo)
Russian-born American author Isaac Asimov is seen in 1974. (AP Photo)

Eons ago—in 1980—word-machine Isaac Asimov had an essay in Newsweek entitled “A Cult Of Ignorance.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain against anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by a false notion that democracy means “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Asimov was wrong. On matters where people think, or know, they are ignorant, they scarcely or never weigh in with an opinion. Ask an ordinary citizen the best method to measure recalcitrant membrane proteins, or what other configurations of his fleet d’Aigalliers might have chosen and this citizen will tell you he hasn’t a clue and will happily leave the matter to experts.

Unless the citizen is asked to vote on a question related to these matters. Then he will be forced to form an opinion. Then that man’s ignorance is just as good as, and must be just as good as, your knowledge. That is the definition of democracy.

Put up for vote a question in which our man must weigh in on the importance of transmembrane versus integral monotopic proteins, say a matter of funding over which is best to explore first, and then suddenly everybody has an opinion and must have an opinion.

Good Democrats always choose transmembrane proteins. Everybody knows all but RINOs opt for integral monotopic proteins. Only deniers deny the importance of transmembrane proteins! Once politics discovers the subject, it wouldn’t be long before students in colorful vests harass passersby with, “Do you have a minute for monotopic proteins?”

Since proteomics is not a subject to faint of heart, only the minority of minorities will understand it. Yet since everybody must have an opinion it (as we are imagining), those who do not, or are not, able to grasp its essentials are subject to being led by those who have strong opinions, or interests, or demagogues.

Asimov admits as much without understanding. “Politicians have routinely striven to speak the language of Shakespeare and Milton as ungrammatically as possible in order to avoid offending their audiences by appearing to have gone to school.” Who wants to be spoken down to on a matter on which he must have an opinion?

Democracy is politics. Once something becomes political, there is little chance of it becoming unpolitical, unless it is forgotten by some more-current crisis. Because Democracy is politics, and since people have to have opinions on matters they don’t understand, it’s natural for the citizenry to disparage elite opinion which differs from their own.

That makes Asimov partly right. There will be anti-intellectualism in a Democracy, yet it will be caused by Democracy.

Anti-intellectualism will also be caused by intellectuals themselves.

Adlai Stevenson, who incautiously allowed intelligence and learning and wit to peep out of his speeches, found American people flocking to a Presidential candidate who invented a version of the English language that was all his own and that has been the been the despair of satirists ever since.

George Wallace, in his speeches, had, as one of his prime targets, the “pointy-headed professor,” and with what a roar of approval that phrase was always greeted by his pointy-headed audience.

Stevenson, a Democrat, the progressives’ progressive and anti-anti-communist—he backed the nortorious spy Alger Hiss—was trounced in 1952 and again in 1956 by Eisenhower. Wallace, also a Democrat, was a segregationist who gave the party a bad name at a time when the party’s more progressive members sought to clean up its image; he also made attempts at the Presidency.

Asimov praises Stevenson as an intellectual, which is true. Yet even intellectuals err. The greater public was surely unable to analyze in-depth philosophical arguments about international socialism’s inherent contradictions and fallacies, just as they aren’t able to discuss intelligently the finer points of proteomics (or naval history), but it didn’t, and doesn’t, take a genius to recognize the horrors of communism and progressivism. Unlike proteomics, the errors or communism are obvious to most (alas, not all), and the strictures of progressivism touch everybody. Hence it is natural for people to dismiss the high-faultin’ theorizing of intellectuals who support these ideas.

It is also true that most public intellectuals have been and are now progressives; or Enlightened, if you prefer. Since many of the ideas of progressivism go against Reality and Tradition, the areas average folk know well and instinctively, it’s also natural there would develop a tradition deriding intellectuals. Of course, tacit premises in this argument include American’s native rambunctiousness and independence.


  1. JohnK
  2. Ray

    Dr. Asimov was no fool, but he believed in the theory or Dr. Malthus and was a proponent of population control.

  3. The anti-intellectualism of which Asimov (must confess, my childhood number-one favorite fiction writer) speaks predates and is notwithstanding of our democracy. America was formed by immigrants. Masses of immigrants. People don’t up and emigrate away if they are doing well. If where they live has peace, good services, a high standard of living, there is no impetus to emigrate. For most of our history, the American immigrant was a poor person from a place of turmoil or economic depression or famine, etc. Most of them were not very educated, if at all.

    Among the hard-working poor it is common to see a prideful, willful ignorance, susceptibility to superstition and prejudices, easy-answers and get-rich-quick schemes, that comes with their social position. The educated and erudite are called “soft-handed” and “nerdy.” We differentiate “book smart” and “street smart.” Our various accents and dialects reflect this. Listen to a working class Manhattanite and a Blue Blood from Uptown. Listen to rural kid from South Carolina and, say, Lyndsey Graham. These are distinctive dialect differences and what will stand out the most is the different vocabularies. Illiteracy has been almost eradicated in the US, and yet it is common among the masses to use an almost unnecessarily simplistic verbiage to communicate, because it is “cool.” We admire bearded swamp people, delighting in attempting to decipher their barely discernible and usually completely misguided and uninformed epistemology. We are proud of our hard-scrapple, good, loyal, God fearin’, and yes, kinda dumb, roots.

    This anti-intellectualism is an American cultural phenomena that remains with us today. It can be endearing, even quite creative and fun, but it has a serious downside.


  4. Lorenzo

    “It is the classic fallacy of our time that a moron run through a university and decorated with a Ph.D. will thereby cease to be a moron.”
    …H.L. Mencken

  5. Dean Ericson

    JMJ – you dope, you boob, you ignoramus; you wrote: “hard-scrapple”. Hard-scrapple? What’s that, a frozen scrapple? (Scrapple – a horrific mash-up of porcine refuse, pizzle ends and such, pretending to be a legitimate breakfast menu item). You meant to write; “hardscrabble” – other than that it was a pretty good post (inspired by our pointy-headed host). Briggs, this was an especially interesting effort. Bravo.

  6. There are lots of people who know little, are proud of disregarding people who know more, and insist on setting policy anyway.

    We call them “environmentalists.”

  7. Wow, Dean, thank you so very much for clearing up my most egregious and insufferable mistake, a clear an undeniable display of my poor erudition! And going out of your way, spending your own personal time, to show me the etymological error of my ways! Oh, thanks to you, I have been redeemed before the Lord, so that when I come upon Peter, I can plead in earnest, “I am saved and pure before God as I have come to see it is in fact “hardscrabble” and not “hardscrapple!”” And the angels shall rejoice.

    You are a fussy little man who fusses over fussy little things.


  8. Argh. Wallace was *not* a segregationist. His predecessor was such. Wallace played one on TV, for a purpose; and that purpose was not what people think.

  9. Ye Olde Statistician

    Actually, properly prepared, scrapple is hard on the outside, although ‘crispy’ might be a better adjective. Yumm.

    We have yet to come up with a better term for ‘intellectual,’ meaning someone who likes to come on as erudite but is not necessarily learned and usually means erudite only in certain fields, such as literary theory and not in say organic chemistry or tensor calculus, let alone in business acumen. Rare indeed is the professor of Study Studies who can explain Taylorism and why it worked and why it did not work.

  10. Geezer

    You are a fussy little man who fusses over fussy little things.
    Scrapple. Yumm? I heard it’s offal.
    “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.”

  11. Simon Hart

    Not to dig up a dead horse (the last comment was 2016), but I kind of feel like I need to. Briggs is responding to Asimov, where Asimov is clearly lamenting that those who are not, say knowledgeable on a matter of significant politics are treated as equal to those who are. I carefully state “significant politics” because the example by our Mr. Briggs here is complete nonsense. We’re not discussing the minutia of cellular biology, we’re discussing things like health care or human rights or the environment. We’re discussing important matters of life and death where your opinion *matters* and where an uninformed opinion causes real pain to real people. Mr. Briggs has written the kind of hot take that might be fun if we were say, calling out anti-vaxxers and exposing their ignorance, but we’re not. We’re discussing the most basic of civics – yesterday I had to explain to someone that it takes 2/3 of Congress to propose a Constitutional Amendment. We’re discussing the most basics of logical deconstruction – “If X then Y” wasn’t first introduced to me until my freshman year of college as a mathematics major.

    Perhaps it’s just me, but I felt that Asimov’s essay was a call to action for our media and information distribution systems. Yes, Aismov’s words are almost insulting if you think he’s talking about you (don’t take it personally) but I think it’s an scathing rebuke of how we’re not motivated to learn, not encouraged to know something and raise uninformed perspectives to the levels of celebrity status because in our ignorance, we might agree with the perspective that says experts don’t matter.

    I’m not sure if Americans are there. I think many of us are not trying to refute the experts, and yet there is a noticeable movement of folks who are trying to discredit them (they’re being paid, they want grant money, some secret Soros-agenda). I think that what Asimov is saying is that we can’t be offering equal oxygen to this views. When you have 1 climate scientist and 1 climate denier, that is exemplifying the problem that Aismov described by stating that people cannot read “as many as a thousand consecutive words of small print”, he says “that the function of a free press is virtually zero” in a space where ignorance is promoted as equal to scary elitists.

    I think Aismov’s biggest problem is that he uses the term “elitism.” Blue collar workers use that word to mean people with money who condescend to those who shower after work, instead of before. But intellectuals like Aismov are using the word “elitists” in the manner of folks who have dedicated their lives to a certain field. To people like Asimov, who understand nuance, they know that someone who is elite in say microbiology is not elite in something like law. He could have done well for pointing out that as he uses “elite” he means it as a mercurial state of being, based on the context, but blue collar workers do not.

    Last point, if I may. Mr. Briggs argument seems to suggest that democracy means choosing between A or B and that by demanding people make a choice, they’re demanding that ignorance is equal, as a part of what democracy is. Mr. Briggs doesn’t seem to refute that this is problematic, nor offer any solution. He only seems to state that democracy *is* that ignorance and expertise are equal, consequences be damned. Who cares that the world is a less good than it could be, because that is the natural outcome of democracy, Briggs seems to say. Sorry, but that’s not good enough.

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