How Rational Is Ignorance?

So, as is my custom, I start most days with a cup of coffee and the New York Times (followed by WSJ, Axios, WaPo, Watchville, Drudge, texts, emails and various flotsam and jetsam). As soon as I do, the funnel of rational ignorance kicks in. Here’s why.

We are deluged with information today. In the Times alone, today’s story count is 83, ranging from “Brazil’s Armed Forces Chief Resigns Abruptly in Cabinet Shake-Up” to “Shake Up Your Evening Cocktail With Some Honey.” Both stories are about shake-ups, but guess which one I’m going to read first. That’s rational ignorance in action.

The Gold Rush: 2 oz. bourbon, 3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice, 3/4 oz. honey syrup; shake and pour over rocks

Rational ignorance is a term coined by Anthony Downs in “An Economic Theory of Democracy.” It’s the act of refraining from acquiring knowledge when the supposed cost of educating oneself on an issue exceeds the expected potential benefit that the knowledge would provide. Under the theory of rational ignorance, why on earth would I spend 10 minutes reading about the Brazilian cabinet shake-up when I can learn the recipe for a Gold Rush? I only have so many minutes in the day!

It’s often said, especially among Western Europe, that Americans are stupid. Despite the fact that we invented the telephone, the television and telemarketing (OK, maybe that last one proves the Europeans are right). But Americans aren’t stupid, we’re just rationally ignorant. We approach our knowledge-gathering like just-in-time inventory. Just tell me what I need to know, when I need to know it. We’re pragmatic that way.

This is your brain on the internet

But something happened over the past decade that is a little troubling. Rational ignorance has metastasized. We are being deluged with information. The average American consumes about 34 gigabytes of data and information each day, an increase of about 350 percent over nearly three decades, according to a report out of UC San Diego. That daily feed totals about 100,000 words, both those read in print and on the Web as well as those heard on TV and radio. By comparison, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” contains about 460,000 words. In the aggregate in 2008, the report said Americans consumed 3.2 zettabytes of information. If you write that out, it’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. A single zettabyte is equivalent to 100 billion copies of all the books in the Library of Congress. That was in 2008. Imagine what the size of the information feed is now.

Neal Stephenson wrote a terrific sci-fi book called “The Fall; or, Dodge in Hell,” about resurrecting people in a digital afterlife. In this future, people have multiple streams of information coming in from multiple internets (yes, there are multiple internets in this future). The flow of information is so ferocious that people hire other people to curate their feeds.

We’re starting to do that now.

It’s difficult to deal with this information flow, so we look for ways to simplify it. Some of it is necessary, but at times it can trend toward overreaction. We only read one or two publications that agree with our way of thinking, then we resort to strict party-line bloc voting, and eventually we summarily dismiss new ideas and generally ignore novelty as a distraction. Instead of curating, we simply shut down. There’s some comfort in that. It reduces anxiety and opens up space for more pleasurable activities, like researching new cocktail recipes.

But this can also be a bad thing. When we over-curate, our field of perspective narrows and slowly we lose the capacity for imagination. When our imagination is restricted, we lose the ability to empathize. And over time, our ability to conduct civil discourse, which rests on imagination and empathy, starts to break down. One result of this breakdown is that the open exchange of ideas is replaced by moral condemnation of the other side; we simply don’t want to invest the time in dialogue so we shut it down with judgment. We’re seeing that now. It’s not good.

Let’s use a practical example. President Biden has proposed a massive infrastructure bill, a concept that enjoys broad popular support. To finance it, he’s proposing to raise corporate income taxes from 21 percent to 28 percent, about a 30 percent increase. I’m a free-market guy, so my inclination is to dismiss this idea as dumb and destructive; it will simply make America less competitive in the global economy. But I could also stop for a moment and ask the proponents for some modeling data on why they think this would work. We can test the data, add some variables, and see where we come out. Of course, in this dialogue, I have the opportunity to make my case for the rising tide of free markets. In the process we might arrive at a wholly different conclusion.

What if I listen to the thesis instead of just reading the headline? Maybe there is something to learn.

Which, of course, leads us back to rational ignorance. Do I really have the time to devote to researching the pros and cons of the corporate income tax when I could be drinking a Gold Rush and listening to the new Lana Del Rey album? Maybe I should just go with my gut feeling that all tax increases are bad and get on with my life.

But maybe, when challenged with a new idea or an idea that seems wrong, we can take a breath and ask “what if?” What if I ask a few questions and look at this in a new way? What if I listen to the thesis instead of just reading the headline? Maybe there is something to learn.

The process itself may not lead us to change our minds, but there’s a good chance we’ll come out with a different perspective — a little more informed and perhaps with a little more respect for the intention of the other side. We’ll climb up the evolutionary ladder from rational ignorance to rational dialogue.


Leave a Reply