COVID-19, Varieties of ignorance

Unmasking Ignorance Reveals the Exercise of Political Power

By Jacqueline Best and Michael Orsini

It’s not the kind of statement that comforts the faithful.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, told a press conference last month that we are “steering in uncertain waters. No one knows exactly what is going to work, so there’s a grey zone and people are doing slightly different things.”

Although in more recent weeks, Tam has been a lot more definitive about the need for a strong and systematic response across the country, she and other public health officials and politicians are grappling with the challenge of acting decisively in spite of imperfect information as the scientific understanding of COVID-19 continues to evolve.

Tam’s nod to uncertainty might not be welcome by most Canadians grappling with the unfolding pandemic and the reality of lockdowns and red zones. Yet it speaks to a core challenge of our fractured politics: evidence-based policymaking must confront the varieties of our ignorance.

One of the bravest and most necessary things that policymakers such as Tam can do is acknowledge what they do not know. Too often, however, we have seen politicians mobilize ignorance for their troubling ends. 

As a public, we demand that our political leaders and policymakers take definitive action based on expert advice. But what if knowledge does not hold the “master key”? What if an emerging feature of policymaking consists of expending considerable effort to mobilize ignorance and strategically position the art of unknowing? When all of our attention is focused on amassing knowledge or expanding the scope of the available evidence, we tend to lose sight of the need – the imperative in some cases – not to know.

In some cases, ignorance consists of actively denying or contesting knowledge and evidence in the public sphere. As sociologist Linsey McGoey argues in her book, The Unknowers, “knowing the least amount possible is often the most indispensable tool for managing risks and exonerating oneself from blame…”  Think of the calculated efforts by leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the US to contest the science on social distancing and mask-wearing to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention their deliberate refusal to recognize the dangers associated with hydroxychloroquine.

Recent examples suggest that various forms of ignorance are far more central and useful to policymaking than we tend to assume. Climate change denial is a potent example of the political appeal and enormous danger of contesting widely accepted knowledge. Even then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett sidestepped the issue when asked by Senator Kamala Harris if climate change is occurring. “I will not answer that because it is contentious,” Barrett responded. Is that type of response a dog whistle for climate change deniers, such as President Trump, who blamed the California wildfires on forest mismanagement?

Ignorance comes in many varieties. It can take the less deliberate form of wishful thinking, as policymakers underestimate the very real possibility that their policies will have serious, unintended consequences. The last few months have revealed just how pervasive and powerful a hold this kind of wishful thinking can have on policymakers. For instance, Ontario Premier Doug Ford ignored Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, who had urged his government to impose new restrictions in Toronto, only to backtrack a week later. And it was recently revealed that the Ford government rejected advice from their in-house experts when creating a new colour-coded plan for COVID restrictions.

These forms of willful and wishful ignorance can prevent political leaders from acting on some of the key problems facing our societies. Why, for instance, is Canada still lagging in terms of race-based data on the health inequities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic? Although data alone cannot transform racist institutions or magically improve health outcomes for Canada’s most marginalized communities, the power to ignore data that connect the dots between racism and health outcomes can be a convenient cover for policy inaction. This “will to ignore” should be challenged vigorously by Canadians interested in equity and justice; equally important, however, knowledge about marginalized communities must be protected from forms of “algorithmic racism”.

The answer to this instrumentalization of ignorance, however, is not to pretend that we have all the answers. That kind of wishful thinking is also dangerous.

How do we govern in the face of uncertainty and ignorance? By walking a very fine line. Policymakers and experts must identify gaps in our knowledge and work to redress them. Citizens must uncover those instances when ignorance is mobilized as a cover for inaction. And all of us must acknowledge that there is still much that we don’t know.

Originally posted to the CIPS Blog November 18, 2020.

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