Book review: ‘Ignorance: A Global History,’ by Peter Burke


Ignorance may sometimes be bliss, but in general it gets a bad rap — which is why the latest book from Peter Burke comes as a surprise.

Over the years, this distinguished scholar has concentrated on the social history of knowledge, most recently in 2020’s “The Polymath: A Cultural History From Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag.”

But in what appears to be a volte-face, Burke’s “Ignorance: A Global History” explores the myriad ways in which “not-knowing” affects our lives, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. In 15 chapters, he touches on “a network of related ideas,” including “obstacles, forgetting, secrecy, denial, uncertainty, prejudice, misunderstanding and credulity.”

He also considers disinformation, fake news, feigned ignorance, information overload, and the practice of sowing doubt and confusion online.

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In short, Burke takes all ignorance — rather than all knowledge — for his province, while modestly calling his book simply an introduction to a burgeoning academic field. Burgeoning indeed.

The main text covers more than 40 different varieties of ignorance (conveniently listed in an appendix).

For instance, “strategic ignorance” is “deliberately keeping others ignorant,” the default practice of governments and spy agencies, despite our calls for “transparency.”

“Organizational ignorance” is defined as “the effect of the uneven distribution of knowledge within an organization.” That is, the workers on the shop floor and the bosses in their executive suites know different things about a company, and when they don’t share their respective “knowledges,” as is often the case, the company as a whole suffers.

“Rational ignorance,” in its turn, implies “refraining from learning when the cost outweighs the benefit.” A classic argument for this dubious practice occurs in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet”: In that novel, Sherlock Holmes reveals that he doesn’t know, and doesn’t even want to know, that the Earth revolves around the sun. Why not? Because, he tells Dr. Watson, his brain-attic can hold only so much and he refuses to clutter it up with information not relevant to his work as a detective.

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Throughout “Ignorance: A Global History,” Burke peppers readers with a flurry of striking factoids, quotations and anecdotes.

The ancient Greeks recognized “two kinds of sceptic, the ‘dogmatic’ sceptic, who is sure that nothing can be known, and the ‘reflexive’ sceptic, who is not even sure of that.”

The Enlightenment political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed that “the whole earth is covered by nations of whom we only know the names, yet we presume to make judgments about the human race.” In this regard, not much has changed since the 18th century. After the European powers callously divided up Africa at the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference, British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury felt obliged to admit that “we have been giving away mountains and lakes and rivers to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains, rivers and lakes were.”

Still another British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, “notoriously referred to Hitler’s demands on Czechoslovakia in 1938 as ‘a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.’”

As for our own Donald Trump, the range of his ignorance of geography and science would be impossible to believe had we not all seen it repeatedly demonstrated on television. Not that this mattered to Trump’s supporters, who were persuaded, again and again, to ignore his ignorance, along with his shady business deals and scandalous behavior. In effect, Burke argues, MAGA die-hards deliberately chose ignorance and, in some cases, cling to it still. To explain, he quotes the feminist thinker Linda Alcoff: “Their lack of knowledge is the product of some concerted effort, a conscious choice or, in actuality, a series of choices. Certain news articles, or news sources, are avoided, certain college courses are kept away from, certain kinds of people are never asked for their opinion on the news of the day.”

Still, as Burke notes, even scholars like himself can be comparably unaware, albeit in a more subtle way. He cites Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s observation that Western intellectuals commonly feel “entitled to remain ignorant of other cultures, while expecting individuals from other cultures to know about them.”

There’s also the widespread occurrence among academics of what sociologist Robert K. Merton dubbed “citation amnesia.” This is a form of “feigned ignorance,” in which you conveniently neglect to acknowledge that you are drawing on the discoveries and work of predecessors in your field. (Burke, by the way, scrupulously credits a panoply of earlier writers and scholars in his endnotes.)

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Ignorance, however, isn’t invariably negative. Recognizing what one doesn’t know can serve to focus one’s intellectual efforts. According to the 19th-century British physicist James Clerk Maxwell, “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.” Speaking of his own research, the contemporary neuroscientist Larry Abbott has stressed the importance of selecting “precisely where along the frontier of ignorance I want to work.” This kind of choice, adds Burke, might be described as the “management of ignorance.”

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History itself constantly seesaws between knowledge and ignorance. By necessity, every society, every paradigm “focuses attention on a few features of reality at the expense of others.” My father could identify edible mushrooms, point out the constellations, name all the varieties of trees in the woods and recognize the tracks of a dozen animals.

People, quite ordinary people, knew such things. No more. For many of us in the 21st century, the natural world mainly consists of pretty bushes along a hiking path. What matters to us instead is knowing how to use a computer and a cellphone. After all, we no longer need to learn anything ourselves when we have “influencers” to guide us, chatbots to do our writing and every kind of information just a keystroke away. Somehow, though, I can’t help but wonder if the trade-off has been altogether worth it.

Ignorance: A Global History

Yale University Press. 256 pp. $30

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