Agnotology is the study of ignorance – especially protective ignorance. Did you ever wonder how Nazis managed to remain ignorant of where it was to which their Jewish neighbors were disappearing? Agnotology is the study of that.

Habits and routines can protect people from awareness of that which it is not in their own interest to know. It is not merely a refusal to believe something, although it can be that, but also can be an unawareness of there even being an issue or subject in which to disbelieve. Selective memory and selective vision can lead entire populations to be unaware of what any tourist in their midst would see.

For instance, at one time in Germany the politically correct people were the ones promoting clean living, healthy eating, exercise and taking care of the environment. Most of them were raising children and managing careers like people all over the world do. They were the Nazis. On youtube you can listen to speeches by Hitler calling for diversity, for the enmity between ethnic groups to be dissolved, and for all Germans to unite as one. Same things the politically correct call for today.

If you were not positive and upbeat and on the same page with them, they distanced themselves from you, just as politically correct people in present day America do with people they deem to be politically incorrect. When once in a while a Jewish neighbor disappeared, it only was a curious incident. If you did not want to be isolated from the positive, politically correct people, you remained politically correct about that too and arranged your thinking accordingly. The human race does not give itself enough credit for its ability to massage its beliefs into that which makes itself feel right and good, the foundations of comfort.

Culturopolitical Selectivity

The same habits and routines that enabled Nazis to feel right and goo and be unaware of horrible things are so deeply ingrained in America today that they are promoted as virtues.

For instance, I have had health care professionals try to persuade me that medicine is extremely safe. When I point out that it is the greatest source of unnecessary death and injury that we have, they just don’t believe it. (Especially if I point out that I say “unnecessary” rather than “accidental” because not all of it is accidental).

So I point out that more than 90% of what goes wrong in medicine is not recorded anywhere at any level and that that makes things appear to be much rosier than they are. They don’t believe that either. So I direct them to the peer reviewed journals and studies that verify it. They don’t believe those studies and sometimes tell me not to be so negative.

They have told me to look at all the patients who are happy with their health care. In other words, look at the half of the glass that is full.

That is what they did in Germany. That kept the fates of Jews out of sight. That is what we do today in America that keeps the fates of injured patients out of sight. We focus on the half of the glass that is full.

The need of caregivers to believe that they are doing good is greater than their need actually to do good. So their culture has developed a way of thinking that does not record and does not recognize the negative information about their effects on the patient community. Caregivers are more comfortable believing the positive information. Patients die in the gap between the positive beliefs of their caregivers and the negative truths created by caregivers who are so focused on the half of the glass that is full that they don’t see the rest.

That is how we preach that people should think. In and out of medicine there are no clubs for people focusing on negative information. But there are Optimists Clubs. You can get laughed at for thinking it should be otherwise. You also can be isolated socially. People distance themselves from you and tell others to distance themselves from you. That is promoted as a public good. What it does is enable self-serving biases to steer analysis and perception.

It can damage your career and every other aspect of your life to understand that. When there is that much pressure to focus on the half of the glass that is full, ignorance is not happenstance. It is a goal. Unfortunately this comfortable way of thinking prevents us not only from solving some of our biggest problems, but prevents us even from recognizing what the problems are.

But it sure is more comfortable to be blithely naive, isn’t it? Generally people believe in whatever makes them happy and find ways to be unaware of how that effects others. If that works for you, distance yourself from anyone who is negative or injured and be happy. What higher good could there be?

Self-interested Memory

An article in the journal Neuron covered two of the ways in which people exclude unwanted memories from awareness – direct suppression and thought substitution.

Direct suppression inhibits the retrieval process directly. Thought substitution recruits a distracting memory to limit the focus of awareness. These everyday habits help caregivers to imagine that they report everything while reporting accurately only 2% of what goes wrong. And to be in denial of that when studies point it out.

Upton Sinclaire said that it is difficult to get people to understand something when their livelihood depends on not understanding it. It also can difficult to get them to be aware that there is something to understand.

See “Opposing Mechanisms Support the Voluntary Forgetting of Unwanted Memories” in Neuron, Volume 76, Issue 2, 450-460, 18 October 2012, by Roland G. Benoit and Michael C. Anderson. At the time of this writing it is available at the journal’s site at this link.