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Willful ignorance

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Not just a river in Egypt
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♫ We're not listening ♫
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
Richard Feynman[1]
Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.
Aldous Huxley, who later went on to fool himself[2]

Willful ignorance is the state and practice of ignoring any sensory input that appears to contradict one's inner model of reality. At heart, it is almost certainly driven by confirmation bias.

Willful ignorance differs from ordinary “ignorance“ — when someone is simply unaware of something — in that willfully ignorant people are fully aware of facts, resources and sources, but refuse to acknowledge them. Indeed, calling someone "ignorant" shouldn’t really be a pejorative, but intentional and willful ignorance is an entirely different matter. In practice though, the word "ignorance" has often come to mean "willful ignorance", and indeed, in many non-English languages, the word based on the same stem ("ignore") actually carries that meaning.[citation needed]

Willful ignorance is sometimes referred to as tactical stupidity.

Depending on the nature and strength of an individual's pre-existing beliefs, willful ignorance can manifest itself in different ways. The practice can entail completely disregarding established facts, evidence and/or reasonable opinions if they fail to meet one's expectations. Often the willfully ignorant will make excuses, claiming that a source is unreliable, suggesting that an experiment was flawed or asserting that an opinion is too biased. More often than not this is simple circular reasoning: “I cannot agree with that source because it is untrustworthy because it disagrees with me”.

In other slightly more extreme cases, willful ignorance can involve outright refusal to read, hear or study, in any way, anything that does not conform to the willfully ignorant person's worldviewWikipedia's W.svg.

With regard to oneself, this can even extend to fake locked-in syndrome with complete unresponsiveness. Or with regard to others, to outright censorship of the material from others. As an example of the latter, conservative sites often delete without explanation any statement that contradicts their preferred narrative and links to any evidence supporting such a statement or calling into question such a narrative.

Examples of willful ignorance[edit]

’Tis but a scratch.
The Black KnightWikipedia's W.svg after losing an arm in battle, Monty Python and the Holy Grail

This is some suggested reading for willful ignorance.

Causes and treatment[edit]

Readers should be aware that willful ignorance is a mechanism that actually protects the brain from becoming unable to function in situations that it just can’t handle. An individual can never accept its whole own reality being meaningless or making no sense, as that would make it impossible to act towards any goal. Forcing an individual into such a state has psychologically been found to be comparable to the death of the higher developed parts of the brain from an outside perspective.[citation needed]

This means that the morally right way to treat such individuals is not to look down upon, ridicule or attack them, but to help them to be able to accept reality again. This is most easily accomplished by offering a way to transition without having to give up their own pride and sense of reality, by starting out with the individual's own model of reality, and then slowly walking the way towards actual observed reality by fitting every piece inside of it in a sensible fashion that offers improved abilities to predict the future (which should not be hard, since that is by definition guaranteed).

Example: The Catholic church slowly progressing from a concept of “God decides what happens next. We have to propitiate him.” to “God created the laws of physics and logic.” Which allows them to think in terms of logic and physics, while still not calling their old concepts bad, and so come to harmony with reality again.

Unfortunately, there often comes a time where entrenched willful ignorance just cannot be tolerated or babied anymore and it's better for society (and the "victim") to just buck up and force the truth down their gullet. See the long-term failure of Reconstruction versus the much more successful attempts of de-nazification. It's often up to the rationalist to evaluate whether the cause that's being fought for is too urgent to spare the feelings/self-esteem of the willfully ignorant. Beware the backfire effect though.

Snarl Word[edit]

Creationists and other supporters of pseudoscience may use this as a snarl word against people who don't conform to their views.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Cargo Cult Science: Some remarks on science pseudoscience, and learning how to not fool yourself. Caltech's 1974 commencement address. by Richard P. Feynman (June 1974) Engineering and Science 10-13.
  2. Proper Studies by Aldous Huxley (1927) Chatto & Windus.