One of the most disconcerting and pernicious changes to society over the past four years has been the rise of the ignoramus et ignorabimus, a Latin maxim for “we do not know and will not know.” Reportedly posited by German physiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond in closing comments of his keynote address, “Über die Grenzen des Naturerkennens” or “The Limits of Science,” to the 1872 Congress of German Scientists and Physicians, du Bois-Reymond’s contested maxim referred to unknowable aspects of science. His skepticism was not without validity, though met with due opposition by other great thinkers of his day, some who successfully turned his maxim on its head; in a sense, rendering it impotent.
Nearly 150 years later, du Bois-Reymond’s contention bears new consideration concerning the realm of science; yet, nowhere near its original intent. Rather than a learned observation from within the ranks of the academy, today’s attack is from outside those ranks and in far greater numbers than du Bois-Reymond was able to conjure. This immense assault is not only being successfully waged against science, but against scholarly expertise throughout the intellectual realm, from university campuses, thinktanks, and institutes to corporate boardrooms and media networks. Suddenly every professional proclamation is suspect to credibility, and the more prominent or pronounced the source, the greater the opposition to the validity of its message. How has this come to be?
Today’s rise of the ignoramus and ignorabimus is politically, culturally, and socially rooted in left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative nomenclature and ideology. While the primary assault is against liberal entities, powerful conservative forces spin it to include themselves as victims through rhetorical devices that usurp popular media channels and platforms they own and have put in place to amplify their grievances. Distractions, deflections, and diversions are tools they use to deflate the bleating urgencies of the Other. These tools are deployed top-down across willing media channels while the complementary forces of the ignoramus and ignorabimus are deployed bottom-up. Both meet in a middle ground of reinforcement.
Effectual political spin from the top down has been readily evident for several decades now. What we are witnessing for the first time in American society is a rip-roaring rise from the bottom to converge with those at the top. It’s the elevation and legitimization of those persons at the individual level to a corporate body level of what they “do not know and will not know.” These are mostly illegitimate voices that can legitimately challenge the media, scholars, and all opposing forces now because those experts are being criticized successfully at the top. Blue-collar knowledge is now superior to white collar because it finally won something, a seat at the table, and can lay claim to holding the highest position in the land today. Before taking umbrage at use of the term ‘illegitimate’ hear me out.
Every voice is legitimate and should be proffered as viable to the conversation. With that said, not every voice holds validity in the conversation. If I attend a conference of nuclear scientists, my voice will hold no credibility in the actual physics surrounding nuclear fission and scientific proliferation, despite my brief experience decades ago managing the Radiation Department for the shutdown of Unit Two at Three Mile Island, or despite someone’s heavy activism in the realm of nuclear opposition. We’re limited in knowledge and can bring no actual expertise to the discourse unless queried on what we truly know.
But that’s not true for a large segment of American society that believes it is now entitled to a seat at any table no matter the subject or required level of expertise because they are following in the footsteps of a president who does this exact thing. Further giving the uninvited ignoramus et ignorabimus reason to join the conversation, this president uses his position and media presence to dethrone the experts. What we all see on a daily basis now is someone who ‘knows better’ than everyone else about everything out there. There is no need for expertise, experience, or knowledge at all, just an overarching reach of power. Even a charlatan with immense power is beloved when he’s your immensely empowered charlatan.
That overarching stretch is relegated to all who will subscribe to it. It’s ‘free’ and it’s yours if you’re a follower and the Other who is not like you is in your sights for assault, because the message from the top down is that everyone not on board is fair game. The number one attack I get online without fail is the spiteful, “Oh, you’re a professor…blah blah blah!” Everyone’s an expert now on everything because the rules have changed: winners take all and they finally won something here so get out of their way, their word is the final word. Yet, it’s just a lie. One more propaganda tool. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking there is not a gestalt that takes place as one more damaging and dangerous rhetorical device gets added to the unwieldy arsenal of the ignoramus et ignorabimus. Lest the awful day come when we choose to absorb their ignorance out of fear, frustration, and eventual forfeiture.
Emil du Bois-Reymond concerned himself with what he saw as relatively immutable limitations to science. We must concern ourselves with how we stand against the continual onslaught from unlearned masses of people who think they know better than we do, better than science. In reality, they know little to nothing, but they do know how to use the simple media apps at their disposal and have been granted legitimacy to do so. Arguing with them is not the answer. Letting them know they don’t need to be jealous because it’s never too late to get a proper education can do wonders. Most importantly, and subject to attack as elitist…though we may rightfully earn such privilege, and despite the juvenile name-calling it provokes out of anger and envy…we should know that intellectuals are being confronted mostly by a bitter society that does not know and will not know, and truly despises smart people for all they’ve learned to know.