What do I know and don’t know?

Historians have often categorised eras or periods with convenient titles. Thus, we have the Age of Revolutions, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment and so on.

But we don’t often have recognition of a more powerful strand in human history – ignorance.

Peter Burke, Emeritus Professor of Cultural History at Cambridge, has just published a new book – Ignorance a Global History. Professor Burke has already published a two volume Social History of Knowledge. His last book before Ignorance was The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vince to Susan Sontag organised around periods and 500 Western polymaths who (as the book blurb says) “have moved the frontiers of knowledge in countless ways” and looking at the individuals not only for their achievements in one area but many.

The aim was to rescue their work in other areas but also to contrast their lives with today when specialisation rules and is less supportive of multi-faceted scholars and scientists.

The new book is in many ways complementary to The Polymath. It is divided into two major sections: Ignorance in Society, and the Consequences of Ignorance. Ignorance in Society covers a definition of ignorance, philosophers on ignorance, collective ignorance, studying ignorance, histories of ignorance, ignorance of religion, ignorance of science and ignorance of geography.

Under consequences Burke discusses ignorance in war, ignorance in business, ignorance in politics, surprises and catastrophes, secrets and lies, uncertain futures and ignoring the past. It concludes with a section of new knowledge and new ignorance – both always being with us.

He describes ignorance as either passive – the absence of knowledge including the failure to use it to decide actions; and, active ignorance in the sense of resistance to new knowledge and activities. Here he cites the history of British settlers in North America, Australia and New Zealand “who attempted to ignore the existence of the peoples who were living in those regions, or at least the claims that these groups might have to the territory.”

In philosophers of ignorance, he cites Montaigne’s Que sais-je? What do I know? As well the usual Enlightenment suspects (without mentioning Spinoza unfortunately) he also highlights the opportunity for academic study of “the spectacular demonstrations of ignorance by recent heads of state such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro.”

An interesting discussion of what constituted ignorance at different points in history says: “In Protestants Europe the devout were shocked by anyone who showed ignorance of the Bible (while) in Catholic Europe, on the other hand, interest in the Bible on the part of the laity might lead to suspicion of heresy.” In contrast, in the 21st century, surveys show that fewer than 5% of UK citizens can name all the Ten Commandments.

Ignorance of geography is another subject with 50% of British adults in 2012 thinking Mount Everest was in England while 20% didn’t know where Blackpool was – the latter indicating if nothing else profound shifts in working class holiday habits. A range of terra incognita examples are discussed including one example for Australian readers – in 1824 Chief Justice Forbes described NSW as ‘uninhabited’. Forbes is the subject of a recent book which encompasses discussion of Forbes’ poetry.

It’s a pity the judge is still not around for Peter Dutton to get a legal opinion on The Voice from him.  One would think it would be supportive.

The whole issue of European ‘discoveries’ of the rest of the world is discussed in detail frequently bringing fresh insights into issues about Columbus, China, secret maps, secret cities, Japan, Korea and Formosa. Unfortunately, the most spectacular example of geographic ignorance and pig-headedness – Magellan – doesn’t get a mention.

As many western governments cut back on education funding and try to dictate curricula the section on Consequences of Ignorance cites the 1989 presidential debate in Brazil when Fernando Henrique Cardoso complained about the cost of education and his rival, Leonel Brizola, responded that “education isn’t expensive. What’s expensive is ignorance.”

In this section of the book Burke also ranges over war (Napoleon’s Russian campaign; Pickett’s charge in the Civil War (the turning point in that war and which the blog walked some years ago with his friend John Dyett); Britain’s 1842 debacle in Afghanistan; Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan again. Incidentally, in an earlier chapter he reports that a majority of Americans couldn’t find Iraq on a map.

In a chapter on ignorance in business he starts with the British Tanganyika groundnut failure; as well as the economic consequences of the expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain in 1609 and the expulsion of Protestants from France by Lous XIV. Both of course provided impetus to industrialisation in Holland and Britain which served as great advantages in the wars both fought against Spain.

He then ranges over management failures, consumer ignorance, accounting illiteracy, investment ignorance, the South Sea Bubble, the 1929 Great Crash, US Prohibition, drug dealers, the Mafia and arms smuggling (including the notorious Victor Bout).

The section on ignorance in politics starts by discussing the ignorance of the ruled in autocracies bringing in Richelieu, Machiavelli, Richard Kapuscinski’s reporting; The British ‘Popish plot’; the US Know Nothings; and, the frightening public opinion research disclosing Americans’ profound ignorance on how their system works (when it does) and who and what makes up the government. One interesting sidelight of this is research which suggests that many people practise ‘rational ignorance’ not thinking it worth their while to participate although this may be outweighed by American credulity.

Of course, it’s not only the US where ignorance rules as the UK decision to withdraw from India and partition the country resulted in hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) killed as result.

There is a brief section on the ignorance of early modern rulers (Charlemagne could neither read nor write for instance) but is quickly compared with people like Donald Trump and George W. Bush who was ignorant of conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims when he decided to invade Iraq.

A chapter on surprises and catastrophes ranges over lack of preparation and poor response to floods, hurricanes and earthquakes. George W. Bush, Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans gives Bush an encore role in the book. It also discusses COVID in the context of just being the most recent example of how we have failed to deal with problems such as HIV AIDS and Ebola.

A section on secrets and lies reprises State secrets, the Jesuit Baltasar Gracian and Francis Bacon, Machiavelli, the Katyn massacre cover up, Chernobyl, the Pentagon Papers, post-truth, lies and much more.

The book’s penultimate chapter addresses uncertain futures including forecasting, Black Swan events, risk, Chernobyl, the mathematician Bernoulli, economics, futurology and Andrei Amalrik’s 1970 prescience about the fate of the Soviet Union.

The final chapter looks at the historians “who never know as much about the past as they would like to, and often less than they think they do.”

The final lines start with Mark Twain: “We are all ignorant, just about different things”.

Burke concludes the text with “The trouble is that those with power often lack the knowledges they need, while those who possess those knowledges lack power.”

The book includes a glossary of terms – three pages of definitions of forms of ignorance – an essential guide to identifying the precise form you need to deal with.

Regular readers will be aware of my occasional references to another Burke book – The Fabrication of Louis IV. The blog frequently pressed it on US colleagues to demonstrate that PR wasn’t invented in the USA. But it’s also a fascinating book about power – how to wield it, how to justify it and how to promote it.