Strategic ignorance in the time of pandemic

Why do people act as if they don’t know the consequences of their behavior?

Teresa Marques
3 min
Ignorància estratègica en temps de pandèmia

Since the end of the state of alarm and the beginning of the so-called "new normality" in June this year, SARS-CoV-2 has again gained ground in Spain. As I write this, the total number of diagnosed cases is close to double the number of cases when the “new normality” started. Then, cases were just over 246 000. This indicates an apparent inability by governments and segments of the population to adopt best practices, informed by currently available medical recommendations.

In spite of the worrying number of new cases, some 2 500 people gathered in Plaza Colón in Madrid to claim that the crisis of the Covid-19 is a "farce" and an excuse that public administrations are trying to use to "remove rights and freedoms" (as reported in ARA). Were they in the grip of a conspiracy theory? Why do they distrust scientific and medical evidence, and suspect the credibility of State institutions? They actively protested and resisted official health and safety recommendations: they didn’t wear masks; they didn’t keep a safe distance.

But the worrying number of new cases, this time mostly among younger people, suggests that there is a large segment of the population that actively resists acting in accordance with public knowledge. It is hard to understand the spread of the virus without presuming that in many daily interactions, many people fail to take the necessary precautions, ignoring concerns for their health and the health of their fellow citizens. Why do people act as if they don’t know the consequences of their behavior?

This phenomenon – acting as if we don’t know the effects of our actions – is not unique to the pandemic. Every year, we travel, drive, and consume as if our habits were not among the causes of global warming and environmental destruction. We build in coastal areas that will soon be underwater. Every season, we needlessly change our wardrobes with new clothes manufactured in sweatshops, made by people working too much for too little pay. We eat chocolate farmed by child labour. We eat animals bred and then killed inhumanely. We overfish and pollute, depleting the oceans of life. In all these cases, we strategically ignore common knowledge so that we can continue to do what we are used to doing, as we please, for as long as we can, consequences be damned.

There’s a Portuguese phrase that says something like “I don't know, don't care, and I'm annoyed by those who know” (“não sei, não me interessa, e tenho raiva de quem sabe”). The phrase captures what has been called strategic ignorance. Economists and psychologists tend to characterize this as the personal avoidance of inconvenient or uncomfortable facts. Historians and sociologists tend to define it in line with Linsey McGoey’s definition: “the ability to exploit the unknowns in any environment in order to gain or to maintain power.” McGoey, a professor of sociology at the University of Essex, argues that strategic ignorance serves “institutional power and institutional actors in preventing inconvenient facts from becoming more widely known or accepted”, and she gives as examples Monsanto and ExxonMobil’s corporate tactics to deny evidence of environmental harm. And the tobacco industry denied for decades that smoking causes cancer. Naomi Oreskes’s and Erik Conway’s book, Merchants of Doubt, tells the story of effective campaigns to deny well-established scientific knowledge.

The trap these corporations lay for the public is an effective one: once we doubt the evidence that our behavior has harmful consequences, we take that as an excuse to not revise what we think, or change our actions. And we are all strategically ignorant of something, like death, to some degree.

But some people go further. They not only continue to act with disregard for common or scientific knowledge. Some people actively campaign against well-established evidence and recommendations. Not all of us who strategically ignore inconvenient truths would dare to publicly deny science, institutions, and authorities. Perhaps this is an indication that what is at stake is not scientific or medical knowledge. Perhaps those demonstrators want to exploit doubts “in order to gain or to maintain power”.