Why do we resist knowledge? An interview with Åsa Wikforss


Largely, because we have a crisis of trust, and knowledge needs trust

Knowledge resistance is “the tendency not to accept available knowledge”, according to the mission statement of the interdisciplinary project “Knowledge Resistance: Causes, Consequences and Cures,” which was awarded a $5.6 million grant from the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences in October 2018. Åsa Wikforss is the project leader. A professor of theoretical philosophy at Stockholm University, she is also a newly-elected member – and the only philosopher – of the Swedish Academy, a prestigious cultural institution of 18 members appointed for life. 

In an age of misinformation both online and off, researching knowledge resistance could not be more timely. When senior politicians announce that the people have had enough of experts, it’s not long before a race to the bottom begins, where dangerous myths and misinformation can entrench themselves. 

In this interview, we discuss how knowledge resistance manifests itself in popular movements such as anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers, and how we can fight these beliefs gone viral.

Your new project examines a particular type of irrationality in the form of ‘knowledge resistance’. Could you offer an explanation of what knowledge resistance is and what sets it apart from mere ignorance? 

Ignorance involves having a false belief, or no belief at all, on a topic. This can be the result of a simple lack of information. In that case, as soon as we read up on the topic we have knowledge. What distinguishes knowledge resistance, by contrast, is that it cannot be fixed by supplying information. It is, as it were, a type of ignorance that is not easily cured.

Knowledge resistance is a matter of believing what one wants to believe rather than what one has evidence to believe – it is a matter of resisting information, rather than taking it in. This happens to all of us, from time to time, and it has a variety of psychological causes. It may be that I hold a cherished belief about being an excellent driver (most people do) even though the evidence points the other way. Or it may be that I love my wine and have a hard time accepting research showing that wine causes cancer. 

A common cause of knowledge resistance is identity protection. This happens when we hold a belief that is central to our cultural or ideological identity. For instance, there is a lot of evidence that when it comes to factual questions that have become politically charged (such as about crime rates or immigration) we are quite adept at finding ways of resisting the evidence. In general, knowledge resistance is not simply a blunt emotional reaction but involves reasoning of a certain sort – skewed reasoning used to protect the cherished belief. 

From climate change denial to anti-vaccination movements, it doesn’t seem like there’s any shortage of examples that dominate the news headlines. Are there particular conditions and environments in which knowledge resistance forms and spreads? 

Yes, it is a combination of factors that play a role. First, knowledge resistance typically involves strong emotions of some sort, often fear or hatred. Second, these emotions interact with the environment in various ways. For instance, disinformation, such as fake news, strengthens it. In particular, disinformation about sources, such as the claim that the climate scientists just try to get more funding or that mainstream media have a political agenda. Human knowledge is essentially social, it requires trusting others, and when trust is undermined so is knowledge. 

In addition, polarisation causes strong ‘us versus them’-feelings, which tend to strengthen emotions that drive knowledge resistance, such as fear. It is clear that we are now in a situation where these different factors converge. Social media is filled with hatred and fear, polarisation increases, and there is a systematic production and sharing of disinformation. In many ways, it’s a perfect storm.

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