A Crowd of Incompetents: On Peter Burke’s “Ignorance”

Peter B. Kaufman reviews Peter Burke’s “Ignorance: A Global History.”

By Peter B. KaufmanApril 28, 2023

A Crowd of Incompetents: On Peter Burke’s “Ignorance”

Ignorance: A Global History by Peter Burke. Yale University Press. 256 pages.

THE EPIGRAPH Peter Burke deploys to open his fascinating new history of worldwide ignorance (Ignorance: A Global History, 2023) is ripped from a Brazilian presidential debate in 1989. After the incumbent had decried the high cost to the state of government investment in education, his challenger (who lost, alas) shot back: “Education isn’t expensive. What’s expensive is ignorance!”

An emeritus professor of history at the University of Cambridge, Burke has written more than 30 books, including histories of the Italian Renaissance and a magisterial two-volume social history of knowledge. A friend of his suggested he present his publishers with a blank sheaf of pages as his submission for this one; thank goodness he didn’t. What he delivered instead was a Guinness Book of World Stupid. The book’s 15 chapters are rich with examples of “duh!” and “d’oh!” across dozens of subjects (politics, war, business) and stories of hundreds of people through about five centuries from all around the globe—plus scores of citations and a rich bibliography that may help to spare his readers from finding themselves mentioned in the next edition.

The book is divided into two parts: “Ignorance in Society” and “Consequences of Ignorance.” Right off the bat, predictably, comes the academic question: could there, should there, be a field of study devoted to the science of ignorance? The name for the new discipline, Burke says, would be agnotology (the study of ignorance: how it is produced and maintained) or perhaps agnoiology (more like the study of what is unknowable). Imagine the dubious honor of holding the University Chair of Agnotology! But an honor it would be nonetheless, as ignorance affects—even has a significant causal role in—almost everything, from plagues to wars and famines, from the collapse of empires to the implosion of financial systems. The Wikipedia entry on agnotology features a photograph of an older American senator holding a snowball while denouncing warnings about climate change as alarmist. No doubt college courses in the subject would be popular.

The growing importance of the absence of knowledge in all aspects of our lives is undeniable. And as we look at the news, it’s hard to imagine that our present moment in time can be beaten. But Burke tells us that “every age is an age of ignorance.” That’s because the expansion of our collective knowledge is not, as he puts it with ironic politeness, “reflected in the knowledge of most individuals.” It’s also because in “every age […] the rise of some knowledges is often accompanied by the loss of others.” The rapid expansion of information in society—in any age, including our own—does not imply an equivalent “growth of knowledge.” And that’s because, as we have come to learn, many of the most powerful entities in society—governments, big businesses—“conceal an increasing amount of the information they collect.”

In the late 1940s, as Cold War propaganda was becoming its own research arena, political scientist Harold Lasswell focused his own investigations on five key questions: “Who [1],” in his words, “Says What [2] In Which Channel [3] To Whom [4] With what Effect [5]”? Burke gives a nod to Lasswell and gives this old formula a bit of a makeover. When, in his book, we look at a time period or a particular man-made catastrophe, he leads us on a search for who is or has been ignorant of what, when, and where—and with what consequences (they’re often devastating).

Burke is not the first historian to notice the special role of ignorance in human events; he cites the 18th-century master Edward Gibbon (he of the six-volume The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) describing history as “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” The ignoramuses in Ignorance are many in number—this, too, like Gibbon’s enterprise, could have been a six-volume work. One can cherry-pick. The consequences of ignorance in war are usually immediate and difficult to hide. British Lieutenant General James Thomas Brudenell, for example, who led the Charge of the Light Brigade during the 1854 Battle of Balaclava, does not come out well here. Confederate Major General George Pickett at the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg doesn’t either. Nor Napoleon. Studying American wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Burke finds “multiple ignorances” at work all at once—on the part of policymakers, the military, the press, and the public—resulting in senseless deaths, indiscriminate destruction, and “ignominious defeat.”

Our honorary chair of the agnotology department looks at politics. Also grim! “The ignorance of modern presidents and prime ministers,” Burke writes, “has become a more topical subject than I could have imagined or feared when I began research for this book.” Woodrow Wilson’s absence of knowledge about European history and politics surprised everyone at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference (he had been the president of Princeton, after all), but especially the historian R. W. Seton-Watson, also present at Versailles, who described most of the political worthies gathered there as “a crowd of incompetents” and “ignorant politicians who had no idea of geography.” The design of the peace that resulted has fault lines that shake the continent still today. Donald Trump fares poorly here too. He, like other politicians (Brazil’s Jaïr Bolsonaro is singled out), suffers from what Burke calls “ignorance in its acute form, that of not knowing that he does not know.” Multiple ignorances also combined to trigger the international stock market crashes Burke profiles in depth, from the 1700s and the 1920s to the meltdown of 2008.

One searches for heroes, and they are comparatively few. Burke’s roster includes the all-stars whom we might have imagined—Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin, Pasteur, Mendel. I would have wished to see Giordano Bruno included, if only for the violence the Roman Inquisition visited on him for his truth-telling—a lock drilled through his tongue, a cross thrust in his face, an auto-da-fé lit for his 1600 execution, and then his placement in the flames, naked and upside down (upside down!), by Christian authorities. Muckraking journalists and whistleblowers receive a well-warranted celebration in these pages, including, among others profiled, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Daniel Ellsberg, Seymour Hersh, Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald, Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins, and Alexei Navalny. The book is dedicated to “the teachers of the world, heroes and heroines of the everyday.”

The tragedy, or one of the tragedies, is that the antidotes to ignorance are often—almost always—so close by. Knowledge is so often withheld, and reason and rational thinking so very often quashed, on purpose by people in power who are seeking to perpetuate injustice, inequality, dependence, and captivity. A reader of Burke’s work can sense the author’s affinity for disciplines beyond history—anthropology, economics, literature (he’s marvelous involving novelists and poets in his accounts), philosophy, and psychology—and, perhaps above all, sociology. One wishes for a bit more applied sociology here—to understand how it is we continue to wallow as a public in such general ignorance, and to try to understand the repressive behavior of many societies, institutions, and groups. Toward the end of the book, Burke recasts Lasswell’s formula again, asking, “Who wants Whom not to know What and for What Reasons?” One hopes for more of this. What do we know and how do we know it? What don’t we know? And why—the sixth, giant, missing question—don’t we know it?

Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water, we don’t notice the temperature rising—or the twigs lit at our own autos-da-fé starting to crackle. But we should. Rupert Murdoch’s forces consolidate; Elon Musk takes over Twitter; Jeff Bezos controls Amazon and The Washington Post; television, radio, and academic journal owners consolidate; NPR lays off its staff. The structure of these curious knowledge systems that have been built around us needs some more explaining.

Burke quotes philosopher Linda Alcoff: “It’s not just that folks are not knowledgeable. It is that their lack of knowledge is the product of some concerted effort, a conscious choice or, in actuality, a series of choices.” People choose to avoid “certain news articles,” entire news sources, and “certain college courses”—indeed, “certain kinds of people”—altogether. Why? E. H. Carr, another historian at Cambridge, expressed the belief in his book What Is History? (1961) that “the more sociological history becomes, and the more historical sociology becomes, the better for both.”

Books have been rolling off the presses in recent years about systematic efforts to keep us stupid: Angus Burgin’s The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets Since the Depression (2012), Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson’s American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper (2016), Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire; A 500-Year History (2017), and, this year, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market. They try to explain who installs in our heads the thought paradigms we carry—the myths, forgettings, fantasies, derangements, and persuasions, so many of which are systematically orchestrated to keep us in the dark. Behind some of this, as Burke begins to touch on, are the commercial interests of the fossil fuel industry, drug manufacturers, big tobacco, and the gun lobby.

The great challenge in the years ahead may be to understand the active efforts that seek to make us ignorant and to investigate who underwrites them. Who pays for and runs the schools, sermons, newspapers, journals, textbooks, think tanks, fellowships, television and radio programs, and now all the social media work? Who lobbies for it all? And why? The why question is missing from Lasswell’s formula; we welcome more answers to it from Burke and others, across the disciplines. Also, we need ideas about how to stop this process and counter it—whether in more books or in the brand-new Journal of Applied Agnotology that we should start publishing. We would have more submissions than we’d know what to do with.


Peter B. Kaufman works at MIT Open Learning and is the author of The New Enlightenment and The Fight to Free Knowledge (2021).

LARB Contributor

Peter B. Kaufman works at MIT Open Learning and is the author of The New Enlightenment and The Fight to Free Knowledge (2021). His book The Moving Image: A User’s Guide comes out from the MIT Press in 2025.


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