Monthly Archives: March 2015

Ignorance is bliss, or is it?


Way back in the early 1990’s, there used to be a show on the ABC called “World Series Debating” which was apart of the annual Melbourne Comedy Festival. Topics such as “Is Laughter better than Sex?” and “Beauty is better than Brains” would be debated between two teams of three people made up of popular comedians of the time, Australian celebrities and even politicians.  The live audience would get to vote at the end of the debate as to which team- affirmative or negative had the most convincing argument. In some shows there was an obvious winning team but in other shows it was pretty even.

If they had ever debated the topic “Ignorance is bliss”, there would have been some very convincing arguments put forward on both sides. Here is a little taste of possible angles you could look at this topic starting with the affirmative side “Ignorance is bliss.”

Often it is a large dose of ignorance and survivorship bias (overestimating your chances of success)  that gets us moving from being dreamers to actually doing. If we had more knowledge and less overconfidence in our abilities to succeed, would we have ever started that new business, quit that job, started writing that novel or in the male redback spider’s case, sought out a mate to reproduce? Ignorance is bliss, if you are blissfully unaware of the possible troubles that lie ahead.

When it comes to making decisions, ignorance can be bliss.  Barry Schwartz in “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” talks about an interesting paradox that the more choices you have, often leads to less satisfaction. Weighing up the pros and cons of each choice can be exhausting. The bigger the decision and the more options to choose from, the fear of making the wrong choice can be overwhelming to the point of becoming paralyzed and failing to make a decision at all. When you finally do make a decision there is always that nagging doubt that maybe there was a better choice out there. Ignorance is bliss, if you are blissfully unaware that there are a whole lot more choices available.

Ignorance definitely can be bliss when it comes the news. I have stopped reading and listening to mainstream news everyday and as a result much more happier for it. I find the news too negative and fear inducing. News + over active imagination=  not a good combination. This is probably why I avoid watching horror movies too. I don’t want to become this hypervigilant person, scared to step outside the door because of possible threats coming from everywhere.  I find the news, creates a perception that the world is becoming increasingly violent and that we are all heading towards doom. In fact, Steven Pinker  in his book  “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (2011) argues the opposite to what is portrayed in news media. Reviewing historical records and government data, Steven has been able to highlight evidence that all forms of violence, including war, genocide, murder and rape, are on the decline.  He has completed a further follow up study in 2014 which continues to support the trend of declining violence in the world.

In not being up to date with the news there is the danger of cutting yourself off from the world and living in a bubble. I definitely haven’t lost my curiosity about the world, far from it, but how I want to learn about the world is not through the lens of the news. At the moment I listen to a lot of podcasts, read many books and articles, but I am hoping that when I head off to slowly vagabond around the world that this will be my greatest education.

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page”
(quote attributed to Saint Augustine of Hippo)

Now to the counterargument that ignorance isn’t bliss. One of the more convincing arguments that ignorance isn’t bliss is the connection between racism and ignorance. Racism appears to have its origins from a fear of the unknown and a perception that what is different is a possible personal threat. The seeds of racism sprout when we make quick judgments defaulting to stereotypes and filter out any incoming information that contradicts this judgement.  The first step away from racism is being open to learn, instead of ignorant, about another’s culture, language and way of living. This openness to understand someone different, is the foundations of tolerance, empathy and respect. if ignorance is so blissful, why is one of it’s consequences such as racism the cause of widespread exclusion, discrimination and hate crimes?

The second counterargument that ignorance isn’t bliss relates to a book I have previously mentioned in another blog post, Bronnie Ware’s “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing“. The book highlights that it is possible to go for years wearing blinkers on, living a set expected path and not questioning anything along the way until unfortunately life is cut short.  For many of Bronnie’s palliative patients she cared for, ignorance definitely wasn’t bliss in the end. When reflecting back on their lives there was often a whole lot of regrets. If the insights had come earlier, maybe they would have been more content about how their life had turned out?

If education is the key to freedom, personal success and the future of the world than ignorance isn’t bliss. A large component of addressing any world issue like poverty, climate change, the water crisis, disease epidemics, is information provision and mass education. To remain ignorant, the status of an issue either stays the same or in many cases worsens. At the individual level, remaining ignorant, stagnant and having an unwillingness to learn, can lead to the physical and psychological breakdown of the body. There is a lot of evidence that supports the idea that continuous learning throughout life  produces good brain health and reduces greatly your chances of developing Alzheimer Disease and Dementia.

Every moment of one’s existence one is growing into more or retreating into less. One is always living a little more or dying a little bit (Norman Mailer)

So there you have it, a pretty even debate. Sure, I haven’t stated the obvious that ignorance is always going to be bliss if you remain ignorant and never gain consciousness of the truth of the situation. However, what are the chances of no one ever pointing out a different viewpoint or perception about the situation and a little doubt forming? What are the chances of the child never growing up, a secret never being found out, never reflecting on your life and what has been? I will leave you with a scenario that shows the complexity.

I was recently asked the question,  “If you had the choice, would you want to know when you are going to die?” I really struggled to answer this question. I thought of the real life example of Huntington’s Disease. There is no cure for this inherited neurodegenerative disease and after symptoms first appear, life expectancy is around 15 to 25 years. Huntington’s Disease is “passed down from parent to child. This means that if you have a parent with the defective gene then you have a 50% risk of inheriting the defective gene yourself.” (quoted from Huntington’s Western Australia)
When you turn 18 in Western Australia, if you are a child of a parent with Huntington’s Disease you can chose to undertake predictive testing that determines your future risk of developing the disease. How is ignorance bliss or not in this decision? How do you not suffer with either decision you make of staying ignorant or finding out? Both are anxiety building. I think in this situation I would prefer if there was no predictive testing in the first place.