I don’t understand willful ignorance

I recently read an interesting post on the Slactivist regarding the current debates about and ignorance of contraception:

Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa. . . . provides a classic example of how deliberate, defensive ignorance works. Confronted with facts correcting his preferred misapprehension, he doesn’t just challenge those facts — Murphy challenges the possibility of any facts at all. Murphy denies that there is any such thing as objective reality — only competing religious assertions:

SEBELIUS: There also is no abortifacient drug that is part of the FDA-approved contraception. What the rule for preventive care …

MURPHY: Ma’am that is not true. … Is the morning after pill or something like that an abortifacient drug?

SEBELIUS: It is a contraceptive drug, not an abortifacient. It does not interfere with a pregnancy. If the morning pill were taken, and a female were pregnant, the pregnancy is not interrupted. That’s the definition of abortifacient.

MURPHY: Ma’am that is your interpretation, and I appreciate that’s your interpretation.

SEBELIUS: That’s what the scientists and doctors …

MURPHY: We’re not talking about scientists! Ma’am we’re not talking about scientists here, we’re talking about religious belief.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius defines “abortifacient” as having the effect of interrupting a pregnancy. Murphy doesn’t like that definition. Why? Because he desperately wants to believe that hormonal contraception is a baby-killing abortion drug that he can thus condemn loose women for using. So Murphy redefines the word “abortifacient” to mean, roughly, whatever “religious” believers want to pretend it means.

It’s not a coincidence that Murphy’s views on contraception precisely parallel his party’s views on climate change. You think carbon traps heat? “That’s your interpretation. But we’re not talking about scientists here, we’re talking about religious belief.”

Even when I was an evangelical, I believed in facts. I did think the birth control pill was an abortifacient, but I believed that because I honestly thought that’s what the facts showed. Had I taken the time to examine the facts – and done so without privileging biased sources – I would have changed my view. I say that because that’s what happened when I honestly examined creationism in college.

I understand holding an incorrect belief because you trust bad sources. That’s why my parents believe the pill is an abortifacient. What I don’t understand is saying the facts are irrelevant and that all that matters is what you believe about an issue. I never would have said that, even at my most devout.

Your thoughts? Is there something going on here that I’m missing?

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • carlie

    And in fact, it’s not just pregnancy defined as post-implantation. What the morning after pill does is release a surge of progestins. Know what else releases a surge of progestins? Fertilization. The entire point of progestins is to get the uterus ready and able for implantation to happen. If there is an egg in there when Plan B is taken, the plan b actually helps implantation to go better should the egg be fertilized. The reason it can keep pregnancy from happening is that it is mimicking early pregnancy, and therefore the body thinks it has already popped an egg out and stops any “more” from developing.

  • Contrarian

    Presuppositionalism or just convenient rhetorical postmodernism?

    • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

      I’ve long thought that the former is just the latter dressed up in a televangelist’s business suit, big hair and fake smile. It’s a way of trying to create fake doubt where there isn’t any — and then disingenuously act like actually, you won the argument.

    • I amafreeman

      VERY convenient, AND it works on the emotionally driven, ignorant, lazy masses.

  • E.A. Blair

    There’s a whole book on willful ignorance (also known as cognitive dissonance) and it’s quite good. The title is “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)” by Carol Tavris & Eliot Aronson.

  • Hamilton Jacobi

    But if you admit that facts are relevant, then it’s possible you might be forced to admit you were wrong, and you might have to change your mind. And that’s not an option.

    • Libby Anne

      But that’s just the thing. It was for me. When my facts turned out wrong, I changed my mind.

      • ‘Tis Himself, OM

        That’s because you’re not a politician playing to the anti-abortion folks back home.

      • Rosa

        And look how you turned out!

        Isn’t growing up to be a feminist freethinker exactly what these folks are trying to prevent?

      • http://skjaere.livejournal.com/ Skjaere

        In your case, I suspect that youthful impressionability was still in the mix. When we are young and still learning about the world, we are open to being wrong about things, and willing to consider new ideas in an honest way. The older and more set in one’s worldview one becomes, the harder it is to entertain ideas which contradict the things we believe.

      • http://www.misterwoodles.com Neal

        This is an important disctinction… it’s the difference between arguing to seek or spread truth, and arguing to defend a position. It’s where I stood on evolution/creation, even while still devout.

      • Besomyka

        I suspect that in-born tendency, combined with your parents encouragement – I get the impression from your other writing that, despite the quiverfull environment, they did want to see you grow into your own person – is why you were able to mentally escape that culture. Other people don’t think that way, though.

        My wife is religious, and I’m not. She’s not all gung-ho, or anything, she just doesn’t find that sort of reflection interesting in any way. She is incredibly smart (2 masters, with a 4.0! ), but she’s just not as curious about things as I am. I want to know, and to be right. She doesn’t. She just wants to get on with life.

        I guess my point is that people really do think differently, and an incurious person who is told that people Sebilius will lie to get their way, and when you’re use to disagreements based off the same foundational material (church doctrine, for example), then it’s really easy to come to some sort of position seen in that interview.

        The problem is when incurious people are also activists.

    • I amafreeman

      TIS, exactly. WE learn to believe that we are so special (either by excessive false praise or abuse) that WE become special in OUR OWN MINDS; ergo, we could never be wrong. Toss god, pseudo-patriotism, party positions (not Twister),or whatever, into the mix and Voila – instant, perfect asshole.

      Personally, I like to progress, but to do so one might have to change beliefs – or, heaven forbid, personal conduct – when confronted with new and/or different FACTS. Progress, however, is now a dirty word in America, according to the Ministry of Truth (a bi-partisan Agency), and subject to severe penalties ranging from ass-whippings, social ostracising, and up to and including lynching.

  • seditiosus

    I don’t understand it either.

  • Sastra

    HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius defines “abortifacient” as having the effect of interrupting a pregnancy. Murphy doesn’t like that definition. Why?

    My guess is that it’s not because Murphy doesn’t want to accept the facts. He might very well agree that the morning after pill would not abort a fetus. He wants “interrupting a pregnancy” to mean more than just not causing a fetus to abort. He want it to mean ‘not allowing a fertilized egg to implant.’

    Or, he might want “interrupting a pregnancy” to mean “not allowing an egg to fertilize.” I suppose that, if you smear the process out enough, you can eventually claim that a headache is an “abortifacient.”

    • http://www.davidrutt.me.uk rutty

      If an abortifacient is anything that prevents an egg being fertilised then abstinence is an abortifacient. No eggs getting fertilised there eh?

      Isn’t circular reasoning wonderful?

    • carlie

      But the facts are that it does neither of those things. Once an egg is in the system, plan b does nothing to stop it.

  • http://www.maybetoometal.com inkhat

    As a teacher I saw this a lot. There seems to be a trend where powerful belief can be used in a debate as a valid fact. When these views were challenged with facts and statistics the student often became much more defensive than they did when I questioned any other part of their argument or paper.

    I think that modern politics and discussion in general has become about being sure. Smart people don’t change their mind and debate is about winning rather than the search for knowledge. People feel like the MUST have a position on something and that position has to be solid. This leads them to belief which is theirs and how could anyone question it, rather than facts which can be met with other facts.

  • Meggie

    There is a line in the bible (I’m not sure exactly where because I don’t feel the need to learn my bible off by heart but I will look it up if anyone doubts me) that says not to argue with fools. There is no way to win an argument with a foolish person. I always think of that line when I read a discussion like the one above. My initial reaction is to argue then I think no, this person is a fool, they will never listen and I will only be wasting my time. (The bible does have some good advice in it, even if you choose not to believe in God.)

    • jemand

      Proverbs 26, verses 4 and 5:

      Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
      or you yourself will be just like him.
      Answer a fool according to his folly,
      or he will be wise in his own eyes.

    • MadGastronomer

      The problem is, this person is making laws for the US. He and others like him must be argued with, because they must be defeated. So it’s not such good advice in this situation.

      • I amafreeman

        Yes. But as teacher INKHAT states so well: It IS all about the appearance of “winning”, and we in this nation despise LOSERS! In fact, we get so elated when “our team” wins, we head downtown and destroy things!!!

  • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

    It seems Sastra beat me to it, but I already wrote the post, so my two cents:

    Are you sure that your interpretation of Murphy’s position here?

    I would need more context to be able to tell, but there are alternative interpretations of Murphy’s words.
    In particular, the following interpretation does not appear less probable to me than your interpretation.

    SEBELIUS: It is a contraceptive drug, not an abortifacient. It does not interfere with a pregnancy. If the morning pill were taken, and a female were pregnant, the pregnancy is not interrupted. That’s the definition of abortifacient.
    MURPHY: Ma’am that is your interpretation, and I appreciate that’s your interpretation.
    SEBELIUS: That’s what the scientists and doctors …
    MURPHY: We’re not talking about scientists! Ma’am we’re not talking about scientists here, we’re talking about religious belief.

    Murphy may well have understood that Sebelius was saying that emergency contraception does not have a termination effect after implantation.
    He may have been either rejecting the definition of ‘abortion’, or the definition of ‘pregnancy’, or both.

    In my experience, it’s very common for people (theists or not) to confuse questions of the meaning of (non-moral) terms with moral questions, and/on semantic with ontological matters, but in any case, he may not have intended to reject scientists’ claims about the actual effects of emergency contraception on an embryo, but rather, to reject their definition of ‘abortion’, without realizing that he could have insisting on the moral claim that it was immoral to kill any embryo without calling the killing ‘abortion’ (or, perhaps less likely, realizing that, but also realizing that many people would be unlikely to realize that which word is used is irrelevant to someone who understands what the issue is about, and tactically deciding to insist on the negatively-loaded word ‘abortion’).

    In brief, Murphy may well not have meant to say or imply that he was rejecting the facts about the specific effects of the pill, but to insist that killing any embryo is abortion (which would be his confused way to express his belief that it’s immoral).

    I understand holding an incorrect belief because you trust bad sources. That’s why my parents believe the pill is an abortifacient. What I don’t understand is saying the facts are irrelevant and that all that matters is what you believe about an issue. I never would have said that, even at my most devout.

    While I’m familiar with many cases of theists who ignore the facts in a way that makes it hard for me to understand how they manage to do that, in my experience they do so while claiming that they have the correct facts, rather than saying that facts do not matter.

    • MadGastronomer

      Except that the facts are that it doesn’t prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, either. So he’s still rejecting the facts, actually.

      • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

        The ‘except’ suggests an objection.
        However, what you say after that is not an objection to anything I said.
        In any case, if the interpretation I suggested is correct, he does not know that he’s rejecting facts, nor suggesting that facts do not matter.

    • sailor1031

      Two (or possibly three) words. Occam’s razor.

      • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

        One word: context.

        Longer reply:
        Occam’s razor is about not multiplying entities unnecessarily.
        Here, there is no issue about multiplication of entities, but in any case, the questions is what interpretation is more probable, given the information available to us.
        That information includes what religious people generally do and what they generally do not do, and the kind of things that are said in the context of the abortion debate.
        I see no good reason, given the available information, to consider the hypothesis I provided less probable.

  • http://vitalmis.com Keith Harwood

    “Even when I was an evangelical, I believed in facts.”

    This, I suspect, is why you are no longer an evangelical.

  • AL

    My mother is a Lutheran, not a particularly fundamentalist denomination, and we recently had a discussion about this. They *believe* that as soon as the egg is fertilized it counts as a pregnancy, and thus anything that prevents implantation (like an IUD, oral contraceptives, or Plan B) causes an abortion. So I’m assuming that’s where beliefs come in to play over facts. Interestingly, the Lutheran church at least presents these beliefs as facts. The LCMS claims “This [health care coverage most recently debated] will include controversial birth-control products such as ‘Ella’ and the ‘morning after’ pill, even though the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that such drugs can cause the death of a baby developing in the womb.” http://www.lcms.org/page.aspx?pid=1330 Clearly this is not really what the FDA says, but they interpret the real warnings through their beliefs, which is at best intellectually dishonest.

    • Rumtopf

      Plan B and some oral contraceptives(also implants) prevent ovulation – plan b can even aid implantation if there is already a fertilised egg. I wonder what the Lutherans would think about those facts, seeing that nothing is dying. The eggs don’t even go anywhere afaik, they just wait ’til conditions improve.

    • cathyw

      Which flavor of Lutheran is she, though? ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is certainly a liberal denomination, but Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is definitely right-of-center, and Lutheran Church Wisconsin Synod is among the most conservative denominations out there, especially on women’s issues. It may be true that LCWS and LCMS aren’t “fundamentalist”, but that doesn’t mean they’re not right-wing.

    • Rosa

      Thanks for saying which synod – Missouri Synod is pretty conservative, and it’s about 2/3 the size of ELCA (depending how they count/report – some sources say just over half). ELCA doesn’t teach any of that, and supports abortion rights.

  • http://pasttensepresentprogressive.blogspot.com/ Latebloomer

    In my experience (I was a passionate member of a pro-life group in my late teens…you know, those people who wave signs of aborted babies in front of schools), this comes from fundie discomfort with any issue that is not black and white.

    In prenatal development, there is no clear place to draw the line, no obvious time when suddenly an embryo/fetus becomes a “person”. According to the pro-life argument, the only logical choices for the start of personhood are at fertilization or at the moment of birth (aka allowing full term partial-birth abortion for any reason…quite a shocking procedure even for a pro-choicer).

    And that’s the problem with birth control and morning after pills…they just might prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg, thus ending the life of a person. It always seemed ridiculous to me, trying to force sadness for the poor fertilized egg that didn’t get a chance….all this because of fear of moral gray areas.

    • MadGastronomer

      If you know the facts, late term abortion is not at all shocking. And the facts are: There is no such medical procedure as “partial birth abortion”. Late term abortions are not — and were not before the law was changed — performed except when the fetus is dead and needs to be removed as early as possible; the fetus has defects incompatible with life, because late term abortion is safer for the woman than carrying the pregnancy to term, and usually less emotionally traumatic than giving birth and watching the baby die; or the life of the pregnant person is at risk, and the pregnancy must be terminated. It’s not an elective procedure, because it is difficult and dangerous (although less so than waiting for term, in pretty much any case where late term abortion is performed, for a variety of reasons).

      When you use terms like “full term partial-birth abortion” you are buying into anti-choice lies, and repeating those lies. Please don’t. Please learn the facts.

      The only thing shocking about late term abortions is the tragedy and pain they cause when they are required, because they end a pregnancy that someone had decided to carry to term.

      • http://pasttensepresentprogressive.blogspot.com Latebloomer

        I completely agree with you…late term abortion is sometimes necessarily and very tragic for the family that was anticipating the arrival of their baby. I just had my first baby last year, and I can’t imagine how devestated I would have been if I were in that situation.

        It was my intention to show that some pro-life fundies set up a false dichotomy…either life begins at fertilization, or wheeeeee!! abortions for fun up until the full term baby is crowning! I’m sorry if my terminology was offensive, and I appreciate the information that you shared.

    • MadGastronomer

      No, wait, there is another shocking thing about late term abortions: How the entirely unnecessary law banning them in the US except for medically necessary ones has driven so many providers away from performing them — and there were never many who did — that there are only one or two doctors left in the country who can and will do so. Women who can’t get to those doctors in time may die or have having long-lasting damage to their health. That’s shocking. Or it should be.

      • Caravelle

        Not to mention, there are now 33% to 50% fewer doctors performing the procedure than there were a few years ago… because Dr. Tiller died. Of murder. For being one of the only doctors that performed those procedures. Those few who are still doing it are putting their lives on the line.

    • Rosa

      Here’s my problem with that reasoning: the MAIN action of birth control pills is to prevent ovulation, so there’s no egg floating out there to be fertilized. That’s it’s purpose, so even with the “life starts at fertilization” idea, the purpose of oral birth control is not abortifacient, it is contraceptive.

      There are many drugs we take that can have the side effect of preventing implantation or causing miscarriage. And yet, I have never heard anyone say “No! Don’t do chemo! There is a chance you could get pregnant while doing a course of chemo, and lose a pregnancy, and that’s wrong!” No one says “Men shouldn’t use hair growth creams, they can cause miscarriages if a woman is exposed to them, so they are abortifacient drugs!” Or even “Farmers shouldn’t use any pesticides that can cause miscarriage because they are practicing abortion on the general populace!” or “Don’t drive! Sometimes car drivers kill pregnant mothers and their unborn children!” But all of those things are arguably MORE likely to harm a fetus than taking oral contraceptives, since the contraceptives make there be no fertilized egg or fetus in there to harm in the first place.

      It’s only contraceptives that get this treatment, which makes the whole concern over the possibility that a fertilized egg might fail to implant because of a pill that makes fertilization less likely in the first place seem like it’s actually a smokescreen for some other issue. Like hatred of contraception generally, which is much less popular than hatred of abortion.

  • Mr.Kosta


    Someone who puts his/her fingers in his/her ears and goes “lalalalalalala I can’t hear you!” when presented hard, solid FACTS shouln’t be fit for public office,

  • Geert A

    Could it be so simple as a proud, wilful man who doesn’t want to loose a debate — or, at least, doesn’t want to admit loosing a debate?

    Much in the same way some stubbornly deny obvious truths in court as it is the best defense when you know you’ve lost?

  • http://skjaere.livejournal.com/ Skjaere

    I feel like there is in elitism to certain kinds of ignorance. If it’s possible to be a snob about not knowing something, that’s what these people do. For them, “Truth” trumps truth, and there’s no way to change their minds about it. It’s maddening.

  • jamessweet

    Even when I was an evangelical, I believed in facts…Your thoughts? Is there something going on here that I’m missing?

    Nope, don’t think so. That was a big thing that originally impelled me away from Mormonism: Not so much a realization that it wasn’t true (not initially, at least), but that the people I was surrounded by didn’t much care about seeking the truth and asking “Why?” I realized that I simply didn’t fit in with that mindset looooong before I started to have principled objections to some of the teachings or to seriously doubt the veracity of the core mythology.

    My wife (also now atheist) was raised Jewish, so I’ve been exposed to a lot of the Jewish faith via her and her family. It’s difficult to speculate, but it’s quite possible that if I had been born into a family that practiced Reform Judaism, I might still be a theist. Judaism has a long tradition of rabbinical debate, and the general vibe is much more open to seeking and questioning than most types of conservative Christianity. Add to that the fact that I don’t really have any moral objections to Reform Judaism (only epistemological and philosophical objections), plus they have cool holidays*… and I might just never have been motivated to look hard enough to realize it’s all a fabrication.

    *I love celebrating Passover with my wife’s family. I also love to cook, and I have learned to prepare a number of Jewish dishes and we often host Passover — sorta funny, a pair of atheists hosting Passover for the extended family, heh.

    My wife asked me what Mormon traditions we can do, to honor that side of our family. Uhhhh… couldn’t come up with anything even remotely fun. :(

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    I agree that what Murphy is trying to do here is dispute that life begins with pregnancy. He just doesn’t know the terminology well enough to do so coherently.

  • chriskg

    As I read the post title, I couldn’t help but think “I don’t understand willful ignorance” would be funnier if written as, “I don’t want to understand willful ignorance!” Since, as we have seen all too often, that’s usually the case.

  • http://sheilacrosby.com Sheila Crosby

    I think there might be a correlation with this sort of “thinking” and fear of hell. If there are grey areas, then you have to guess. And you might guess wrong. And if you guess wrong then the loving god will burn you alive.

    If there are grey areas then you might be burnt alive. Therefore there are no grey areas.

    Plus, a lot of the religious right have been brought up /trained by the Pearl’s system, and that sounds a lot like aversion therapy for thinking and logic. (Libby Anne would know more about that than me, of course)

  • Judy L.

    It’s a line of thinking that says, “Not only am I entitled to my opinions, I am entitled to my own facts, and I don’t have to believe any of the reasons or evidence or rational argument because Jesus.” (Stephen Colbert demonstrates this kind of argument by sticking his fingers in his ears and saying “La-la-la, I can’t hear you”.)

    You can’t engage in a rational conversation with an irrational person. I think the rule should be that if we’re talking about objective reality, you’re not allowed to deny it, and if there’s a disagreement about definitions and what words mean, that’s a discussion worth having.

    And as far as the religious argument about not including contraception in health coverage for employees because the employers religious beliefs include enforced pregnancy and childbirth, I don’t understand why no one has stood up and pointed out that the right to practice your religion doesn’t include the right to practice it ON OTHER PEOPLE. A religious employer is not allowed to force their religious practices onto their employees.

  • http://adaldrida.wordpress.com Liz

    My hometown was pretty secular but religiously diverse. A dichotomy was drawn between “facts”, which are true or false, and “opinions”. “Opinions” can’t be wrong and you have to respect someone else’s opinion. An “opinion” wasn’t just something truly subjective like “pizza tastes good”. It could also be “abortion is wrong” or “higher minimum wages increase unemployment”. If someone’s opinion conflicted with yours, the polite way to respond was “but that’s just someone’s opinion”.

    It’s a pretty weird and nonsensical way of looking at things, but I wonder if Rep. Murphy was doing the same thing. “It’s not an abortifacient? Well, that’s just someone’s opinion. I have a different opinion.”