The Seattle School Board recently deemed inequality – too few minorities – in their gifted children program to be more important than nurturing the abilities of these intellectually talented kids. They propose to consign these high achievers to classes that will fail to challenge or engross them, and potentially show them the futility of achievement.
“What are they thinking?” we wonder. Presumably, this school board is not comprised of stupid, corrupt, or ill-intentioned people. But what could motivate this kind of policy change?
Of course, people have a right to be ignorant and to make bad decisions. Just as we can choose to damage our health by overeating, smoking cigarettes, and neglecting to take prescribed medications, we can also choose to remain uninformed on policy issues. Sometimes, it might even make sense to do so.
According to economists, “rational ignorance” comes into play when the “cost” (usually meaning the effort) of gaining enough understanding of an issue to be able to make an informed decision relating to it outweighs the benefit that one could reasonably expect from doing so. For example, many who are preoccupied with family, school, work, and mortgages may not consider it worthwhile to sift through a mass of arcane data to understand, say, the risks and benefits of nuclear power, plasticizers in children’s toys, or genetically engineered crops.
A quarter century ago, the cosmologist Carl Sagan expressed concern about the trend toward a society in which, “clutching our crystals and religiously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in steep decline … we slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness.”
More recently, British polymath Dick Taverne warned that, “in the practice of medicine, popular approaches to farming and food, policies to reduce hunger and disease, and many other practical issues, there is an undercurrent of irrationality that threatens science-dependent progress, and even the civilized basis of our democracy.”
In everyday life, public policy, and even in the decisions made by elite universities, we are seeing such dire predictions validated.