The Long History of Ignorance on BBC Radio 4: Rory Stewart teaches us to relax about not knowing anything

In his BBC Radio 4 programme The Long History of Ignorance, the former Conservative MP teaches us to relax about knowing nothing and explains why the pursuit of knowledge can backfire.

As a candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party, Stewart was bombarded by the wilder factions of his party. In the televised debate between the candidates, you could see the surprise on his face at the end, when he found himself outmaneuvered and outgunned.

It was a shame, because Rory Stewart did not have the CV of a normal politician. He had spent two years walking around Afghanistan, among other countries, where he smoked opium. He saw bodies blown to pieces in Iraq and Afghanistan – images he says he wishes he had never seen. He became a diplomat. Then he became a Conservative MP and then a minister.

After the disastrous leadership contest, he retired. It was his alliance with Campbell that brought him back into the public eye. The rest is politics covers not only British politics but also international affairs: at the time of writing, he is covering the US, French and Iranian elections.

After Biden’s disastrous performance in the debate, The rest is politics I made an emergency podcast. Here we have two political soldiers who look very coolly at the manoeuvrings of political systems around the world. Campbell still seems enthusiastic about politics; Stewart seems completely disillusioned. No wonder. The rest is politics It is very popular in this country.

Enough about Rory Stewart’s personal story, although she did give birth to one of her two children on the bathroom floor. She also does ten-day Vipassana Buddhist retreats during which, she says, she sits in a darkened room during daylight hours and meditates.

He has now made a series for BBC Radio 4, also available on BBC Sounds, called The long history of ignorance: from Confucius to QAnonI think his central idea is that in a society where we are taught that knowledge is power, we are all too busy trying to accumulate facts and explanations, and that this leads to serious mistakes and ultimately to conspiracy theories. As he says, “the desire for knowledge can make us believe lies.”

The quality of the speakers gathered here is very high. They include Mary Beard, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Derry-born singer-songwriter Neil Hannon and the former head of MI5 Jonathan Evans. And there are also a large number of academics, including Michael Ignatieff (remember him?).

Everyone says there’s a lot we don’t know. “We don’t know how the brain works, and that’s a very important question,” says Stuart Firestein, who is a neurobiologist. Although the show doesn’t say so, he’s also the author of Ignorance: How it drives science.

One can’t help but feel that the series doesn’t give enough emphasis to some of its prominent contributors. This is especially the case with Derek Black, who is the son of Don Black and grew up in a loving home that was also the centre of a white supremacist website, which promoted the conspiracy theory that evil Jewish groups rule the world, and the intellectual inferiority of black people and other racist beliefs. Derek Black is very interesting in talking about how he came to abandon racial hatred, not because they argued with him, but because he made Jewish friends and was accepted by them. This is fascinating, and I would have done well to hear a lot more about it.

The six episodes cover different areas of human endeavour, including psychology, creativity and politics. The episode on politics is particularly interesting given Stewart’s earlier career, which included six ministerial portfolios in four years. At one point, he says, he had to address the British parliament on the subject of Africa, a continent of 42 countries about which he knew virtually nothing.

For 30 years, he says, and particularly after observing the complete failure of the West’s plans for Afghanistan, he thought the problem in politics was one of ignorance. Now he believes that you don’t solve political problems with facts. The political system itself is hampered by multiple factors, not the least of which is that politicians and senior officials have their own ambitions for aggrandizement and the rapid turnover of politicians and civil servants.

The long history of ignorance It’s not perfect, but it’s a good listen during this rainy Irish summer. It makes you relax and not know anything, or feel like an idiot. Its central argument is that accepting that we know nothing is a smart move. Our real social problems arise when we think we have the answers, the explanations, and the solutions. The public demands certainty from our authority figures, and by pushing for it, we get errors and confusion.

Inevitably, the series’ plots lead to religion and the role of the Unknowable (i.e. God) in religious devotion and fulfilment. Thomas Aquinas had not received such positive publicity in a long time. Neither had T. S. Eliot.