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Are we being spied on? ‘I would recommend suspicion of all countries, including our own’

Unthinkable: Citizens should be encouraged ‘to be critical of the news’, says historian Peter Burke, author of Ignorance: A Global History

Fears of Chinese spying operations have spread in recent weeks from “weather” balloons over the United States to Chinese-made security cameras in Dáil Éireann. Evidence is sketchy and Chinese denials of covert surveillance are hardly reassuring.

For governments and especially the public, it is hard to know how seriously to take the issue. While spying between countries is common, so too are false accusations and disinformation surrounding international espionage.

To try to make sense of the current diplomatic controversy, Unthinkable this week speaks to historian Peter Burke, whose latest book, Ignorance: A Global History (Yale University Press), explores the intersection between information and power.

Spying has been around for as long as people have had secrets. Early European governments employed informers and spies “although spying was not so much a profession in that period as something that a merchant or diplomat might be asked to do in his spare time”, Burke says. “From the early 19th century onwards, we see both the professionalisation and the specialisation of spying together with the rise of the secret police and secret services.” Over time, he says, these have become “increasingly sophisticated”.


There is always a possibility of outside actors spying on domestic affairs but Burke is quick to highlight that governments – including western-democratic ones – secretly pry on their own citizens. This might be called a “known unknown” – a phrase made famous by former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld to define an awareness of something of which we have no knowledge. It is one of more than 30 types of ignorance identified by Burke in his book (see panel below).

The Cambridge-based academic and author, whose father’s family hailed from Kinvara, Co Galway, acknowledges that ignorance is an unusual subject for an historian. “A friend of mine imagined that book on the subject would contain nothing but blank pages,” he writes. Burke gets a handle on the theme by examining gaps in our knowledge across time and in different settings, as he explains further:

Given the historical record globally of governments spying, are citizens right to be suspicious of countries that deny doing it?

“Frankly, I would recommend suspicion of all countries in this respect, including our own. The governments of many countries suggest or imply that ‘we’ do not spy, but ‘they’ do, while [suggesting] our efforts are limited to defend against spying – this is, of course, rubbish.”

Should spying be seen as an act of hostility, or even a declaration of war?

“Spying should be seen as normal. After all, it has a long history, part of which I have studied in the case of early modern Europe, where it is easy to find examples from Venice, France, Britain, etc from the 17th century if not before.

“There is a case for the suggestion that spying is a good thing, allowing every government or even citizen to know the ‘secrets of state’. That would make international relations more realistic. Wars have sometimes been begun on false assumptions that the other country is weaker than it actually is and will not offer serious resistance to invasion – [for example] Hitler and the USSR, Putin in Ukraine.”

The old saying goes “knowledge is power” but is ignorance more powerful? Put another way, is it easier for governments to rule through lies and disinformation rather than science and education?

“Yes, I wrote this book in order to reveal the power of ignorance and its consequences, usually unfortunate and sometimes disastrous. As for fake news, lies, propaganda and disinformation, they offer an easy way for governments to try to rule, at least in the short term, but they often have what are sometimes described as ‘perverse consequences’, in other words the opposite of what was intended.

“Among these consequences are the loss of trust in the government by the citizens. As a result, they do not believe in any information coming from the government, even if it happens to be useful or even true – boy-who-cried-wolf syndrome. Remember the joke current in the USSR about the official newspapers Pravda and Izvestia: ‘There is no news in Pravda and no truth in Izvestia’. Consequently, oral transmission from people one knew was treated as relatively reliable – and we all know how unreliable is rumour, even with the best intentions.

“Hence there is a good case for ‘transparency’, a slogan made famous by Gorbachev – which did not prevent him for allowing the cover-up of the Chernobyl disaster. Since there is not a lot of transparency visible – and if it were, one might still be suspicious – the important thing is to encourage citizens to be critical of the news that they see and hear, checking facts, allowing for bias and so on.

“You mentioned education and I believe that training in this kind of criticism should begin in school, even elementary school, suggesting to pupils that when they receive any message they should ask who is sending it and why – in whose interest – it is sent.”

Is there one type of ignorance today you’re particularly worried about?

“Yes, I am most worried by what sociologists call ‘voluntary’ ignorance, a bit of a euphemism really, I prefer to speak about ‘not wanting to know’ or more actively, ‘wanting not to know’, brushing away inconvenient information. The illustrator of the cover of my book summed this up very well with the drawing of an ostrich.”

New knowledge makes new kinds of ignorance possible, you write. What is the most we can hope for then? Simply to better understand our ignorance without conquering it?

“I am not as pessimistic as all that. I believe that new knowledge does drive out some ignorance. What is unrealistic is to expect that ignorance will ever disappear. There is, and has been for a long time, too much for any individual to know, while no education system can deliver all that we need to know – not to mention sleeping students, missed classes, etc.

“In the past much ignorance was the result of the inaccessibility of most knowledge to most people. So I am a limited optimist, noting the increasing accessibility – for many people but not all, delivered at a price; it would be better not to have to pay. And as you suggest, at least it is easier today than in the past to know what one does not know.”

Types of ignorance: how many can you relate to?

  • Active ignorance: not wanting to know
  • Asymmetrical ignorance: occurs when group x knows less about group y than vice versa
  • Creative ignorance: ignorance of the past that helps innovation
  • Culpable ignorance: blameworthy lack of reason
  • Deep ignorance: concerns a question without plausible answers
  • Genuine ignorance: absence of knowledge; otherwise known as plain and simple ignorance
  • Insightful ignorance: awareness of a gap in knowledge
  • Meta-ignorance: not knowing that one does not know
  • Moral ignorance: incorrect judgments about rights and wrongs
  • Rational ignorance: refraining from learning when the cost outweighs the benefit

* From Ignorance: A Global History (Yale University Press) by Peter Burke