contrived ignorance

Editorial: Contrived Ignorance in Flood Mitigation

Last week, one of the biggest issues in Harris County flood mitigation came into sharp focus for me: contrived ignorance regarding flood-bond spending. Three things brought it into focus:

  • The completion of the $480 million Project Brays, the largest in Harris County Flood Control District’s (HCFCD) history. The Brays watershed has 58% low-to-moderate income (LMI) residents.
  • Commissioner Rodney Ellis’ repeated assertions that FEMA discriminates against projects in LMI neighborhoods, and that “all the funding” is going to affluent neighborhoods.
  • HCFCD’s release of the May update on flood-bond spending. It showed that less than one one-thousandth of one percent of active flood-bond construction dollars are going to the entire northeastern part of the county (Kingwood, Huffman, Humble, Atascocita, and Crosby).

Ellis keeps rubbing me the wrong way. Why inflame racial distrust, Rodney, with statements so far from the truth?

Ignorantia Affectata

I’ve always had trouble understanding politicians who deny reality. But it turns out Thomas Aquinas, the great Catholic theologian and philosopher from the Middle Ages, described the phenomenon 800 years ago. He called it ignorantia affectata, a Latin phrase meaning “affected or cultivated ignorance.”

I found a great description of it on this blog. “The deniers first deceive themselves that they are sincere in their adherence to falsehoods. Thus they cannot be faulted for acting on genuinely held views. But in truth, they have cultivated an ignorance of the facts, an ignorance so useful that one protects it at all costs … in order to continue using it in one’s own self interest.”

David Luban, a professor at Georgetown Law, wrote a brilliant essay on the ethics of “Contrived Ignorance” (a related concept) and the law. It begins with a poignant description of how criminal defense attorneys discourage defendants from telling them everything they know. Admitting guilt could limit their defense of the client, because the law forbids lawyers from lying or knowingly putting on perjured testimony. Luban also touches on another related concept, plausible deniability, so common in politics and business.

Plausible Deniability No Longer Plausible

After Ellis spoke at the ribbon cutting ceremony – for the largest project in flood control history – he can no longer plausibly deny that poor neighborhoods can’t get flood-mitigation funding. They do!

But he tried. He trotted out his tired distortion about higher value homes in affluent neighborhoods skewing benefit/cost ratios. The problem: it ignores density. Higher density more than compensates for higher value homes. And in fact, from the ribbon cutting ceremony one could see apartments several stories high, stretching blocks in all directions.

While Ellis leads people to believe that projects in LMI areas struggle to achieve Benefit/Cost Ratios above 1.0, Project Brays had a 7.0 ratio. That’s extremely high. See this 2019 Federal Briefing. It will return $7 for every $1 invested!

Rodney Ellis at ribbon cutting ceremony for the $480 million Project Brays. The project helps reduce flood risk in neighborhoods where Ellis grew up and also where he now lives.
Brays Bayou, looking west toward medical center from Almeda Drive.

Contrived Ignorance Vs. Informed Debate

The problem with contrived ignorance is that it prevents informed debate. Why would you look for evidence that undermined your world view? That prevented you from reducing flood risk in your neighborhood even further?

Why use the commonly accepted dictionary definition of “equitable” when you can redefine the word to serve your self interest?

I find it incredible that in 18 months, a majority of the Community Flood Resilience Task Force:

  • Has failed to define “worst first.”
  • Refuses to discuss what percentage of flood-mitigation funding affluent neighborhoods should get.
  • Won’t admit that flood-mitigation projects have already been built in their neighborhoods.
  • Is arguing about how to float another flood bond for $60 billion when we’re only 20% complete with the first $5 billion.
  • Won’t discuss whether 2-year flooding in affluent neighborhoods should be fixed before 500-year flooding in LMI neighborhoods.
  • Attributes past flooding to racially motivated neglect without examining the role of development practices
  • Recommended that HUD pay people only from poor neighborhoods to protest the unfair distribution of flood-mitigation funds.

When you try to discuss actual facts in Task Force meetings, shocked silence often greets you. Members keep talking about how they want facts. But a full year after requesting flood-risk data, no one seems concerned about the fact that they haven’t gotten it yet. Could this be what Thomas Aquinas meant?

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/30/22

1735 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.