The age of agnotology: culturally constructed ignorance

February 6, 2009 | By | 3 Replies More

Robert Proctor is a historian of science at Stanford who has pointed out a bizarre modern phenomenon:  the coexistence of easily available factual information and ignorance.  That is the subject of Clive Thompson’s article in Wired:

He has developed a word inspired by this trend: agnotology. Derived from the Greek root agnosis, it is “the study of culturally constructed ignorance.”

As Proctor argues, when society doesn’t know something, it’s often because special interests work hard to create confusion. Anti-Obama groups likely spent millions insisting he’s a Muslim; church groups have shelled out even more pushing creationism. The oil and auto industries carefully seed doubt about the causes of global warming. And when the dust settles, society knows less than it did before.

“People always assume that if someone doesn’t know something, it’s because they haven’t paid attention or haven’t yet figured it out,” Proctor says. “But ignorance also comes from people literally suppressing truth—or drowning it out—or trying to make it so confusing that people stop caring about what’s true and what’s not.”

After years of celebrating the information revolution, we need to focus on the countervailing force: The disinformation revolution.

Thompson suggests that we need to develop more tools like Wikipedia to allow society as a whole to “build real knowledge through consensus,” thereby allowing us to expose systematic lies for what they are.

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Category: Communication, Education, ignorance, snake oil

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Kenny Celican says:

    Another possible cause of ignorance, one that isn't conflicting, and therefore might be acting in conjunction with disinformation:

    Information now costs less to acquire than it did in the past. This could be resulting in the perceived value of information dropping. If so, that would mean the only people who acquire information are those who need it for an impending personal item and those who have the basics of a hoarder mentality, where even low-value items are acquired and stored.

    Note: I'm not saying that the utility of information has dropped, just that the cost has dropped, and this may be having an effect on the perceived value, as opposed to the real utility value.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    The cost of collecting information may be down, but the cost of gleaning sense from it is greatly increased.

    When one had to go to the library to research a school report, only vetted and corroborated information was easily available. Views contrary to present understanding were clearly marked as such.

    Today, anyone can present apparently well researched conclusions supported with deconstructed mounds of verbiage for all to find. Teachers are ill equipped to teach the techniques of tracing first sources and other methods for finding good answers among the haystack of information and Counterknowledge. Agnotlogy (I mentioned it before) might be a useful addition to any grade school curriculum, if only to spread awareness of the problem.

  3. Kenny Celican says:

    Of a sudden I'm wondering how culturally constructed ignorancy interacts with the concept of vital lies illustrated at the end of Pratchett's Hogfather. If it does map, I'm wondering if the mechanism isn't at fault, but what it has been misappropriated to do.

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