Agnotology: The politics of ignorance

May 30, 2010 | By | 2 Replies More

In the January, 2009 issue of Discover Magazine, Robert Proctor discusses “agnotology,” defined as the “politics of ignorance.”

It’s the study of the politics of ignorance. I’m looking at how ignorance is actively created through things like military secrecy in science or through deliberate policies like the tobacco industry’s effort to manufacture doubt through their “doubt is our product” strategy [spelled out in a 1969 tobacco company memo]. So it’s not that science inherently always grows. It can actually be destroyed in certain ways, or ignorance can actually be created. . . . It’s pretty common. I mean, in terms of sowing doubt, certainly global warming is a famous one. You know, the global warming denialists who for years have managed to say, “Well, the case is not proven. We need more research.” And what’s interesting is that a lot of the people working on that were also the people working for Big Tobacco. The techniques of manufacturing doubt were created largely within the tobacco industry, and then they were franchised out to other industries.

In this Wikipedia article, the root causes of agnotology are deemed to be “media neglect, corporate or governmental secrecy and suppression, document destruction, and myriad forms of inherent or avoidable culturopolitical selectivity, inattention, and forgetfulness.”   To this list, I would add, fatigue, the bright-shiny distractions and gadgets offered by society, the “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” limited attentional capacities and the banality of evil.

I do like the trend that so many writers and scientists are beginning to focus in on these topics and the related topics of undue certitude and “tortucanism.”



Category: Education, ignorance

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 (2)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    A quote that essentially restates the Dunning-Kruger effect:

    "The greatest of faults, I should say, is to be conscious of none."

    Thomas Carlyle (1795 – 1881)

    For an long list of cognitive biases, including DK (being oblivious to one's cognitive deficits), see this Wikipedia article:

    Additional quotes relevant to Dunning-Kruger here:

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Arianna Huffington reminds us of a highly important new word:

    "[A]s it turns out, there's an entire field of study based on the dynamic being played out: Agnotology. Coined by Robert Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford University, the word means the study of ignorance that is deliberately manufactured or politically or culturally generated. "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."

    Sound familiar? It's the process underlying practically every crisis that has befallen this country in the last decade or so. But you don't need to be a professional agnotologist to see that this pattern is endangering the future of the country."

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