There’s A Word for That: Agnotology

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If you have been following any of the crises that United States faces — the claim that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen; the OxyContin epidemic; the denial of climate change — you have a first row seat in the classroom of agnotology. Agnotology is defined as the study of intentional, culturally-induced ignorance or doubt. The word is formed by the Greek word agnosis (meaning “not knowning” or “unknown”) and the word-forming element –ology (meaning “branch of knowledge or science”). Ignorance or doubt is often achieved by the publication of inaccurate of misleading scientific or medical information by corporations, political parties, government agencies, and advocacy organizations. In a sense, culturally-induced ignorance is a more global or systemic version of gaslighting, the psychological  technique (eg, lying, distracting, denying wrongdoing, shifting blame, discrediting, rewriting history, or minimizing feelings or thoughts), whereby an individual in an abusive relationship uses various tactics to manipulate his or her partner to believe a deliberately false narrative of reality causing them to question their sanity.

The term agnotology first appears in book The Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer (1995) by Robert Proctor, a professor of the History of Science at Stanford University. He writes: “Historians and philosophers of science have tended to treat ignorance as an ever-expanding vacuum into which knowledge is sucked — or even, as Johannes Kepler once put it, as the mother who must die for science to be born. Ignorance, though, is more complex than this. It has a distinct and changing political geography that is often an excellent indicator of the politics of knowledge. We need a political agnotology to complement our political epistemologies.” In a later book, Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (2012), Proctor explains that a academic colleague actually coined the term agnotology: “My hope for devising a new term was to suggest… the historicity and artifactuality of non-knowing and the non-known — and the potential fruitfulness of studying such things. In 1992 I posed this challenge to linguist Iain Boal, and it was he who came up with the term in the spring of that year.”

In The Cancer Wars, Proctor presents two clear examples of how corporations propagate doubt or ignorance: (1) the tobacco industry’s public relations campaign to convince consumers, despite overwhelming medical evidence, that tobacco was not addictive (2) the fossil fuel’s industry public relations campaign to convince Americans and politicians, despite scientific consensus, that climate change is a hoax. Quite often, ignorance is propagated with the illusion that there is a balanced debate. However, since the information presented has been carefully and deliberately manipulated, the competing views do not result in rational conclusions.

A textbook case of agnotology was recently highlighted in the gripping Hulu series Dopesick, based on book of the same title by Beth Macy. In the series, we witness how Purdue Pharma, which made an opioid called OxyContin, used manipulated clinical trials that it sponsored directly to show that it was not addictive, even though the executives of Purdue knew that it was highly addictive. This misleading medical research encouraged doctors to write more than 68.7 million prescriptions a year, creating an opioid epidemic that killed hundreds of thousands of people, destroyed families and communities, and cost the country trillions of dollars (that number includes costs of treatment, social services, and law enforcement.) Ultimately, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to conspiracies to defraud the US and violate the anti-kickback statute. The Sackler family, owners of Purde Pharma, were ordered to pay $6 billion to resolve widespread litigation that they fueled the opioid epidemic, ushering in the bankruptcy and end of Purdue Pharma. Further, Johnson & Johnson and three of the largest US drug distributors were ordered to pay $26 billion for their alleged role in the opioid crisis.

In the fascinating essay for BBC Future, titled “The man who studies the spread of ignorance” (January 16, 2016) by Georgina Kenyon, Proctor discusses the modern era of ignorance: “We live in a world of radical ignorance, and the marvel is that any kind of truth cuts through the noise. Although for most things this is trivial – like, for example, the boiling point of mercury – but for bigger questions of political and philosophical import, the knowledge people have often comes from faith or tradition, or propaganda, more than anywhere else.” Kenyon also interviews another academic who is studying agnotology: David Dunning, then a professor of psychology at Cornell College. Dunning notes the internet is only exacerbating the modern era of ignorance, “While some smart people will profit from all the information now just a click away, many will be misled into a false sense of expertise. My worry is not that we are losing the ability to make up our own minds, but that it’s becoming too easy to do so. We should consult with others much more than we imagine. Other people may be imperfect as well, but often their opinions go a long way toward correcting our own imperfections, as our own imperfect expertise helps to correct their errors.” (Incidentally, Dunning defined the Dunning-Kruger effect in 1999. It is a cognitive bias where people with low ability or expertise tend to overestimate their knowledge or ability. Expressed another way, a person who in incompetent at something is unable to recognize their own incompetence. Donald Trump is often cited as the poster boy of the Dunning-Kruger effect.)

The concept of agnotology was foreshadowed four decades earlier by Isaac Asimov in his brilliant essay titled “A Cult of Ignorance” (Newsweek magazine, January 21, 1980). Asimov writes: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” The essay is a must-read if you are interested in the topic of agnotology (see the link below).

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Read related posts: Isaac Asimov: There is a Cult of Ignorance in the United States
Will We Have Free and Fair Elections Again?
What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
Plato’s Warning: If You Don’t Vote, You Will Be Governed by Idiots
Is the United States a Democracy or a Republic?

For further reading:
Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance by Robert Proctor


2 thoughts on “There’s A Word for That: Agnotology

  1. Great post! It’s very well written & informative. The US has certainly fallen victim to all of this, & it’s been concerning to see the deep divisions. It’s also been a long time coming. I really want to read “A Cult of Ignorance” now.

    • Hi Rachel: Thanks so much for your kind note. The internet is definitely a double-edge sword: on the one hand it can connect people so efficiently; however, paradoxically, it can also serve to divide people. Perhaps its most insidious aspect is its role in the dumbing down America that has led to the deep, extreme divisions and rise of intolerance and hatred. Let me know what you think of Asimov’s essay. Cheers. Alex

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