There’s a Word for the Study of the Intentional Spread of Ignorance: Agnotology

by Janna Rose and Marcos Barros edited by O Society October 27, 2018

As we watch Donald Trump take on the most powerful position in the world, many of us are left asking how a man who has consistently lied to his public could get so far.

Some pundits are calling this the dawn of a new era. They say we now live in a post-fact or post-truth world. This is a time where the emphasis is not on coherence or rationality but on sensationalism, no matter the cost. And of course, this phenomenon has a concrete influence in the way we envision and govern our world.

But scientists have another word for “post-truth”. You might have heard of epistemology, or the study of knowledge. This field helps define what we know and why we know it. On the flip side of this is agnotology, or the study of ignorance. Agnotology is not often discussed, because studying the absence of something — in this case knowledge — is incredibly difficult.

Doubt is our product

Agnotology is more than the study of what we don’t know; it’s also the study of why we are not supposed to know it. One of its more important aspects is revealing how people, usually powerful ones, use ignorance as a strategic tool to hide or divert attention from societal problems in which they have a vested interest.

A perfect example is the tobacco industry’s dissemination of reports that continuously questioned the link between smoking and cancer. As one tobacco employee famously stated, “Doubt is our product.”

In a similar way, conservative think tanks such as The Heartland Institute work to discredit the science behind human-caused climate change.

Despite the fact that 97% of scientists support the anthropogenic causes of climate change, hired “experts” have been able to populate talk shows, news programmes, and the op-ed pages to suggest a lack of credible data or established consensus, even with evidence to the contrary.

These institutes generate pseudo-academic reports to counter scientific results. In this way, they are responsible for promoting ignorance.

global-warming

Agnotology 2.0

Agnotology is always present, but now it is transforming. Now, the goal is no longer to create ignorance, because there is little to no preoccupation in public media with determining the validity of knowledge.

The Reality-Based Community

Under agnotology 2.0, truth becomes a moot point. It is the sensation that counts. Public media leaders create an impact with whichever arguments they can muster based in whatever fictional data they can create.

We Are All Confident Idiots

In the past it took powerful people, billionaires or major corporations, to generate significant levels of doubt; now, with social media, anyone can provide counter-factual information to create doubt.

This was nowhere more evident than in the case of “pizzagate”: in early December a man drove from North Carolina to a pizzeria in Washington DC, to verify whether children were being trafficked by Hillary Clinton and other leaders as part of an underground sex ring. He shot a rifle in the air, scaring the pizzeria’s workers and customers. The man was arrested, but the restaurant’s owner has been the subject of harassment, all because of tweets peddling false information.

Group cohesion based on fear is not conducive to open-minded discourse and problem-solving. More and more, ignorance-induced fear is a sure bet for stoking xenophobia and populism.

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The end of science?

The separation of facts from opinions in recent discourse dominated the American presidential election. Facts no longer mattered, and Donald Trump’s many lies and contradictions did not affect his popularity. Any publicity was good publicity.

As the question of “why” hangs over Trump’s inauguration, we are left to wonder about the effects of having too much information at our fingertips. Perhaps we are inundated with so much information that we cannot decipher it all. Or perhaps it takes too much time and effort to verify information as factual.

Perhaps change in how news is brought to the public leads to irresponsible reporting. Or our education system might lack training in critical thinking. Probably, it is a mix of all of these things and more.

Donald Trump entering the White House is the pinnacle of agnotology 2.0. Washington Post journalist Fareed Zakaria argues in politics, what matters is no longer the economy but identity; we would like to suggest that the problem runs deeper than that.

The issue is not whether we should search for identity, for fame, or for sensational opinions and entertainment. The overarching issue is the fallen status of our collective search for truth, in its many forms. It is no longer a positive attribute to seek out truth, determine biases, evaluate facts, or share knowledge.

Under agnotology 2.0, scientific thinking itself is under attack. In a post-fact and post-truth era, we could very well become post-science.

Exxon Knew about Climate Change 40 years ago

How the Fossil Fuel Industry Paid Religious Leaders to Go in Climate Change Denial

The Difficulty of Writing for Americans

The Case of the Staggering Moron: Meanwhile in Australia

The Man Who Studies the Spread of Ignorance

Donald Trump is a master manipulator of bias. The trouble is, we go along with it

Why conservatives keep gaslighting the nation about climate change: Agnotology

The Lies We Tell Ourselves

21 thoughts on “There’s a Word for the Study of the Intentional Spread of Ignorance: Agnotology

  1. You have diagnosed the “post-truth” disregard for fact, but in a post-truth world facts don’t really matter. How we feel matters more.

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  2. Those with enough power do conceal or misrepresent facts for their own questionable purposes. But people also have an interest in deceiving themselves so that they can reconcile their thinking with their feelings. The one who tells the most emotionally satisfying story then becomes the one who speaks “truly.”

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  3. From the statement, “This is a time where the emphasis is not on coherence or rationality but on sensationalism, no matter the cost,” it would seem plausible to diagnose the modern condition as “post-reason” rather than “post-truth.” If this is the case, then an analysis of how truth is being corrupted or ignored, though useful in its own right, is not to the point. Truth doesn’t matter if rationality is no longer respected. The question then is not, “How is truth being corrupted?” — as if this were a deliberate act by lying geniuses, perpetrated on a duped public — but “Why is rationality not respected?” — that is, why has the modern mind turned away from the model of “facts and logic” that has dominated Western thinking for the last four centuries?

    The reason suggested in the quote is “sensationalism,” which probably has something to do with the idea of “the spectacle.” But there could be other reasons, or factors. Personally I think that the hollowness of scientific thinking for most human endeavours has left us looking for another way forward. This is not to denigrate scientific thinking, which has been marvellously successful at manipulating matter (and annoyingly, it has been turned to manipulating people like so much matter). But since the scientific account of people is rather grey and flat (the universe has no purpose, we’re basically monkeys, and so on), people are rebelling. They want something more personally satisfying in their ideological diet, something that gives them a reason to live and hope, something that speaks to their longing for meaning and identity, something that gives them guidance in the kinds of questions science just can’t answer: why am I here, what has value? The careful and deliberate (and required) objectivity of scientific thinking has no flavour for their subjectivity, or even a disagreeable flavour.

    I’m not saying this development is necessarily a good thing; I’m just observing that this is what is happening, and what we need to talk about. “Post-truth” — the readiness to propagate, and to believe, the illogical — is only a symptom of a deeper probem, “post-rationality.” To really understand what’s going on, and to respond appropriately, we need to survey and catalogue the forms of subjectivity that present human alternatives to cold scientific objectivity.

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  4. “The question of why” hangs over Trump’s inauguration, and another factor is certainly his charisma. True, it’s the “charisma” of a road accident from which we can’t look away. But it provides an important foothold for media and propaganda. I hesitate to call him “magnetic,” for fear you may think I approve of him. Like any sane person, I am appalled and disgusted by the man and the phenomenon around him. But there is this. He harmonizes with the media, as it were in the same key.

    There is also the effect of “post-truth” consciousness, wherein it becomes acceptable to stop worrying about what is true. Perhaps, as you say, people overwhelmed by quantities of unverified information simply despair and give up. Perhaps they put their trust in the media. But as you also say, we cannot trust the media to decide what is important for us. This is what Trump really means by “fake news,” and as far as CNN goes, he has a point; but the point also applies to Fox, a fact not suited to his purpose. All news is a manufactured experience of shootings, and distant riots, and various sorts of royalty. The experience might be manufactured to sell something, or to persuade, or to soothe, or to excite, but for whatever reason it is manufactured, and it represents the interest of the manufacturer more than the audience.

    Therefore, if truth is an issue, we must find new ways to identify it. But the problem is that everyone has their own truths. To solve this problem, we might look for truths on which we can agree. But such a course is proving problematic, as modern philosophy has found. Another course might be to try to understand the truths of others. We rarely do this, preferring to divide into warring camps and inoculate ourselves against foreign memes.

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  5. Thanks you for the link. It leads to a thoughtful, open-ended meditation on the nature of truth and experience. The mere recognition of “the numinous” takes us away from the way we usually think about truth. There is
    nothing numinous, nothing spiritual or profoundly engaging, in the truth that one and one make two. But is that the only truth we can make of “one and one” — a simple quantitative assessment of lumps of discrete matter, or their proxies in a numerical system? Sometimes one and one makes one, as when we add two drops of water. True, there is twice as much water, but where are we going with that? There is still only one thing, a “drop;” it’s just bigger. In a world where drops are the salient feature, one plus one is a bigger one. And sometimes, mysteriously, one and one makes three, as when the interaction of two lives results in a third life. This is not a rhetorical trick; it is a plain and important fact of our lives, which we fail to notice, because it is outside our usual model of the world as inanimate lumps. It is also a numinous fact, revelatory with wonder; and this in particular makes us suspicious that it is not “objective,” depersonalized to an interpretation involving inanimate lumps.

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