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Agnotology: "a neologism signifying the study of the cultural production of ignorance"

4 April 2014
A Los Angeles Times columnist publicizes a Stanford scholar's research on antiscience and organized subversion of fact.

At Politico, a recent "special report" began, "Taxpayers in 14 states will bankroll nearly $1 billion this year in tuition for private schools, including hundreds of religious schools that teach Earth is less than 10,000 years old, Adam and Eve strolled the garden with dinosaurs, and much of modern biology, geology and cosmology is a web of lies."

At Stanford University, Robert Proctor studies how such ignorance gets produced. More than a decade ago, he proposed a name for this research field: agnotology.

At the Los Angeles Times, a recent column by Michael Hiltzik began:

Robert Proctor doesn't think ignorance is bliss. He thinks that what you don't know can hurt you. And that there's more ignorance around than there used to be, and that its purveyors have gotten much better at filling our heads with nonsense.

Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford, is one of the world's leading experts in agnotology, a neologism signifying the study of the cultural production of ignorance. It's a rich field, especially today when whole industries devote themselves to sowing public misinformation and doubt about their products and activities.

The tobacco industry was a pioneer at this. Its goal was to erode public acceptance of the scientifically proven links between smoking and disease: In the words of an internal 1969 memo legal opponents extracted from Brown & Williamson's files, "Doubt is our product." Big Tobacco's method should not be to debunk the evidence, the memo's author wrote, but to establish a "controversy."

When this sort of manipulation of information is done for profit, or to confound the development of beneficial public policy, it becomes a threat to health and to democratic society. Big Tobacco's program has been carefully studied by the sugar industry, which has become a major target of public health advocates.

It's also echoed by vaccination opponents, who continue to use a single dishonest and thoroughly discredited British paper to sow doubts about the safety of childhood immunizations, and by climate change deniers.

Hiltzik wrote before Politico posted its special report, but his column touched on ignorance about evolution too: "Citing the results of a 2012 Gallup poll, Proctor asks, 'If half the country thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old, how can you really develop an effective environmental policy?'"

After Hiltzik wrote, a Columbia Journalism Review column appeared under the headline "WSJ editorial page brazenly ignores Toyota's own admissions." Citing his piece, it charged that the Wall Street Journal opinion editors are conducting the cultural production of ignorance. Diane Ravitch cited Hiltzik and Proctor in her blog posting "Understanding the propaganda campaign against public education," later republished by Bill Moyers of PBS.

Now that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued what the New York Times editorial board calls "its most powerful and sobering assessment so far," the Times editors wonder if "deniers will cease their attacks" on climate science. Whether or not the term agnotology shows up in further such media discussions following the IPCC's report, it has been around for some time.

When reporting in 2003 that Proctor "in 1999 became the first historian to testify against the tobacco industry," the Times mentioned that he "describes his specialty as 'agnotology, the study of ignorance.'" In 2005, Stanford held a conference on agnotology. Naomi Oreskes's talk carried the title "Deny, Deny, Deny: How to Sow Confusion over Climate Change." Times columnist Paul Krugman did a brief posting on agnotology in his Times blog in 2011, addressing birtherism, the belief that President Obama wasn't born in America. Agnotology has a Wikipedia page with 21 documenting footnotes.

Chapter 1 of Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, edited by Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, is available to be read for free online.


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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