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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Agnotology, the science of our time

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've discovered a new word, agnotology, "the science of creating ignorance."  It was coined in 2001 by Robert N. Proctor, a Stanford University professor specializing in the history of science and technology.  The idea applies to deliberate efforts to create doubt about science, such as the tobacco company pushback on cancer research, and the unintended consequences of concealing information for other purposes, like the military's classification of research that would have confirmed plate tectonics about a decade sooner than actually occurred.

In 2003, Proctor organized the first conference on the topic, titled "Agnatology: The Cultural Production of Ignorance," held at Pennsylvania State University.

Proctor and others propose that the flood of knowledge now available may not be creating a more knowledgeable citizenry.  When people are overwhelmed by the quantity of information available, they have to look to elites to select which information they need to know.  Our increasingly polarized society produces a situation where different groups pick different elites.  Those who watch Fox News will be presented with quite different information than those who watch MSNBC, and those who (horrors!) do not watch television may get their information from blogs with names like Red State (conservative) or Conscience of a Liberal (I think you can figure that one out.)

The result is that different groups are judging what is true from different sets of information, often cherry-picked to lead to the conclusion the source wants the viewer/reader to come to.  The problem here is not just the flood of information, it's a deeper one involving the splintering of our society and the splintering of which elites different groups choose to regard as legitimate.

In a court of law, a case may be thrown out if the prosecutor is found to have concealed exculpatory information.  In the court of public opinion, no such rule applies.  As a result, manipulation of information, even outright lies, can be rewarded.  If an elite trusted by a large part of the population (I'm looking at you, Fox News) won't report that the politicians it favors have lied, the backers of those politicians won't mend their ways.  If exculpatory information is concealed (nope, no death panels in this here healthcare bill) the lie will win the day.

Of course, this will only happen if a powerful group takes the Leninist position that the intellectual vanguard must be willing to mislead the masses to guide them to the proper action.  I knew people like that in graduate school, where they tended to be Marxists.  Now we have recovering Marxists like David Horowitz who are conservatives, and we see some of the methods of the old "new left" adopted by the new right.

Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of modern linguistics, believed that words give us the categories we use in symbolic thought.  Perhaps now that we have a word for it, we can think more carefully about the practice of agnotology.

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