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Agnotology (formerly agnatology) is the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data. It was coined in 1995 by Robert N. Proctor, a Stanford University professor,[1] and linguist Iain Boal.[2][3][4] The word is based on the Neoclassical Greek word ἄγνωσις, agnōsis, "not knowing" (cf. Attic Greek ἄγνωτος "unknown"[5]), and -λογία, -logia.[6] Proctor cites as a prime example the tobacco industry's advertising campaign to manufacture doubt about the cancerous and other adverse health effects of tobacco use.[6][7] More generally, the term also highlights the condition where more knowledge of a subject leaves one more uncertain than before.

David Dunning of Cornell University warns that "the internet is helping propagate ignorance,... which makes [users] prey for powerful interests wishing to deliberately spread ignorance".[8] Irvin C. Schick refers to unknowledge "to distinguish it from ignorance. He uses the example of "terra incognita" in early maps, noting that "The reconstruction of parts of the globe as uncharted territory is ... the production of unknowledge, the transformation of those parts into potential objects of Western political and economic attention. It is the enabling of colonialism".[9]

Active causes of culturally induced ignorance can include the influence of the media, corporations, and governmental agencies, through secrecy and suppression of information, document destruction, and selective memory.[10] Another example is climate denial, where oil companies paid teams of scientists to downplay the effects of climate change. Passive causes include structural information bubbles, including those created by segregation along racial and class lines, that create differential access to information.

Agnotology also focuses on how and why diverse forms of knowledge do not "come to be", or are ignored or delayed. For example, knowledge about plate tectonics was censored and delayed for at least a decade because some evidence remained classified military information related to undersea warfare.[6]



Cult of Ignorance
      There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always 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".

Isaac Asimov, 1980[11]

The term "agnotology" was first coined in a footnote in Proctor's 1995 book, The Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don't Know About Cancer: "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".[12]

Proctor was quoted using the term to describe his research "only half jokingly", as "agnotology" in a 2001 interview about his lapidary work with the colorful rock agate. He connected the two seemingly unrelated topics by noting the lack of geologic knowledge and study of agate since its first known description by Theophrastus in 300 BC, relative to the extensive research on other rocks and minerals such as diamonds, asbestos, granite, and coal, all of which have much higher commercial value. He said agate was a "victim of scientific disinterest", the same "structured apathy" he called "the social construction of ignorance".[13]

He was later quoted as calling it "agnotology, the study of ignorance", in a 2003 The New York Times story on medical historians testifying as expert witnesses.[14]

Proctor co-organized a pair of events with Londa Schiebinger, his wife, who is also a science history professor: the first was a workshop at the Pennsylvania State University in 2003 titled "Agnatology: The Cultural Production of Ignorance",[15] and later a conference at Stanford University in 2005 titled "Agnotology: The Cultural Production of Ignorance".[10]

Political economy[edit]

In 2004, Londa Schiebinger[16] gave a more precise definition of agnotology in a paper on 18th-century voyages of scientific discovery and gender relations, and contrasted it with epistemology, the theory of knowledge, saying that the latter questions how we know while the former questions why we do not know: "Ignorance is often not merely the absence of knowledge but an outcome of cultural and political struggle".[17]

Its use as a critical description of the political economy has been expanded upon by Michael Betancourt in a 2010 article titled "Immaterial Value and Scarcity in Digital Capitalism"[18] and expanded in the book The Critique of Digital Capitalism.[19] His analysis is focused on the housing bubble as well as the bubble economy of the period from 1980 to 2008. Betancourt argues that this political economy should be termed "agnotologic capitalism" because the systemic production and maintenance of ignorance is a major feature that enables the economy to function as it allows the creation of a "bubble economy".[16]

Betancourt's argument is posed in relation to the idea of affective labor. He states that

The creation of systemic unknowns where any potential "fact" is always already countered by an alternative of apparently equal weight and value renders engagement with the conditions of reality – the very situations affective labor seeks to assuage – contentious and a source of confusion, reflected by the inability of participants in bubbles to be aware of the imminent collapse until after it has happened. The biopolitical paradigm of distraction, what [Juan Martin] Prada calls "life to enjoy", can only be maintained if the underlying strictures remain hidden from view. If affective labor works to reduce alienation, agnotology works to eliminate the potential for dissent.[18]

In his view, the role of affective labor is to enable the continuation of the agnotologic effects that enable the maintenance of the capitalist status quo.


A similar word from the same Greek roots, agnoiology, meaning "the science or study of ignorance, which determines its quality and conditions"[20] or "the doctrine concerning those things of which we are necessarily ignorant"[21] describes a branch of philosophy studied by James Frederick Ferrier in the 19th century.[22]


Anthropologist Glenn Stone points out that most of the examples of agnotology (such as work promoting tobacco use) do not actually create a lack of knowledge so much as they create confusion. A more accurate term for such writing would be "ainigmology", from the root ainigma (as in "enigma"); in Greek this refers to riddles or to language that obscures the true meaning of a story.[23]

Media influence[edit]

The availability of such large amounts of knowledge in this information age may not necessarily be producing a knowledgeable citizenry. Instead it may be allowing many people to cherry-pick information in blogs or news that reinforces their existing beliefs.[24] and to be distracted from new knowledge by repetitive or base entertainments. There is conflicting evidence on how television viewing affects value formation and intelligence.[25]

An emerging new scientific discipline that has connections to agnotology is cognitronics:

aims (a) at explicating the distortions in the perception of the world caused by the information society and globalization and (b) at coping with these distortions in different fields. Cognitronics is studying and looking for the ways of improving cognitive mechanisms of processing information and developing emotional sphere of the personality - the ways aiming at compensating three mentioned shifts in the systems of values and, as an indirect consequence, for the ways of developing symbolic information processing skills of the learners, linguistic mechanisms, associative and reasoning abilities, broad mental outlook being important preconditions of successful work practically in every sphere of professional activity in information society.[26]

The field of cognitronics appears to be growing as international conferences have centered on the topic. The 2013 conference was held in Slovenia.[27]

See also[edit]

  • Antiscience – A set of attitudes that reject science and the scientific method as an inherently limited means to reach understanding of reality
  • Anti-intellectualism – Hostility to and mistrust of education, philosophy, art, literature, and science
  • Cancer Wars, a six-part documentary that aired on PBS in 1997, based on Robert N. Proctor's 1995 book, Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What we Know and Don't Know About Cancer
  • Cognitive dissonance – Psychological stress resulting from multiple contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values held at the same time, a social psychology theory that may explain the ease of maintaining ignorance (because people are driven to ignore conflicting evidence) and which also provides clues to how to bring about knowledge (perhaps by forcing the learner to reconcile reality with long-held, though inaccurate beliefs; see Socratic method)
  • Cognitive inertia – The tendency for a particular orientation in how an individual thinks about an issue, belief or strategy to endure or resist change
  • Confirmation bias – Tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or values
  • Creationism – Religious belief that nature originated through supernatural acts of divine creation., systematic denial of scientific biological realities by misrepresenting them in terms of various dogmatic tenets
  • Denialism – A person's choice to deny reality, as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth
  • Doubt Is Their Product – 2008 book by David Michaels
  • The Dunning–Kruger effect – Cognitive bias where people with low ability overestimate their skill, a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes
  • Fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD), a disinformation technique using the appeal to fear
  • Intelligent design – Pseudoscientific argument for the existence of God, a class of creationism that attempts to support assorted topics in biological denialism by misrepresenting them and related junk science as scientific research
  • Japanese commercial whaling, an attempt at obfuscation of the culpability of commercial whaling by misrepresenting its junk-scientific rationale as scientific research.
  • Junk science
  • Merchants of Doubt – 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway
  • Historical negationism – Illegitimate distortion of the historical record
  • Neo-Luddism
  • Obscurantism – Practice of obscuring information
  • Sociology of scientific ignorance – Study of ignorance in science, or Ignorance Studies, the study of ignorance as something relevant.
  • Subvertising – Making spoofs or parodies of corporate and political advertisements
  • The Republican War on Science
  • Vaccine controversies, based on assorted junk-scientific strategies to misrepresent life- and health-saving technologies as harmful rather than beneficial.


  1. ^ "Stanford History Department : Robert N. Proctor". Stanford University. Archived from the original on 19 March 2007. Retrieved 12 August 2007.
  2. ^ interview with Robert Proctor "So I asked a linguist colleague of mine, Iain Boal, if he could coin a term that would designate the production of ignorance and the study of ignorance, and we came up with a number of different possibilities."Agnotology: understanding our ignorance, 15 December 2016, retrieved 31 January 2017
  3. ^ Arenson, Karen W. (22 August 2006). "What Organizations Don't Want to Know Can Hurt". The New York Times. 'there is a lot more protectiveness than there used to be,' said Dr. Proctor, who is shaping a new field, the study of ignorance, which he calls agnotology. 'It is often safer not to know.'
  4. ^ Kreye, Andrian (2007). "We Will Overcome Agnotology (The Cultural Production Of Ignorance)". The Edge World Question Center 2007. Edge Foundation. p. 6. Retrieved 12 August 2007. This is about a society's choice between listening to science and falling prey to what Stanford science historian Robert N. Proctor calls agnotology (the cultural production of ignorance)
  5. ^ See: Wiktionary entry on ἄγνωτος.
  6. ^ a b c Palmer, Barbara (4 October 2005). "Conference to explore the social construction of ignorance". Stanford News Service. Archived from the original on 24 July 2007. Retrieved 12 August 2007. Proctor uses the term "agnotology" – a word coined from agnosis, meaning "not knowing" – to describe a new approach to looking at knowledge through the study of ignorance.
  7. ^ Kreye, Andrian (17 May 2010). "Polonium in Zigaretten : Müll in der Kippe (Polonium in cigarettes : Garbage in the butt)". Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Retrieved 15 July 2014. Proctor:...Die Tabakindustrie hat ... verlangt, dass mehr geforscht wird. Das ist reine Ablenkungsforschung. Wir untersuchen in Stanford inzwischen, wie Unwissen hergestellt wird. Es ist eine Kunst - wir nennen sie Agnotologie. (Proctor:...The tobacco industry has ... called for further study. That is pure distraction research. At Stanford, we study how ignorance is manufactured. It is an art we call agnotology.)
  8. ^ Kenyon, Georgina. "The Man Who Studies the Spread of Ignorance". BBC.
  9. ^ Schick, Irvin C. (1999). The Erotic Margin: Sexuality and Spatiality in Alteritist Discourse. New York and London: Verso. pp. 48–49.
  10. ^ a b "Agnotology: The Cultural Production of Ignorance". Retrieved 12 August 2007.
  11. ^ Pyle, George (6 April 2020). "George Pyle: It can be hard to know whom to trust. And easy to know whom not to". The Salt Lake Tribune. Archived from the original on 13 April 2020.
  12. ^ Proctor, Robert (1995). The Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don't Know About Cancer. New York: Basic Books. p. 8.
  13. ^ Brown, Nancy Marie (September 2001). "The Agateer". Research Penn State. Archived from the original on 11 August 2007. Retrieved 12 August 2007.
  14. ^ Cohen, Patricia (14 June 2003). "History for Hire in Industry Lawsuits". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 July 2014. Mr. Proctor, who describes his specialty as "agnotology, the study of ignorance", argues that the tobacco industry has tried to give the impression that the hazards of cigarette smoking are still an open question even when the scientific evidence is indisputable. "The tobacco industry is famous for having seen itself as a manufacturer of two different products," he said, "tobacco and doubt".
  15. ^ "Agnatology: The Cultural Production of Ignorance". The British Society for the History of Science. Retrieved 15 July 2014. Science, Medicine, and Technology in Culture Pennsylvania University Presents a Workshop: ... Robert N. Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, co-organizers
  16. ^ a b "IRWG director hopes to create 'go to' center for gender studies". Stanford News Service. 13 October 2004. Retrieved 12 August 2007.
  17. ^ Schiebinger, L. (2004). "Feminist History of Colonial Science". Hypatia. 19 (1): 233–254. doi:10.2979/HYP.2004.19.1.233. I develop a methodological tool that historian of science Robert Proctor has called “agnotology”—the study of culturally-induced ignorances—that serves as a counterweight to more traditional concerns for epistemology, refocusing questions about "how we know" to include questions about what we do not know, and why not. Ignorance is often not merely the absence of knowledge but an outcome of the cultural and political struggle.
  18. ^ a b "CTheory". Archived from the original on 5 October 2010. Retrieved 6 September 2010. "Immaterial Value and Scarcity in Digital Capitalism", CTheory, Theory Beyond the Codes: tbc002, Date Published: 6/10/2010, Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors
  19. ^ Betancourt, Michael (2016). The Critique of Digital Capitalism: An Analysis of the Political Economy of Digital Culture and Technology. Brooklyn: Punctum Books. ISBN 978-0692598443.
  20. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Agnoiology" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 378.
  21. ^ Porter, Noah, ed. (1913). Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary. G & C. Merriam Co.
  22. ^ "James Frederick Ferrier". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 12 August 2007.
  23. ^ Stone, Glenn Davis 2014 Biosecurity in the Age of Genetic Engineering. In Bioinsecurity and Human Vulnerability, ed Nancy Chen and Lesley Sharp, pp. 71-86. Santa Fe: SAR Press.
  24. ^ Knobloch-Westerwick (2009). "Study: Americans choose media messages that agree with their views". Communication Research. Sage. 36: 426–448. doi:10.1177/0093650209333030. S2CID 26354296. Archived from the original on 9 July 2009. Retrieved 6 July 2009.
  25. ^ Thakkar RR, Garrison MM, Christakis DA (5 November 2006). "A Systematic Review for the Effects of Television Viewing by Infants and Preschoolers". Pediatrics. 118 (5): 2025–2031. doi:10.1542/peds.2006-1307. PMID 17079575. S2CID 26071118.
  26. ^ Fomichov, V.A. (25 June 2009). "IFETS-Discussion Digest #2009-48" (Mailing list). Archived from the original on 12 March 2009. Retrieved 26 June 2009. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  27. ^ "THIRD INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE on COGNITONICS: The Science about the Human Being in the Digital World". Archived from the original on 29 November 2012. Retrieved 4 February 2013.

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