Agnotology (formerly agnatology) is the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data. The neologism was coined by Robert N. Proctor, a Stanford University professor specializing in the history of science and technology. Its name derives from the Neoclassical Greek word ἄγνωσις, agnōsis, "not knowing" (cf. Attic Greek ἄγνωτος "unknown"), and -λογία, -logia. More generally, the term also highlights the increasingly common condition where more knowledge of a subject leaves one more uncertain than before.
There are many causes of culturally induced ignorance. These include the influence of the media, either through neglect or as a result of deliberate misrepresentation and manipulation. Corporations and governmental agencies can contribute to agnotology through secrecy and suppression of information, document destruction, and myriad forms of inherent or avoidable culturopolitical selectivity, inattention, and forgetfulness.
A prime example of the deliberate production of ignorance cited by Proctor is the tobacco industry's advertising campaign to manufacture doubt about the cancer and other health effects of tobacco use. Under the banner of science, the industry produced research about everything except tobacco hazards to exploit public uncertainty.
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 was classified military information related to undersea warfare.
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."
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".
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", and later a conference at Stanford University in 2005 titled "Agnotology: The Cultural Production of Ignorance".
In 2004, Londa Schiebinger 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."
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" and expanded in the book The Critique of Digital Capitalism. 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".
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 immanent 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.
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" or "the doctrine concerning those things of which we are necessarily ignorant" describes a branch of philosophy studied by James Frederick Ferrier in the 19th century.
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. and to be distracted from new knowledge by repetitive or base entertainments. There is conflicting evidence on how television viewing affects intelligence as well as values formation.
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.
The field of cognitronics appears to be growing as international conferences have centered on the topic. The 2013 conference will be in Slovenia.
- 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, 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)
- Confirmation bias
- Creationism systematic denial of scientific biological realities by misrepresenting them in terms of various dogmatic tenets
- Doubt is Their Product
- The Dunning–Kruger effect, 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, or simply 'FUD', a disinformation technique using the appeal to fear
- Intelligent design 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
- Sociology of scientific ignorance or Ignorance Studies, the study of ignorance as something relevant.
- 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.
- Arenson, Karen W. (2006-08-22). "What Organizations Don't Want to Know Can Hurt". 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.'
- Kreye, Andrian (2007). "We Will Overcome Agnotology (The Cultural Production Of Ignorance)". The Edge World Question Center 2007. Edge Foundation. p. 6. Retrieved 2007-08-12.
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)
- "Stanford History Department : Robert N. Proctor". Stanford University. Archived from the original on 2007-03-19. Retrieved 2007-08-12.
- See: Wiktionary entry on ἄγνωτος.
- Palmer, Barbara (2005-10-04). "Conference to explore the social construction of ignorance". Stanford News Service. Archived from the original on 24 July 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-12.
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.
- "Agnotology: The Cultural Production of Ignorance". Retrieved 2007-08-12.
- Kreye, Andrian (2010-05-17). "Polonium in Zigaretten : Müll in der Kippe (Polonium in cigarettes : Garbage in the butt)". Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Retrieved 2014-07-15.
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.)
- Proctor, Robert, The Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer, Basic Books, New York, 1995, p.8
- Brown, Nancy Marie (September 2001). "The Agateer". Research Penn State. Archived from the original on 11 August 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-12.
- Cohen, Patricia (2003-06-14). "History for Hire in Industry Lawsuits". New York Times. Retrieved 2014-07-15.
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."
- "Agnatology: The Cultural Production of Ignorance". The British Society for the History of Science. Retrieved 2014-07-15.
Science, Medicine, and Technology in Culture Pennsylvania University Presents a Workshop: ... Robert N. Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, co-organizers
- "IRWG director hopes to create 'go to' center for gender studies". Stanford News Service. 2004-10-13. Retrieved 2007-08-12.
- Schiebinger, L. (2004). "Feminist History of Colonial Science". Hypatia. 19 (1): 233–254. doi:10.2979/HYP.2004.19.1.233. Retrieved 2007-08-12.
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 cultural and political struggle.
- "CTheory". Archived from the original on 5 October 2010. Retrieved 2010-09-06.
"Immaterial Value and Scarcity in Digital Capitalism", CTheory, Theory Beyond the Codes: tbc002, Date Published: 6/10/2010, Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors
- 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.
- Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1910.
- Porter, Noah, ed. (1913). Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary. G & C. Merriam Co.
- "James Frederick Ferrier". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved 2007-08-12.
- Knobloch-Westerwick (2009). "Study: Americans choose media messages that agree with their views". Communication Research. Sage. 36: 426–448. doi:10.1177/0093650209333030.
- Thakkar RR, Garrison MM, Christakis DA (2006-11-05). "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.
- Fomichov, V.A. (2009-06-25). "IFETS-Discussion Digest #2009-48" (Mailing list). Retrieved 2009-06-26.
- "THIRD INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE on COGNITONICS: The Science about the Human Being in the Digital World". Retrieved 2013-02-04.
- Michaels, David (2008). Doubt is Their Product: How industry's assault on science threatens your health. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-530067-3.
- Mooney, Chris (2005). The Republican War on Science. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-04676-2.
- Proctor, Robert N. (1995). Cancer Wars: How politics shapes what we know and don't know about cancer. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-00859-9.
- Proctor, Robert N.; Schiebinger, Londa, eds. (2008). Agnotology: The making and unmaking of ignorance. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0-8047-5901-4. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
- Smithson M (1985). "Toward a social theory of ignorance". Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. 20 (4): 323–346. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5914.1985.tb00049.x.
- The man who studies the spread of ignorance - Georgina Kenyon, BBC, 6 January 2016
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