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Editorial Reflections

Ignorance and disinformation influence current issues

 An agnotologist studies ignorance, and there are different kinds of ignorance.

Robert Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford University, coined the term “agnotology,” using the Greek term “agnosis,” which means “not knowing.”  It is also the root word for “agnosia” and “agnostic.”

He describes agnotology as “a term to describe the cultural production of ignorance (and its study).”  He describes his specialty in the history of science as, “the history of scientific controversy and what I call the ‘social construction of ignorance.’”

In 1999, he was the first historian to testify about the misuse of scientific information by the tobacco industry, as it fought to minimize the role smoking played in lung cancer.

It is remarkable, he said, “how little we know about ignorance ... given a) how much ignorance there is, b) how many kinds there are, and c) how consequential ignorance is in our lives.”

Two categories of ignorance described in a paper he wrote are active in our culture.  They are ignorance as a native state and ignorance as a strategic ploy.

Ignorance as a native state is the most common. It is easily manipulated.  We are born with it, but we learn gradually with all our senses.  It is something we want to grow out of and hope goes away, “a of hollow space into which knowledge is pulled.”

Descartes and other 17th century intellectuals thought all scientific problems would soon be solved.  The rapid growth of technology led some in the 19th century to think that soon everything possible would have been invented and the Patent Office could be closed.  A 19th century British historian—Lord Acton of “power corrupts” fame—had so much faith that his era was the epitome of civilization that he would soon have all the information he needed to write the ultimate history.  

The books “for Dummies” today play into our feeling that we can and must fill those hollow spaces of ignorance. The do-it-yourself section of libraries and bookstores encourages both our feeling of competence and our need to fill the spaces. 

Ignorance as a strategic ploy is manipulative and often plays on our doubt and uncertainty, creating “manufactured ignorance.”

In the 1950s, the tobacco industry began its campaign to convince people it had not been proven that smoking caused lung cancer.  The purpose is summarized in an internal memo at the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company in 1969, “Doubt is our product.” 

The industry spent millions on advertising, telling people no study had yet absolutely proven that smoking caused lung cancer.  It continuously called for “more evidence” and funded front organizations and friendly research for popular magazines to publish.  When secondhand smoke became an issue, smoking was presented as an expression of free speech. 

The tobacco industry also spent millions on research to manufacture ignorance about the link between smoking and cancer.  They published a slick monthly newsletter,  “Tobacco and Health Report,” which was sent to physicians and key people in industry, government and journalism. 

It contained articles on “Rare Fungus Infection Mimics Lung Cancer,”  “28 Reasons for Doubting Cigarette-Cancer Link” and “No One Yet Knows the Answers.”   It blamed bird-keeping, genetics, viruses, air pollution and everything except tobacco for causing the lung cancer epidemic.

These fellows practically wrote the playbook for disinformation campaigns.  We can see their handiwork as we try to sort through some of what passes for information about climate change, immigration reform and other major issues.

Journalists and poll takers regularly ask what people think and know about current issues.  Perhaps they should investigate what people don’t know and why.

Nancy Minard - contributing editor

Copyright © December 2014 - The Fig Tree