Agnotology, A Sad and Important Word. Thanks, Robert Proctor

Winter  (for us Celts, the last day of Winter.  Imbolc starts tomorrow, actually this evening.)   Waxing Wild Moon

Clive Thompson taught me a new word:  agnotology.  Clive writes a regular column in Wired, one of my favorite magazines.  He reports in his column (2/09 issue) on the work of Stanford historian of science , Robert Proctor.  Proctor believes that when it comes to contentious issues our knowledge decreases.  He offers climate change, evolution and Obama’s religion as examples of contention decreasing our knowledge.  Thus, the neologism agnotology means “the study of culturally constructed ignorance.”

Proctor says his research shows that when society doesn’t know something, it’s often because special interest groups have intentionally created the confusion.

“People always assume that if someone doesn’t know something, it’s because they haven’t paid attention or haven’t yet figured it out.  But ignorance also comes from people literally suppressing the truth–or drowning it out–or trying to make it so confusing that people stop caring about what’s true and what’s not.”

Clive believes we need to focus on the disinformation revolution.  “The ur-example of of what Proctor calls an agnotological campaign is the funding of bogus studies by cigarette companies trying to link cancer to baldness, viruses–anything but their product.”

I’ve known about the holocaust deniers, the global warming deniers and the active suppression of test results by drug companies but I never had a word for it before and now I do.  These agnotologists give evil a fleshly form.  Think of Cheney and his willingness to bend intelligence to fit his preconceived agenda for war in Iran.  Think of the dozens of websites I come across in my Sierra Club research that point to cold weather and cite it as proof global warming has no clothes.  Think of the anti-Semites of today trying to cloud the horror of Nazi death chambers with manufactured doubt.  Agnotological campaigns all.

As Thompson says later on in his column, “If we are argue about what the facts mean, we’re having a debate.  If what we argue about what the facts are, it’s agnotological Armageddon, where reality dies screaming.”

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