Agnotology: what is the study of ignorance for?

The saying “knowledge is power” is quite popular, but today we can say that ignorance is power too. For what reason? Find out!

Last update: 23 February, 2022

The term “agnotology” is not so popular. To understand what it is, we must start from the meaning of ignorance. This is often assumed to be a lack of knowledge. This is even how the Royal Spanish Academy defines it.

However, ignorance can take on different forms that go beyond this conception and are related to disinformation, censorship, apathy and blind faith.

In this sense, it does not depend only on the lack of available information, but on the strategic creation and dissemination of erroneous or misleading data by powerful entities, whose objective is to generate doubt and disinformation to manipulate the masses according to their interests.

Faced with this reality, increasingly common thanks to new diffusion technologies, an agnotology —or study of induced ignorance— becomes pertinent, which we will describe below.

What is agnotology?

agnotology is the study of the deliberate spread of ignorance through misinformation or misinformation. Its etymological meaning comes from the conjunction of the Greek term agnosis, which means “not knowing”; and ontology, which refers to the branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of being.

Its origin is attributed to Robert Proctor, professor of the history of science and technology at Stanford University, who began to investigate the tactics used by the tobacco industry to generate confusion about whether smoking causes cancer. Also to Lain Boal, who coined the term “agnotology” in 1995.

Proctor’s concern began when, in 1979, a secret memorandum, written 10 years earlier by the tobacco company, was made public. Brown & Williamson. There, the practices used by companies in the sector to counteract anti-smoking campaigns were demonstratedas well as the dissemination of misleading messages that guaranteed the health of consumers.

In other words, the strategy of this sector was to generate confusion in the population about the harmful effects of tobacco (scientifically proven at the time), with the aim of getting more people to buy cigarettes.

One of the most controversial passages of this memorandum expressed verbatim the following:

“Doubt is our product. It is the best way to compete with the volume of information that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means to create controversy.

Thus, Proctor found that the tobacco industry he did not want consumers to know about the harmful effects of his product.

Initially, agnotology helped uncover the tobacco industry’s deception of its consumers.


Ignorance as a political ploy

According to Proctor, the 1969 memorandum and the techniques employed by the tobacco industry became the perfect example of agnotology. In this case, ignorance not only implies the unknown, but is also a political ploy, deliberately created by powerful agents who want us not to know.

This study has become as important today as it was when Proctor studied hiding the facts about the relationship between cancer and smoking. It is enough to refer to the overwhelming amount of disinformation that is spread through social networkswhich do nothing but discredit, question and dismantle scientific knowledge.

examples of agnotology

Danah Boyd, an academic of technology and social media, says that YouTube is the main search tool used by those under 25 to find out about anything. However, the scientific explanatory content on this platform is scarce compared to those of dubious and conspiratorial origin.

And it is that one of the ways to propagate willful ignorance is facilitating easier access to content with such characteristics. How many times has the scientific community reserved discoveries in certain areas in order to obtain some monetary benefit in between?

But this is not all, although the evidence is available, those who are responsible for spreading ignorance also know how to structure their information on the internet so that those who access the scientific material can also see the conspiracy content. All this through search engine optimization.

For example, Boyd says that YouTube has excellent material on the value of vaccination, but countless anti-vaccine activists they have systematically used this platform to promote their movement.

So when people search for videos from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, they also see the ones questioning vaccines or the ones from parents talking excitedly about their views on the outcome of vaccination.

Another fairly common example of agnotology concerns climate change. Although there is enough evidence to support this reality, there is a disinformation campaign on this topic that has done nothing but generate confusion in the population and encourage denialism.



The pretext of a balanced debate

As we can see, it is very easy to fall into the trap of considering “both perspectives” to get a complete picture of reality. Although it is necessary to analyze all the positions to have a more accurate knowledge, many times we allow ourselves to be deceived by this claim and we begin to echo wrong content.

On this point, Proctor states that ignorance is often spread under the guise of a balanced debate, in which scientific evidence and false content conflict.

In these cases, a false image of the truth is created and it is alleged that there are two versions of each story and that the “experts” do not agree. However, the reality is that the counterpart of the evidence is pure deception and only seeks to discredit true knowledge.

Thus, it is not enough that quality content is available to the public and that we assume that the evidence is enough for people to access it. It is important that we understand that there is an information battle on the networks and that we must avoid placing ourselves in the middle.

Currently, the term agnotology has become relevant due to the manipulation of information in networks.

Importance of the study of ignorance

In short, we emphasize the importance of exploring the concept of «agnotology» and its potential role in the study of ignorance.

This notion allows us to reflect on what we do not know and why we do not know it.what is it that propagates ignorance in our society, what are the factors that allow ignorance to be used as a political and social instrument, etc.

Only then can we be less naive when it comes to approaching the various contents that spread on social networks and the media.

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