Let's Discuss Agnotology, the science of creating stupidity

By:  john-russell  •  last year  •  11 comments

Let's Discuss Agnotology, the science of creating stupidity
This is the dilemma of living in the age of plentiful data. Someone out there has created the answer you want—the one that matches your preexisting beliefs.


Agnotology is the science of creating stupidity.

First coined by a history professor,3 agnotology (from the Greek for “not knowing”) is the study of culturally constructed ignorance, usually manufactured by special interest groups to suppress facts and create confusion. Its specious methodologies are often deployed in complex scientific issues, by sowing the seeds of doubt with inaccurate or misleading data.

For decades, cigarette companies notoriously implemented the tactics of agnotology, ignoring any evidence that huffing a carton of Marlboros might cause harm. As millions died from lung cancer, the tobacco industry actually hired thousands of scholars to produce a mountain of research about all aspects of smoking—except its health risks. “Doubt is our product,” said one tobacco marketing exec, “since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the mind of the general public.”

This is the insidious conceit of agnotology: It succeeds not by a lack of information but by a surfeit of it. Agnotologists inundate the citizenry with enough disinformation to cast doubt on an entire issue. Masters of the discipline have muddied countless scientific waters, formulating questions that already had answers: Is global warming a hoax? Do football concussions create chronic brain damage? Are prescription opiates addictive? Do vaccines cause autism?

This is the dilemma of living in the age of plentiful data. Someone out there has created the answer you want—the one that matches your preexisting beliefs. They have it down to a science.


The Encyclopedia Of Misinformation

by Rex Sorgatz

Abrams Publishing 2018


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1  author  JohnRussell    last year
Agnotology is as important today as it was back when Proctor studied the tobacco industry’s obfuscation of facts about cancer and smoking. For example, politically motivated doubt was sown over US President Barack Obama’s nationality for many months by opponents until he revealed his birth certificate in 2011. In another case, some political commentators in Australia attempted to stoke panic by likening the country’s credit rating to that of Greece, despite readily available public information from ratings agencies showing the two economies are very different.

...Proctor explains that ignorance can often be propagated under the guise of balanced debate. For example, the common idea that there will always be two opposing views does not always result in a rational conclusion. This was behind how tobacco firms used science to make their products look harmless, and is used today by climate change deniers to argue against the scientific evidence.

“This ‘balance routine’ has allowed the cigarette men, or climate deniers today, to claim that there are two sides to every story, that ‘experts disagree’ – creating a false picture of the truth, hence ignorance.”

...Another academic studying ignorance is David Dunning, from Cornell University. Dunning warns that the internet is helping propagate ignorance – it is a place where everyone has a chance to be their own expert, he says, which makes them prey for powerful interests wishing to deliberately spread ignorance.

"While some smart people will profit from all the information now just a click away, many will be misled into a false sense of expertise. My worry is not that we are losing the ability to make up our own minds, but that it’s becoming too easy to do so. We should consult with others much more than we imagine. Other people may be imperfect as well, but often their opinions go a long way toward correcting our own imperfections, as our own imperfect expertise helps to correct their errors,” warns Dunning.


“Donald Trump is the obvious current example in the US, suggesting easy solutions to followers that are either unworkable or unconstitutional,” says Dunning.

So while agnotology may have had its origins in the heyday of the tobacco industry, today the need for both a word and the study of human ignorance is as strong as ever.


2  author  JohnRussell    last year
"culturally constructed ignorance"

Sounds familiarly like something we have all been witnessing for a while now. 

Dean Moriarty
2.1  Dean Moriarty  replied to  JohnRussell @2    last year

Yes the entire Russian collusion fiasco is a great example. 

2.1.1  author  JohnRussell  replied to  Dean Moriarty @2.1    last year

Defenses of the current president would certainly fit the description of agnotology, as would his own personal tactics. He has even personally spread a few of the hoaxes mentioned in the OP and the first comment, that climate change is a hoax, that vaccines cause autism, and that Obama was not an American. You could call him our national agnotologist. 

It Is ME
2.1.2  It Is ME  replied to  Dean Moriarty @2.1    last year
Yes the entire Russian collusion fiasco is a great example.

"Russia" was never the "Issue" in the first place. Thus …… Just another Practicing of agnotology by the peoples media and the Left. Both have this down to a "Science" ! jrSmiley_98_smiley_image.gifjrSmiley_90_smiley_image.gif

3  freepress    last year

Fox, Sinclair and other propaganda machines, right wing pundits, no labeling on "news" programming informing viewers about the kind of media product they are consuming leads people to believe in opinions over fact.

Right wing Republican followers want to believe in their party like Santa Claus. It doesn't matter if it's a lie, there is no Santa Claus, they want to believe and pretend.

Same with whoever the GOP puts forward as a candidate, they can lie, cheat and steal, but if they are running on a Republican ticket their blind misinformed followers adopt that candidate as their "daddy". They will hear no truth against their "daddy" and behave accordingly.

Until news programming is forced to label it's products like movie ratings, informing viewers they are not watching an actual truthful "news" program when they watch pundits presenting opinions, then nothing will change. 

We have to start somewhere to break the cycle of lies and adopted false realities. There is no Santa Claus, opinions are not news.

4  luther28    last year

Let's Discuss Agnotology

No, that would be stupid!

Sorry John, I just could not help myself. But seriously, Mr. Trumps entire life has been nothing more than a marketing campaign.

5  Nerm_L    last year

The expressed opinion does not capture the full context of agnotology.  The art of stupidity applies to pro-science arguments as well as anti-science arguments.

Consider the example of corn ethanol.  The science community promoted the idea of corn ethanol as a biofuel to replace fossil fuels.  Environmental activists touted ethanol biofuel as a critical means of addressing climate change and protecting the environment.  There was bipartisan support for government subsidies to create a corn ethanol infrastructure.  Environmentalists engaged in efforts to force auto manufacturers to build cars that would run on ethanol and other biofuels.  Where is support for corn ethanol now?

Why are anti-nukes any different than anti-vaxxers?  How is marijuana consumption different than tobacco consumption?  What happened to biofuels being critical for eliminating fossil fuels and stopping climate change?

IMO there is plenty of stupidity on both sides of the issues.  Attempting to use a made up science like agnotology to promote a particular type of stupidity is an example of echo chamber logic.  

5.1  Texan1211  replied to  Nerm_L @5    last year

Hey, man, that is "settled science" and therefore we should subsidize corn and ethanol production no matter what because the SCIENCE IS SETTLED and everyone knows how freaking efficient ethanol is!

Don Overton
5.1.1  Don Overton  replied to  Texan1211 @5.1    last year

Right-Wing Agnotology

February 16, 2011 Add to Pocket

John Quiggin ponders   right-wing agnotology :

A recent report on a poll finding that  a majority of Republicans (that is, likely primary voters) are “birthers” , with only 28 per cent confident that Obama was born in the United States has raised, not for the first time, the question “how can they think that?” and “do they really believe that?”.
Such questions are the domain of  agnotology , the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt. Agnotology is not, primarily, the study of ignorance in the ordinary sense of the term. So, for example, someone who shares the beliefs of their community, unaware that those beliefs might be subject to challenge, might be ignorant as a result of their cultural situation, but they are not subject to culturally-induced ignorance in the agnotological sense.
But this kind of ignorance is not at issue in the case of birtherism. Even in communities where birtherism is universal (or at least where any dissent is kept quiet), it must be obvious that not everyone in the US thinks that the elected president was born outside the US and therefore ineligible for office.
Rather, birtherism is a  shibboleth , that is, an affirmation that marks the speaker as a member of their community or tribe.

I do agree with Quiggin that some conservatives who espouse the belief that Obama is a Muslim or a non-citizen don't quite literally believe this. They believe it and don't believe it at the same time -- they believe it is the kind of thing Obama would do, whether or not he's actually done it. Quiggin argues that some form of this belief/non-belief can be found in partisans of both parties, and I agree.

But I do think the concept of agnotology applies here. Quiggin's argument hinges on the fact that conservatives understand that some people do not believe President Obama was born outside the United States (or is a Muslim, or...) But what those conservatives believe is that they enjoy access to truth that is denied Americans who are brainwashed by the mainstream media. The believe that Fox News is not just a network that counteracts the biased liberal media, or even a network that reports the stories that the liberal media ignore, but the vehicle for Truth:

You can find beliefs like this on the Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky left, but not in the mainstream liberal left. You don't see Rachel Maddow claiming that the mainstream media is full of lies, and that she can deliver her viewers the Truth that is being systematically covered up elsewhere. There's no   Maddow University

This kind of belief system, a claim to totalistic Truth that is denied outsiders, is common among cults and other subcultures. The new development is that it has become a significant, and possibly the majority, belief among a major political party. Now, obviously, there is some difference between believing that everybody knows a certain thing and believing that you and your fellow adherents know something that other Americans do not know because of brainwashing. But it seems like a distinction without a difference. And so this circles back to the epistemic closure issue, and the powerful effects of a closed information system in which misinformation can circulate unchallenged endlessly.

6  Tacos!    last year

Looks like a fun book.


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