Ignorant about the study of ignorance? Progress, agnotology, and anxiogenesis

“Our students will be more curious – and more intelligently so – if, in addition to facts, they were equipped with theories of ignorance as well as theories of knowledge”

Jamie Holmes (2015)

Doctors smoke Camels

Mid-20th Century Advertisement for Camel cigarettes

Source: New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/07/business/media/07adco.html

There I was, thinking I was digging away at a relatively underexplored vein of intellectual enquiry, when I find out that there is an entire sub-discipline of the social sciences which is dedicated to it.

Agnotology is the study of ignorance, and it is at least partly ironic that I was not aware of its existence until recently.

The term was coined by Robert Proctor of Stanford University in 1992.  It has been used to analyse why it has taken so long for the scientific consensus to be accepted on issues as broad as smoking, acid rain, ozone depletion and anthropogenic climate change.

Proctor argues that one of the main reasons for the prolongation of doubt about these issues is that vested interest groups try to control and divert discourse about them, for example by:

  • advocating more research when a sufficient body of evidence has already been amassed to prove something beyond reasonable doubt
  • insisting on ‘balance’ in a debate where the science has been overwhelmingly settled
  • working with various commentators and branches of the media to encourage the propagation of views which dissent with the scientific consensus

Two examples can be used to briefly exemplify agnotology in action: science historian Peter Galison of Harvard (quoted in Grigg, 2011) notes that one key approach taken by creationists, in the absence of evidence to support their theory, is to ‘teach the controversy’.  In another instance, he quotes a memo from the tobacco company Brown & Williamson that phrases their agnotology strategy even more succinctly: “Doubt is our product.”

(For the avoidance of doubt (ha ha), I was aware of some of these methods, but I was unaware that the sub-discipline had a name.)

Agnotology and environmentalism

Merchants of Doubt cover

Cover of Merchants of Doubt, by Oreskes and Conway (2010)

https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/merchants-of-doubt-9781596916104/

In ‘The Shock of the Anthropocene’, Bonneuil and Fressoz (2017) summarise their take on agnotology as questioning how the damages of ‘progress’ are made invisible.  They adopt the word ‘anxiolytic’ from the medical lexicon to suggest that a variety of forces, many of them endemic to capitalism, serve to reduce anxiety about the natural world, and therefore stymie meaningful steps from being taken to reduce environmental damage.  For example, the authors discuss the sowing of doubt about the causes of climate change by the oil lobby and its political mouthpieces – this is also covered by Merchants of Doubt (Oreskes and Conway, 2010).

I appreciate this exploration, and I recommend the book to those readers who are looking for a deeply thought-provoking look at our current human-dominated era (the Anthropocene), its current context, and its precedents.

Agnotology and social progress

However, I would like to direct the armoury of agnotology towards a new front.  It remains a fascination of mine that the gains of ‘progress’ are so poorly understood and appreciated by members of the public and even by some politicians, media professionals and academics.  If this premise is accepted, then there must exist forces which lead to a state of ignorance about social progress.  And if we accept that in environmental affairs, there have been anxiolytic forces, then I contend that in social progress, there are anxiogenic – i.e. anxiety inducing – forces.

But what are these forces, and to what extent are they conscious decisions made by certain interest groups, and to what extent are they unintentional by-products of other factors?  How many are timeless and how many are contemporary?  To what extent are these forces avoidable?

I am only just beginning to collate a short list of anxiogenic forces – and I am aware that some of these suggestions are contentious, and others draw on the same themes as some of my earlier posts, such as this, but here goes.

Anxiogenic forces in the context of social progress

  • Heuristics (psychological predispositions) These include
    • Confirmation bias: We are biased towards information that confirms what we already believe
    • Negativity bias: We focus on negative information
    • Our susceptibility to stereotyping
    • Our inbuilt desire to imitate the majority

These are timeless, and they are difficult – but not impossible – to turn around.

  • Mass media and the internet Playing on our psychological biases, ‘If it bleeds it leads’ is just as apt online as it was when applied to the print media. Bad news sells.  The worldview of the mass media is easier to turnaround than the inbuilt biases of our psyche, but it is still a mammoth task!  Although the tabloid press is apparently in terminal decline, ‘clickbait’ articles exploit our weakness for shocking news.

Rusty radiator award screenshot

Screenshot from one of the 2014 winners of the ‘Rusty Radiator’ Award for stereotyping poverty in aid adverts

Source: https://www.radiaid.com

  • The aid sector The raison d’etre of the aid sector is to help other people, so when there have been successes, and fewer recipients are in such desperate need of aid, and when salaries depend on it, is it any wonder that social progress is not publicised as much as it could be?  How many charitable adverts come from places that have seen success stories?  The aid sector has shown itself to be malleable – viz the shift away from emerging countries such as India, and the movement to a focus on more environmental issues – but vested interests are taking a while to dissipate.  This factor links in with concerns about ‘poverty porn’ and ‘white saviours’ – which are covered in articles such as this one – and the issue of stereotyping in aid adverts is satirised at radiaid.com.  I must emphasise that this is not to say that this sector plays a significant role in promoting social progress – far from it! – but some actors in the sector surely play a role in the public’s perception that the whole world is in dire straits.  Time will tell if the aid sector can reform itself in this regard.

 

  • The education sector I argue elsewhere that much of today’s education, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, contributes towards a negatively skewed view of the world, thanks to a combination of
    • outdated information
    • lack of historical context
    • a focus on ‘exciting’ but rare events such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and wars (yes, I did say rare!) over humdrum, quotidian, affairs and unpublicised, incremental gains

This is both fertile ground for further research and scope for change here.  To this end, I am working on an ‘optimistic education’ manifesto – watch this space!

  • Social media There will be more reference back to photographs, videos and posts shared on social media from years gone by – which are in the most part selected to show a ‘positive’ angle.  This will be accentuated by the fact that as people live longer (which is still the global trend, even if it is stalling in some developed countries), there is more scope for a ‘rose-tinted’ view of the past to spread.

These are just a few anxiogenic forces – and I would welcome your thoughts on others, and to what extent you think they are avoidable.

Closing thoughts

Learning the lessons of agnotology will take a while.  Using these lessons to push for a more realistic opinion of social progress – a more realistic worldview – will be an even harder task.  Of this I am no longer ignorant.

Bibliography

Bonneuil, Christophe. and Fressoz, Jean-Baptiste (2017) The Shock of the Anthropocene (Verso)

Grigg, Ray (2011): Agnotology – the propagation of doubt – 19 Nov 2011 (accessed 15 Mar 2019): https://tidechange.ca/2011/12/19/agnotology-the-propagation-of-doubt-by-ray-grigg/

Holmes, Jamie (2015) ‘The case for teaching ignorance’ – New York Times, 24 Aug 2015 (accessed 15 Mar 2019): https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/24/opinion/the-case-for-teaching-ignorance.html

Oreskes, Naomi and Conway, Erik (2010) Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury)