Agnotology, or “the study of how ignorance is deliberately produced“, has played a huge role in various political, health and social campaigns. It transfigures fact into doubt and reduces the perceived legitimacy of scientific facts.
The first wide-spread instance of this occurred in the 1950’s when scientists began to publish strong evidence of a link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer (source). A journalist, Alistair Cooke, predicted this would be the end of the tobacco industry. This is because largely, prior to this instance, gatekeepers (the fourth estate) played a dominant role in publishing facts and quality, accurate information. However the public relations team working for the interests of the tobacco industry manufactured doubt of these facts and thus post-poned the conclusion that tobacco was harmful for decades.
- The industry appeared to engage in high level research to reassure the public
- The ‘question’ was over-complicated and intended to sow doubt; lung cancer could have numerous causes.
- Undermine serious research; it was criticised as “anecdotal”, “irrelevant” or “statistical”
- Normalisation; the tobacco industry would insist the issue was “stale news”; why can’t the media focus on what “really matters”?
Scientists have recently dubbed the current era as “post-truth” (ibid). This means that the emphasis on information creation and intake is no longer on rationality, but on sensationalism.
Agnotology looks at both what we don’t know, and why we aren’t supposed to know it. As the digital age moves forward and the fourth estate continues to retreat, the diminished presence of gatekeepers and fact checking in news media presents dangers to the current social paradigm. As citizen journalism and active culture emerges, more issues with truth and issues with agnotology are likely to arise; perhaps we will see a return in demand for quality gatekeepers in information publication.