Agnotology: Why Do We Need to Study Ignorance?

The saying "knowledge is power" is quite popular, but nowadays we can affirm that ignorance is also power. Why? Find out!
Agnotology: Why Do We Need to Study Ignorance?

Written by Editorial Team

Last update: 22 February, 2023

The term “agnotology” isn’t too popular. To understand what it is, we must start with the meaning of ignorance . It is often assumed that this is the lack of knowledge. This is even the official definition by many countries’ highest language bodies.

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

In this sense, it doesn’t only depend on the lack of available information, but also on the creation and strategic 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.

In view of this reality, which is becoming more and more common thanks to new dissemination technologies, agnotology -or the study of induced ignorance- becomes relevant and will be described below.

What is agnotology?

Agnotology is the study of the deliberate dissemination of ignorance through erroneous or misleading information. Its etymological meaning comes from the conjunction of the Greek term agnōsis, which means “no knowledge”; 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 history of science and technology at Stanford University, who began to investigate the tactics employed by the tobacco industry to generate confusion about whether smoking causes cancer. It was Lain Boal who eventually coined the term “agnotology” in 1995.

Proctor’s concern began when, in 1979, a secret memo, written 10 years earlier by the tobacco company Brown & Williamson, was made public. In it, the practices employed by companies in the sector to counteract anti-smoking campaigns were demonstrated, as well as the dissemination of misleading messages to counter the messages that guaranteed consumer health.

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 stated 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 did not want consumers to know about the harmful effects of their product.

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

Ignorance as a political ploy

According to Proctor, the 1969 memo 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.

Today, this study has become as important as when Proctor was studying the concealment of the facts about the relationship between cancer and smoking. There is a truly overwhelming amount of misinformation spread by social networks, which do nothing but discredit, question, and dismantle scientific knowledge.

Examples of agnotology

Danah Boyd, a technology and social media scholar, states that YouTube is the main search tool used by people under 25 years of age to get information on any topic. However, scientific explanatory content on this platform is scarce compared to those of dubious and conspiratorial origin.

And one of the ways to spread intentional ignorance is to provide easier access to content with such characteristics. How many times has the scientific community kept discoveries to themselves in certain areas in order to obtain a certain monetary benefit?

But this isn’t all, even if the evidence is available, those who are in charge of spreading ignorance also know how to structure their information on the Internet so that those who access the scientific material can also see the conspiratorial content. All of this is done through search engine optimization.

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

Thus, when people search for videos from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, they also see those questioning vaccines or those of parents excitedly giving negative views of the outcome of vaccination.

Another fairly common example of agnotology concerns climate change. Despite the fact that there is sufficient 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’s very easy to fall into the trap of considering “both perspectives” to get a complete picture of reality. While it’s necessary to analyze all positions in order to obtain more accurate knowledge, we often let ourselves be fooled by this pretense and start echoing erroneous content.

Regarding this point, Proctor states that ignorance is often propagated under the excuse of a balanced debate, where scientific evidence and false content come into conflict.

In these cases, a false picture of truth is created and it is claimed that there are two versions of every story and that “experts” don’t agree. However, the reality is that the counterpart of the evidence is pure deception and only seeks to discredit the real knowledge.

So, it isn’t enough to know that quality content is available to the public and that we take for granted that there is sufficient available evidence for people to access. It’s important for us to understand that there’s a battle of information on the networks and that we must avoid placing ourselves in the middle.

A puppet.
Currently, the term agnotology has gained relevance due to the manipulation of information in networks.

The importance of the study of ignorance

In short, we stress 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 don’t know and why we don’t know it, what propagates ignorance in our society, as well as the factors that allow ignorance to be used as a political and social instrument, etc.

Only in this way can we be less naive when approaching the deceitful content that is propagated on social networks and the media.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.