Agnotology and Sophistry

As I understand it, agnotology, the scientific name for "epistemic closure," could be taken in a couple of different ways (Or, in the words of the Stagirite translated by Moerbeke and pondered upon by the Angelic Doctor, agnotologia dicitur multipliciter).  First, there is the purposeful production of unreasonable doubt:

The unifying feature of the right in the 21st century is not so much ideology as an embrace of ignorance, represented most obviously by the leading figures on the right in the US, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. Rather than reflecting an even partially coherent world view and political program, rightwing politics now consists of the restatement of talking points in favor of a set of policy positions that represent affirmations of tribal identity, rather than elements of a coherent program.

So, Christianists fight to the death on gay marriage but are unconcerned by the emergence of serial divorce and remarriage as a social norm, particularly among the Republican elite. Libertarians denounce gun control as the first step to dictatorship but, many have been unconcerned or supportive of the abrogation of most constitutional protections against arbitrary arrest and punishment. Business pushes its own barrow through continuous advocacy of tax cuts, but shows no concern about massive defense spending that is already rendering those cuts unsustainable.

Increasingly, I’ve become convinced that the best way to understand this can be summed in the term ‘agnotology’ (h/t commenter Fran Barlow), coined by Robert Proctor to describe study of the manufacture of ignorance. Proctor was referring primarily to the efforts of the tobacco lobby to cast doubt on research demonstrating the link between smoking and cancer. But the veterans of that campaign have moved on to a whole range of new issues, and their techniques have been so widely imitated that the entire political right now looks like Big Tobacco writ even bigger.

The manufacture of ignorance is most obvious in relation to climate change, where the gullibility associated with ‘scepticism’ has reached levels that would have seemed unbelievable (at least in the absence of the kind of religious commitment associated with creationism). If supporters of science had invented someone like Lord Monckton, he would have been dismissed as an absurd caricature.

I think this is far too narrow.  In the first place, it's my guess that not many of those who promote the views discussed above actually believe them to be false.  To this extent I think the Tobacco Industry analogy does not  work.  For on that analogy, the Tobacco companies made efforts to suppress knowledge about their harmful products–they engaged in other words in deliberate propoganda.  

Second, I think what is really at issue in agnotology is the aura of complete unreasonableness associated with a certain set of beliefs or views.  Otherwise science-believing, antibiotic-taking individuals will suddenly seize up when a select set of scientific hypotheses fall under discussion.  Germ theory of disease?  Fine.  Plant Hybridization?  Fine.  Global warming?  Science can't prove anything!

For this reason, I'd say we have a problem primary of selective skepticism.  So the the problem is primarily one of unreasonable ignoring.  This, I think, is a process question.  So agnotology ought to focus on the sophistical mechanisms of ignoring. 

8 thoughts on “Agnotology and Sophistry”

  1. So what you’re saying is that there is first the willful production, and then the mindless propagation.  Your very nice turn-of-phrase, “selective skepticism,” could be a function of cognitive dissonance.  The “unreasonable” part of ignoring is uncritical resistance to threats to one’s belief system. A related effect is willful acceptance of anything that supports the belief system, no matter how absurd.

  2. Are those examples of agnotology? You can easily argue those are examples of people being inconsistent in their views, but none of those (except global warming) are examples of "manufacturing ignorance".
    I think John is right on, the crux of the matter is "selective skepticism", or the reverse "selective acceptance" .
    CS Lewis, in a different context noticed the same problem: "Most of us are not really approaching the subject [Christian society] in order to find out what Christianity has to say: we are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party. We are looking for an ally where we are offered either a Master or – a Judge."
    That's how people approach science; they approach it in the hope of finding support for the views of their party.

  3. Hey BN, if you mean to say you're not clear on what Agnotology is, then I agree.  I'm not certain we're talking about anything new.  Now however, you cannot suggest that people are really making selective use of science, they're making selective misuse of it.  If scientists do not support your view, attack their motivations (etc.).  That behavior, ine arena of policy, goes only one way. 

    Sigo–right. I think what might be at issue is a case of the biases–confirmation, selection, etc.  I don't know that there is anything new here.  I would not suggest, however, that one certainly must wonder why so many of these National Review types engage in this behavior.

    Here's a funny story for everyone.  Over at Crooked Timber, a Bicameral poxist tried to suggest liberals are just as bad.  His evidence?  Recycling.  He said liberals believe it's awesome despite mixed evidence.  That's it?  Besides, if recycling as it goes sucks, let's find a better way (people said).  A better mapped out by evidence!  Imagine that. 

  4. John, you are right, I am not clear on what Agnotology really is. So, I hope you have enough patience to explain me where I got it wrong.
    Since the Crooked Timber (CT) mentions global warming as "a key example" of Agnotology, more specific "The Oregon Petition" .
    Here's the Oregon Petition: " We urge the United States government to reject the global warming agreement that was written in Kyoto, Japan in December, 1997, and any other similar proposals. The proposed limits on greenhouse gases would harm the environment, hinder the advance of science and technology, and damage the health and welfare of mankind. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth."
    Maybe I'm missing something; however, in my opinion, the text does not deny that global warming exists. It also does not deny the anthropogenic nature of the climate change. What it denies is the alarmist, catastrophic view of many.

    Anyway, in my opinion, Jim Manzi's original article addressed something else:"Conservative domestic policy would be in better shape if conservative magazines and conservative columnists were more willing to call out Republican politicians (and, to a lesser extent, conservative entertainers) for offering bromides instead of substance, and for pandering instead of grappling with real policy questions."
    That is the problem in my opinion. It is intellectual laziness. It reminds me of the Gettier's cow ( Why didn't Franco go to see the cow? Why just look from a distance?
    In the same way, I think right-wing politicians/columnists, prefer "to take a look from distance" on major issues like these. Why doesn't that happen on the left? In my opinion, it has to do with something that I've heard a numerous time on this blog, namely that "conservative columnists defend their positions with arguments".

  5. Hey BN.  I am not clear what agnotology means–so perhaps you can explain it to me. 

    But taking the Oregon petition as an example.  It's a petition circulated to give the impression of significant disagreement among qualified scientists on the question of global warming.  Few if any of the signatories were qualified.  It's still gets circulated, despite the fact that people know that.

    On the other matter, conservative columnists in my estimation do defend their positions with arguments.  Too often these arguments are bad ones.  A new question for me at this point is how to respond to bad arguments such as these.  Making good arguments (cf. the health care debate) seems to gain little traction.

  6.  John, I'm sorry if I offended you in any way. The reason I stopped by here, is not to promote my blog (I don't have one),  not to get some useful kudos (extra credit in school – school is over for me),  not to impress anyone or not even to try to convince anyone of anything (that would be the worst of all illusions). The reason I stop by is to get a different perspective on things. One that, because of my background, I was not exposed to.

  7. BN–I think you've misunderstood me.  I am not certain myself what Agnotology is–that was the point of the post.  For that reason, we seem to be in agreement–and no I'm not offended and of course I appreciate you dropping by with all of your different points of view. 

  8. Yeah .. me and my insecurities 🙂
    I think I understand John Quiggin's cry for coherence. But I fail to understand the connection of that to Agnotology. It sounds like he's equating the two.
    More plausible maybe would be to argue that right-wing is using agnotology to hide their incoherence. But I'm not sure that's even the case.
    Politics unfortunately is more about sound-bites than coherence and reason. That's the price of democracy, which is nothing else rather than a popularity contest. That being said, democracy is still the best system available.

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