Tag Archives: agnotology

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.