Monday, April 20, 2009


A reader (David) posted a comment about my recent Denyse O'Leary quotation. He alerted me to a new word: agnotology [Comments].

The Wikipedia entry is informative [agnolology agnatology] but there's lots more to learn about this word. Everyone is agreed that the word was invented by Robert Proctor a Standford University Professor who studies the history of science. Everyone is agreed that it refers to the study of ignorance, or why we don't know certain things. But there's more to it than that ....

Here's an excerpt from an article by Clive Thompson in WIRED magazine [Clive Thompson on How More Info Leads to Less Knowledge].
Normally, we expect society to progress, amassing deeper scientific understanding and basic facts every year. Knowledge only increases, right?

Robert Proctor doesn't think so. A historian of science at Stanford, Proctor points out that when it comes to many contentious subjects, our usual relationship to information is reversed: Ignorance increases.

He has developed a word inspired by this trend: agnotology. Derived from the Greek root agnosis, it is "the study of culturally constructed ignorance."

As Proctor argues, when society doesn't know something, it's often because special interests work hard to create confusion. Anti-Obama groups likely spent millions insisting he's a Muslim; church groups have shelled out even more pushing creationism. The oil and auto industries carefully seed doubt about the causes of global warming. And when the dust settles, society knows less than it did before.

"People always assume that if someone doesn't know something, it's because they haven't paid attention or haven't yet figured it out," Proctor says. "But ignorance also comes from people literally suppressing truth—or drowning it out—or trying to make it so confusing that people stop caring about what's true and what's not."
This is an important insight. It's not something that we didn't know already but it's good to emphasize the concept and give it a name.

Creationism is an excellent example. It's not just that creationists fail to understand science, it's also that they are being actively lied to in an attempt to spread ignorance. In other words, there are people who deliberately spread misinformation in order to oppose knowledge.

If we are going to fight creationism we have to do more than just teach evolution in the schools. If we do that then we are just barely holding our own against the people who spread ignorance. At best, students will be aware of a conflict between what they learn in school and what they learn everywhere else.

In order to fight the spread of ignorance we have to take on the liars directly and show why they are lying. They need to be discredited and exposed. Unfortunately, many of the enemy are "Christians" and Christians get special protection in our society. You can criticize astrology and quackary but not religion.

That has to change. Perhaps we can lump them all under the term "agnotology" and treat them all the same?


  1. Thompson writes indecisively about internet epistemology:

    "Maybe the internet itself has agnatological side-effects."

    And later, "The Web makes secrets harder to keep."

    I also wonder if he'd be as willing to point the finger at religion.

  2. Bayesian Bouffant, FCDMonday, April 20, 2009 2:50:00 PM

    From wikipedia: Three wise monkeysThe source that popularized this pictorial maxim is a 17th century carving over a door of the famous Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan.I've been there. I've seen that.