None of us will ever match the wisdom of the Greek goddess Athena. No matter how many university degrees or educational titles we have to our names, there will always be matters we will remain ignorant of. This is in part due to the cognitive limits of the human brain. But, perhaps more frightening, it’s also because people exist who actively fuel public ignorance — because ignorance can be quite profitable. Climate change, political scandals and health crises have all been prolonged issues plaguing the world in part because powerful figures can benefit from them. This is a dire issue that must be addressed and understood if some of the most pressing crises of our time are going to be mended.
Robert Proctor, a science historian at Stanford University, began thinking about this idea in the 1960s and ‘70s. In 1995, he coined a term for it: agnotology, defined as the “study of willful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or win favour.” The term is derived from the Greek word “agnosis,” meaning “not knowing,” and ontology, the branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature of being. The main driver for Proctor to invent the term agnotology was when a document known as the Smoking and Health Proposal was leaked to the public. This document detailed the attempt of cigarette companies to deliberately blind the public from the fact that cigarettes are carcinogenic. It was a plan by the tobacco industry to cultivate an ignorant and cigarette-addicted public. The political and social implications of this intentional creation of ignorance are what motivated Proctor and the philosophers who came after him to investigate the creation and effects of ignorance.
One key issue to note is that ignorance can often be produced by a lack of access to educational resources. In order to fully rectify the issue of ignorance in the United States, a reworking of the educational system with a focus on equity of opportunity must occur. What I’m discussing here is the impact of the deliberate alteration of information on the ignorance of the public. The issue of resource accessibility is related to this, but not the focus of this article.
Viewing ignorance as something manufactured by powerful figures and institutions has a bearing on much of the pertinent issues plaguing the world today. Chief among them are censorship and fake news, two phenomena that leech information dissemination. People are afraid of what they don’t understand, and one way to assure that people won’t understand is to entirely block off avenues of information through censorship. Censorship is not just about muting swear words in the presence of a child. It’s about the suppression of ideas and information that are deemed morally or politically “offensive.” In the U.S. this is usually carried out by the Federal Communications Commission.
The history of censorship and its forms in the U.S. is murky. In the 1950s, it was Hollywood’s blacklist. Today, it’s an attempt to ban the teaching of critical race theory. Government officials and other powerful people have a clear interest in banning certain information from the public. Understanding, through agnotology, how ignorance can be and often is deliberately created emphasizes that ignorance often has political motives. People in power have influence over what the public remains ignorant of; as such, they need to be checked to assure their actions are ethical.
Fake news is one of the most popular ways for misinformation — which fuels ignorance — to spread. A small paragraph in an article such as this cannot come close to doing the topic of fake news justice; hence I am not going to attempt to here. But, it’s worthy to ponder the effects of fake news on the perpetuation of ignorance. In the era of COVID-19, fake news has led to a great wave of vaccine hesitancy and resistance to mask mandates. Debunked myths about COVID-19 vaccines range from claims that they make you magnetic to infertility and DNA alteration. This ignorance in regard to COVID-19 vaccination is, quite literally, deadly. Without adequate information, vaccine hesitancy is allowed to fester in the ignorance of Americans. Agnotology sheds light on the systems of ignorance ingrained in the fabric of our realities. Ignorance does not only affect your grade on next week’s Anthropology 101 midterm. It affects intense political and social issues that are the crux of society, and therefore questions of who benefits while the public suffers from a lack of knowledge must be raised. What can the author of fake news gain? What do we stand to lose?
Recognizing that parts of our ignorance are the byproduct of the deliberate actions of others is a tough pill to swallow. To me, it is inconceivable that a person would intentionally confuse the public on serious issues just to make a quick buck or gain a sliver of power. However, those people are out there, and as such, the public needs to remain vigilant in checking their ignorance and information sources. Through agnotology, ignorance can be better understood as a human-made product. So often lack of knowledge is thought of as not reading enough books or forgetting to attend lectures. However, the existence of ignorance cannot always be blamed on the learner. Fake news, censorship and other methods are used daily to blind the public from facts. As students, we need to be aware of what we are not learning just as much as what we are learning.
Benjamin Davis is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.