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The bitter fruits of induced ignorance

By Ken Macnab - posted Tuesday, 11 March 2014

In his 1995 book, The Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don't Know About Cancer, Robert Proctor, a Professor of the History of Science at Stanford University, coined the word 'agnotology', from the classical Greek agnÅsis, not knowing, plus the suffix -(o)logy, a subject of study. Agnotology is the study of how ignorance, particularly in scientific, military and technical matters, can be manufactured and manipulated by strategies and campaigns dominated by vested interests.

Incidentally, this coinage appears to overlook the nineteenth century creation of 'agnoiology', which first appeared in 1854, meaning, according to the OED, 'the study of the nature of ignorance or of what it is impossible to know'. No matter; agnotology has swept the field.

Michael Quinion, author of the World Wide Words Newsletter, in 2013 defined agnotology as 'the study of culturally induced ignorance.' He quoted Londa Schiebinger, also a Stanford Professor of the History of Science, as saying in 2005, 'Agnotology refocuses questions about "how we know" to include questions about what we do not know, and why not.'


Quinion went on to state that among the processes that 'impede or prevent acceptance of scientific findings' were: the very human desire to ignore unpleasant facts, media neglect of topics, corporate or government secrecy, and misrepresentation for a commercial or political end. They often generate controversy, much of it ill-informed.

In the last decade and a half, agnotology has been applied in an ever widening range of areas. A recent study edited by Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, titled Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (2008), focused on questions such as 'What don't we know, why don't we know it, what keeps ignorance alive, what allows it to be used as a political instrument?' By analysing contested arenas such as global climate change, military secrecy, female orgasm, environmental denialism, Native American palaeontology, and racial ignorance, they showed that ignorance in these areas was the outcome of cultural and political struggles.

The classic case of deliberately induced ignorance is the tobacco industry. In 1954, alarmed by public reaction to the thirteen scientific studies published over the preceding five years, Big Tobacco turned to Hill and Knowlton, one of the world's five largest public relations firms. They advised the industry, among other things, to set up their own research organisation, the Council for Tobacco Research, to produce 'science' favourable to the industry, cast doubt on all unfavourable scientific research, and oppose the case for regulation of tobacco products. A tobacco company executive wrote in a memo in 1969:

Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.

In a powerful exposé of this whole campaign, David Michaels, a George Washington University epidemiologist, currently Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Health and Safety, published Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health in 2008. He revealed that the tobacco industry's duplicitous tactics spawned a multimillion dollar industry that is dismantling public health safeguards in the United States.

Michaels took his title from the 1969 memo, and wrote:


the industry understood that the public is in no position to distinguish good science from bad. Create doubt, uncertainty, and confusion. Throw mud at the anti-smoking research under the assumption that some of it is bound to stick. And buy time, lots of it, in the bargain.

These and other Big Tobacco strategies were successful for decades, and are still being used sixty years on.

Early in January 2014 the three giant cigarette corporations of America reached agreement with the US government on publishing nationwide 'corrective statements' - in newspapers, on TV, on the internet and on cigarette packs – acknowledging that they had 'deliberately deceived the American public'. Under the heading 'here is the truth', some of the facts proven about tobacco were to be publicised. This was an outcome of litigation started under President Clinton in 1999, using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act (RICO).

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About the Author

Dr Ken Macnab is an historian and President of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) at the University of Sydney.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Ken Macnab

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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