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Word of the Day: Agnotology

Pardon me for my ignorance and excitement, but today I’m newly enthralled with a word that I’m sure some of you have heard before: agnotology. Not yet recognized by my spell-check, agnotology is defined by Wikipedia as “the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt.”

Now, one might ask at first blush: Why on earth would anyone want to study that? In this age of enlightenment, of the Internet, there ought to be oodles of real knowledge everywhere. And yet, as the universe’s leading expert on the subject has pointed out, “the conscious creation of ignorance is rampant.”

Stanford University scholar Dr. Robert N. Proctor even wrote a book about his word: and I ordered it today. The chapters treat examples from the realms of global climate change, military secrecy, female orgasm, environmental denialism, Native American paleontology, theoretical archaeology and racial ignorance. The primary focus of Proctor’s work, however, has been to call out the cigarette industry for its decades of misleading information.

The manufacturers and marketers of your grandfather’s Marlboros, as is now so widely known, consciously conspired to conceal information from the masses so that they’d keep lighting up. Today, even though some folks know butts are bad for them, they still smoke. Companies are allowed to make them and sell them and, well, it’s anyone’s right to increase their risk of lung cancer if they want to, right?

Though I’ve not yet had time to study this, I’m sure that agnotologists have unearthed myriad recurring patterns, or tactics, whether you’re talking about cigarettes, or lead in paints, or climate change and, to be sure, lawn chemicals. The folks agnotology would really appear to be studying are the lobbyists who are paid to change public opinion in a facts-be-damned recklessness that leaves planetary and human health in its wake.

None of this is new, of course. Politicians and preachers have been leveraging doubt to sway public opinion since the beginning of time. Whenever something can’t be explained empirically — and it so rarely can — it leaves an opening for ignorance to creep in. In that case, a made-up answer is every bit as valid as the truth in most people’s minds. Just deliver the load of bull with confidence and you’re likely to find a receptive audience.

And I’m not sure why the discovery of this word is so exciting. Applying a name to the study of corporate deception won’t stop the lies, after all.

But I, for one, would prefer to believe in collective and collected human intelligence. Perhaps agnotologists will one day be able to make the successful case that second-hand cigarette smoke wafting through a room is fundamentally no different than second-hand lawn chemicals drifting through a neighborhood, or that the people now denouncing global warming came from ancestors who thought dumping open sewage into lakes and rivers was just fine.

Maybe, just maybe, we’ll wake up before it’s too late. We need to at least hope.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

Number of Entries : 1023
  • karl

    Let’s us know how the book is, Paul.

    I’ve read two other books on this topic, both excellent: Doubt is Their Product by Patrick Michaels and Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway. Michaels’ book tells the story of how the tobacco industry manufactured doubt about the harms cigarette smoking as part of a successful strategy to delay regulations on smoking. Other industries–asbestos, beryllium, and chemical manufacturers–then adopted this strategy for their own regulatory battles. Oreskes and Conway’s book picks up where Michaels’ leaves off, showing how the strategy has been used to stall action on acid rain, ozone, and of course global warming. It ends with a chapter on the manufactured debate around DDT.

    Neither book discusses specifically Croplife, RISE, or the pesticide companies we fight, but the book is super informative, nonetheless.

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