Newsflash: your ignorance is not bliss — what you don’t know can truly hurt you. And that there’s more ignorance around than there used to be, and that its purveyors have gotten much better at filling our heads with nonsense. Say hello to the word of the day: Agnotogenesis – the deliberate creation and spreading of doubt, ignorance, or uncertainty to save off regulation.
In 1979, a secret tobacco industry memo called the ‘Smoking and Health Proposal’ was revealed to the public. Written a decade earlier by a tobacco company, it exposed many smug tactics to fight “anti-cigarette forces”.
One of the controversial and certainly the most revealing sections of the memo offers ways how to market cigarettes to the mass public: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
This big tobacco industry secret interested Robert Proctor, a science historian from Stanford University.
Through his research, Proctor found that the cigarette industry didn’t want consumers to know whether smoking causes cancer or cardiovascular disorders, and it spent billions obscuring the facts of the health effects of smoking. This revelation led Proctor to create a word for the study of the deliberate propagation of ignorance: agnotology.
Agnotology is the study of wilful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or win favor. Agnotogenesis, hence, is the deliberate creation of ignorance doubt, ignorance, or uncertainty to save off regulation or profit.
Proctor found that ignorance spreads when firstly, many people do not understand a concept or fact and secondly when special interest groups – like a commercial firm or a political group – then work hard to create confusion about an issue.
Take it this way — scientifically and media-illiterate people are more susceptible to the tactics used by the ones wishing to twist and hide the truth.
“While some smart people will profit from all the information now just a click away, many will be misled into a false sense of expertise. My worry is not that we are losing the ability to make up our own minds, but that it’s becoming too easy to do so. We should consult with others much more than we imagine. Other people may be imperfect as well, but often their opinions go a long way toward correcting our own imperfections, as our own imperfect expertise helps to correct their errors,” warns David Dunning, a social psychologist.
So while agnotology may have had its origins in the tobacco industry lies, nowadays, the need for the study of human ignorance has never been stronger.