Agnotology, The Science of Creating Ignorance

 

I came across the word agnotology a year or so ago and wondered about its origin.  From Google I found what must be a very early use of the new word agnotology, if not its coining, in an article by Linda Schiebinger titled Agnotology and Exotic Abortifacients: The Cultural Production of Ignorance in the Eighteenth Century Atlantic World.  The most recent of its 55 references is from 2004. The article emphasizes the work of Maria Sibylla Merian from 1699 to 1701 in Surinam, then Dutch Guiana. She was the only one of many naturalists and anthropologists active among the indigenous peoples in Africa and the Americas who mentioned extensive use of abortifacients for “menstrual regulation” (population control) that were widely known among these aborigines. The silence of the others had to be self-censorship imposed by no authority but by a rather universal cultural bias.  I did not find agnotology in any dictionary including the most recent Oxford English Dictionary.  I, personally, look forward to a long and constructive relationship with agnotology (as a “worthy [?] opponent”).  In any event the word must be quite new even though the behavior it defines must be almost as old as spoken language.  The tobacco industry has fostered the most adept of modern agnotologists.

 

In the 1960s I was browsing through a popular men’s magazine and found an article quite obviously planted by the tobacco industry to create doubt about the medically documented health problems attributable to cigarettes.  My suspicion was confirmed within a few weeks by a scandal—an enterprising reporter had tracked down the details of how the article had been planted in the magazine, presumably without the knowledge of the editor (my sympathies go out to him). 

 

On Sunday, February 18, 2007 (my 84th birthday) I attended a seminar at the annual meeting of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) in San Francisco titled: The Sociopolitical Manufacturing of Scientific Ignorance: Agnotology,  organized by Jonathan Coopersmith of Texas A&M University.  The first presentation was a recapitulation of the familiar shenanigans of the tobacco industry plus an account of a creditable science magazine named “Science Fortnightly” that was published for several years apparently motivated entirely to promote Kent Cigarettes.  Also I had not heard before that the first Kent filters contained asbestos.  So there were quite a few fronts for the tobacco agnotologists, most notably the George Marshall Institute, very active in downplaying second hand smoke, and a covey of  “charitable” foundations providing grants  for such fronts.

 

A useful list of  these organizations includes the following:

   The American Enterprise Institute $45,000,000 dispersed 1985-2006

   The Carthage Foundation,          $68,000,000  dispersed 1985-2003

   The Cato Institute, operating budget  $22,000,000 in 2007

   The Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation disperses $28,000,000 annually; it is one of the .     .   Koch family foundations along with the Charles G. Koch and the David H. Koch Foundations. .     Collectively they have contributed $196,000,000, mostly to think tanks, from 1980 to 2009.  

   The Earhart Foundation $95,000,000 in assets (major contributor to George Marshall Institute)       

   The George Marshall Institute  dispersed $5,500,000 1985- 2001

   The John M. Olin Foundation existed 1953-2005 & dispensrd $370,000,000 to think tanks

   The Linde and Harry Bradley Foundation, $290,000,000  in assets 

   The Mercatus Center received $11,874,500 1977-2009 from Koch family foundations

   The Sarah Saife Foundation,     $235,000,000 dispersed 1985-2003

   The W. H. Bradley Foundation  $13,000,000  in assets

  

Many have morphed into coveys of expert spin doctors practicing agnotology.   Examples of the sorts of projects funded: 1) A commission to study the accuracy of teaching materials used for

 

teaching environmental science; 2) Senior scientist program to foster sound science in policy debate. It appears that these projects really exist to rebut an established consensus for the benefit of sponsoring clients. The AAAS presenters emphasized many names recurring as participants in these organizations.  The presenters had such lists—useful in evaluating the motives of any new organization not yet known to be a front for agnotology.

With help from Google I managed to duplicate such lists, proving an ability to apply their method of identifying new such fronts in the future without even remembering an old list of names—all you need is the above list of known previous front organizations and you are off and running. While I was googling the useful list of agnotologist think tanks and institutes, I was amazed by the fact that the majority of them had affiliations with the Libertarian Political  Party and several with George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. 

In 1957 the University of Virginia had established a branch in Fairfax, a suburb of Washington, DC.  In 1972 the Virginia legislature voted to stop supporting the branch in Fairfax and the branch became George Mason University—I am seeking the details.  The Charles G. Koch Foundation has been a major supporter of George Mason University.  It is logical that agnotology would be attractive to wealthy corporations that are major polluters of the environment.  Capitalism is much more efficient in the realm of economics than in the realm of social justice—this very term has become anathema to Libertarians according to Brian Doherty, author of Radicals for Capitalism (page 546).  Is the Libertarian Party aware that it may be inadvertently morphing into an oligarchy of agnotologists?

Since I originally wrote this in 2008, the following have been published and will aid you in detecting agnotologists: 1) Radicals for Capitalism, A freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement by Brian Doherty, Public AffairsTM, 2007, and 2) Covert Operarations by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, August 30, 2010, pages 45-55.  The following amazing quotation is from the New Yorker Article:

       The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, is a multi media exploration of the theory that mankind evolved in response to climate change.  At the main entrance, viewers confronted wit a giant graph charting the
Earth’s temperature over the past ten million years, which notes that it is far cooler now than it was ten thousand years ago.  Overhead the text reads, “HUMANS EVOLVED IN RESPONSE TO A CHANGING WORLD.” The message, amplified by the exhibit’s Web site, is that “key human adaptations evolved in response to environmental instability.”  Only at the end of the exhibit, under the headline “OUR SURVIVAL CHALLENGE,” is it noted that levels of carbon dioxide are higher now than they have ever been, and that they are projected to increase dramatically in the next century.  No cause  is given for this development; no mention is made of any possible role played by fossil fuels.  The exhibit makes it seem like a natural continuum.  The accompanying text says, “During the period in which humans evolved, Earth’s temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere fluctuated together.”  An interactive game in the exhibit suggests that humans will continue to adapt to climate change in the future.  People may build “underground cities,” developing “short, compact bodies” or “curved spines,” so that “moving around in tight spaces will be no problem.”

       Such ideas uncannily echo the Koch message.  The Company’s January newsletter to employees, for instance, argues that “fluctuations in the earth’s climate predate humanity,” and concludes, ”Since we cannot control Mother Nature, let’s figure out how to get along with her changes.”  Joseph Romm, a physicist who runs the Web site ClimateProgress.org, is infuriated with the Smithsonian’s presentation.  “The whole exhibit whitewashes the modern climate issue,” he said.  “I think the Kochs wanted to be seen as some sort of high-minded company, associated with the greatest natural-history museum in the country,  But the truth is, the exhibit is underwritten by big time polluters, who are underground funders of action to stop efforts to deal with this threat to humanity.  I think the Smithsonian should have drawn the line.”

 

Mark Twain called willful withholding of vital information a silent lie.  Here is an example from the August 24, 2010, issue of a prominent national newspaper the day after  United States District Judge Royce Lamberth had granted an injunction prohibiting all federal funding of human stem cell research.  I found nothing incorrect in the report.  The fact that human embryos are provided by fertility clinics was there.  The processing of the embryo including at what point the embryo was killed was there.  The neglected fact: fertility clinics inevitably produce many more embryos than can be implanted and the leftovers are routinely destroyed after the desired successful pregnancies are completed.      

 

BS detection does not usually require such formal research as described above. Did you ever wonder why a college graduate is required to have a major field of study? Four years of full loads of course work is not enough. A subtle benefit of in-depth knowledge of at least one subject is that it permits a personal check on the reliability of sources such as newspapers and magazines. If their information in the field in which you are expert is seriously faulty, that is grounds for not trusting them in an area where you are less well informed.  Perhaps it is noteworthy that Phi Beta Kappa does not consider vocational courses in calculating grade point averages for eligibility for election to their honor society.  In other words, detailed knowledge in liberal arts and science may contribute more to BS detection than competence in a particular vocation.  Ignore the rest of this paragraph if you are up on all the old jokes.  BS can mean at least two things.  MS is more of the same and PhD is piled higher and deeper.

 

When I was a child, Charles Lindbergh was rich and famous. Reporters were very anxious to quote him on almost any topic, especially politics. Why was his opinion about matters other than aviation so highly valued by the public? Even Lindbergh was probably not highly qualified in aeronautical engineering.  So be very careful about the credentials of your sources. Ignore the rest of this paragraph if you are up on all the old jokes.  BS can mean at least two things. MS is ”more of the same” and PhD is “piled higher and deeper.”

 

I close with a 200 year old quotation from William Godwin who lived from  1756-1836:

     Ignorance and credulity have ever been companions, and have misled and enslaved mankind: philosophy has in all ages endeavored to oppose their progress and to loosen the shackles they had imposed: philosophers have on this account been called unbelievers; unbelievers of what? of the fictions of fancy, of witchcraft, hobgoblins, apparitions, vampires, fairies, of the influence of stars on human affairs, miracles wrought by the bones of saints…..fortune tellers…...with endless variety of folly?  These they have disbelieved and despised, but have ever bowed their hoary heads to Truth and Nature.

 

Addendum.  There is a new book that should warrant careful reading: Merchants of Doubt, How a handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, Bloomsbury 2010 368pp.  This book was favorably reviewed in the Guardian for September 3-9, 2010, and is a summary of agnotology from tobacco through Star Wars (the strategic Defense Initiative), acid rain, the ozone hole, the fight over second hand smoke, to the denial of global warming, and to the belated attacks on Rachel Carson—without calling it agnotology.

John A. Frantz, MD, NASW, April 8, 2008, revised September 2, 2010

 

A Lesson in Skepticism

A couple of generations ago (1938) a prominent citizen of Monroe was confronted by his frantic wife,  “I have heard on the radio that the Martians are invading.  What should we do?”  Pearl Guess answered calmly, “Turn off the radio.”   As told by an old timer (Nate Roth)

 

 

Mark Twain is even more concise: The only difference between fiction and nonfiction is that fiction should be completely believable.