In the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a burgeoning field in the social sciences dedicated to the study of ignorance. Linguist Iain Boal coined the term “agnotology” (from the Greek ἄgnosis, “not knowing” + logía, “the study of”) to describe the field and it was popularized by Stanford medical historian Robert Proctor.
The premise of agnotology is both simple and profound. Most people think of ignorance as the absence of knowledge. Proctor and others in the field argue the opposite — that ignorance is socially constructed in the same way that knowledge is. Powerful interests instruct society to pay attention to some things and not others through a variety of inducements (you get paid to study certain topics and not others) and punishments (you will be blacklisted if you ask too many questions about forbidden topics). Over time these values become invisible and just a part of culture.
The field was thoroughly anti-corporate. Proctor’s research revealed how the tobacco industry rigged studies about the safety of cigarettes for decades. And Proctor stuck it to all aspects of the cancer industry (from cancer charities to Pharma and government regulators) with his book Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know And Don’t Know About Cancer — that is now out of print and difficult to find (the best bet is to try ebay). In 2008, Stanford University Press published the definitive guide to the field, Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance and it’s an absolute masterpiece.
Agnotology is a powerful tool for describing the ways in which toxic industries condition society to accept products that cause harm. One can apply agnotology studies to any industry or sphere of power in society. In many ways, Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance is a fitting sequel to Steven Lukes’ Power: A Radical View that argues that true power is measured by the ability of certain institutions to shape the aspirations and ideation of oppressed groups.
And then in the 2010s, a curious thing happened. A giant object passed in front of the sun. Few people talk or write about agnotology anymore, in spite of its abundant utility. Instead, thousands of universities now have professorships and staff positions dedicated to “misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation” studies. And it seems that every day another unemployed PR hack starts an astroturf “think tank” dedicated to studying “misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation” — and they are all effortlessly flush with cash.