The Spread of Ignorance

Businessmen putting their heads in holes in the ground. Image shot 2011. Exact date unknown.

I often post on the dangers of ignorance and fallacious reasoning. You can see some examples here, here and here. Science has learned a great deal about our tendencies when it comes to how we perceive reality, and has even been able to categorize the typical errors we make. For example, type I and type II errors. A type I error is detecting an effect that is not present, while a type II error is failing to detect an effect that is present. For a list of the most common logical fallacies, check this list at the University of Idaho. Our tendencies are so predictable and reliable that people can use them to influence our beliefs. Now the science historian, Robert Proctor, has created a new word for the study of this practice. The study of the deliberate spread of ignorance and confusion is agnotology. It’s a combination of agnosis and ontology. If you don’t want to follow the links, agnosis is “not knowing,” or ignorance. Ontology is the philosophical study of being.

The classic example of deliberately creating ignorance and confusion is the campaign by the tobacco industry to hide the dangers of smoking. This was revealed by a secret memo showing how they manufactured doubt and artificial controversy to quash the growing evidence of the danger. The strategy is being used today against the growing evidence of climate change. Keep people ignorant and suggestible to doubt, and create the impression of controversy where there is none.

See this article by Georgina Kenyon at the BBC for more.

— How do people or companies with vested interests spread ignorance and obfuscate knowledge? Georgina Kenyon finds there is a term which defines this phenomenon.

— Proctor explains that ignorance can often be propagated under the guise of balanced debate. For example, the common idea that there will always be two opposing views does not always result in a rational conclusion. This was behind how tobacco firms used science to make their products look harmless, and is used today by climate change deniers to argue against the scientific evidence.

— “This ‘balance routine’ has allowed the cigarette men, or climate deniers today, to claim that there are two sides to every story, that ‘experts disagree’ – creating a false picture of the truth, hence ignorance.”

— 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. In the case of ignorance about tobacco and climate change, a scientifically illiterate society will probably be more susceptible to the tactics used by those wishing to confuse and cloud the truth.

Source: BBC – Future – The man who studies the spread of ignorance


About arjaybe

Jim has fought forest fires and controlled traffic in the air and on the sea. Now he writes stories.
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2 Responses to The Spread of Ignorance

  1. It has always been my belief that people are not ignorant by choice but by the vast amounts of disinformation they receive. Marketers have for years used this technique to sell people what they do not need or to convince them of a truth that does not exist.

    A lot of that, also, is partly the blame of people who are generally accepting of what the so-called “experts” have to say, and thereby end up being herded in directions they might not otherwise take, if they use reason and common sense to question the “experts.” Take for instance the dozens of diet fads in the last two decades alone. The only people who really benefited are the authors/sellers of those concepts. The best diet has always been moderation, plain and simple.

    • arjaybe says:

      Hi Ralph. Welcome back.

      Totally agree. If people could learn the basics of scientific reasoning — doubt, scepticism, questioning — it would go a long way. The hard part is overcoming our tendency to fallacious reasoning. We tend to believe authorities. We confuse correlation with causation. There are a lot of pitfalls, and it’s easier to believe a good story.

      I start with doubt. My doubt sustains me.-)


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