I spend much of my time shrugging off breathless news events. Ebola (now Zika), employment reports, Federal Reserve rate changes, government shutdowns, peak earnings and so on. Much of what passes for earth-shaking news turns out to be, with the benefit of hindsight, something in between idle gossip and fear-mongering. The genuine, not well-anticipated, actual market-moving news -- such as the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union -- is a relatively rare thing.
However, there is a disconcerting trend that has gained strength: agnotology. It’s a term worth knowing, since it is going global. The word was coined by Stanford University professor Robert N. Proctor, who described it as “culturally constructed ignorance, created by special interest groups to create confusion and suppress the truth in a societally important issue.” It is especially useful to sow seeds of doubt in complex scientific issues by publicizing inaccurate or misleading data.
Culturally constructed ignorance played a major role in the Brexit vote, as we shall see after a bit of explanation.
Perhaps the best-known example of agnotology is found in the tobacco industry’s claims for many years that the evidence that smoking cigarettes causes cancer was “not yet in.” The position of the industry and its executives was that the hazards of cigarette smoking were an open question. Of course, this was a huge lie, as the industry had scientific evidence that proved that smoking caused cancer, emphysema, heart and lung disease. As Proctor observed, “The tobacco industry is famous for having seen itself as a manufacturer of two different products: tobacco and doubt.”
That doubt, however, allowed cigarette sales to continue for decades before the inescapable truth came to light. And it forestalled broader regulatory oversight by the states and the federal government for years. But the truth can only be held back for so long, and eventually tobacco sales in the U.S. fell off a cliff. But it was too late to save millions of people who became sick and died due to smoking.
Current agnotology campaigns seem to be having similarly desired effects. We see the results in a variety of public-policy issues where one side has manufactured enough doubt through false statements, inflammatory rhetoric and data from dubious sources that they can mislead public opinion in a significant way, at least for a time.
The backers of each of these public issues have used the technique of culturally constructed ignorance to affect public opinion, direct government policy and alter regulatory oversight. Here a just a few examples:
• Iraq has weapons of mass destruction
• Genetically modified crops are dangerous
• Global warming is a scientific hoax