“Everything has either a price or a dignity. Whatever has a price can be replaced. Whatever is above all price has dignity.” – Emmanuel Kant
Agnotology is the study of ignorance, or not knowing. As such it is the antithesis of epistemology, the study of the scope and limits of knowledge. In spite of its Greek roots, the word was minted within the last decade by Robert Proctor, a California academic who specializes in the history of science. The term Agnotology was coined to discredit the “junk science” used to defend cigarette smoking; but more recently it could be found imbedded in the faux science used to defend theories of climate change (nee “global warming”).
Surely ignorance itself is not a modern phenomenon. An individual might be expert on some subject, but no person is expert on all subjects. And specialized expertise is often dangerous; Dr. Frankenstein of literature and Werner Von Braun, Martin Heidegger, and Albert Einstein of recent memory are famous examples.
When the latter three wandered beyond their niche of expertise, specialized knowledge was of little value, hardly fungible. Von Braun and Heidegger became Nazis and the German refugee Einstein, as a Princeton recluse, was a late arrival as a critic of mid- 20th Century German behavior. Even within his specialty, Einstein was morally ambiguous; he was for nuclear weapons before he was against them.
In isolation, science is the study of process; how things work, not how they should work. Pure science has few concerns with ethics; legal restrictions maybe, but few notions of propriety beyond that.
Ignorance, scientific and moral, is universal to some degree or other. You might also expect ignorance to be value neutral; a kind of immunity for unfortunates who do not or will not understand. Not in a democracy! Ignorance is not a defense in any common law tradition.
All are called before the bar for what a “reasonable man” might be expected to know. Ignorance is indeed held to a higher standard than knowledge. This facet alone makes the study of ignorance a worthy field of inquiry.
Thus Agnotology is not simply the study of vacuums of knowledge, but it is also a study of responsibility and societal expectations. Dr. Proctor’s wife therefore refined the definition of Agnotology as a kind of “culturally produced” ignorance; clearly implying that social movements and motives play a role. Unlike Epistemology, Agnotology carries significant moral hazard.
No small wonder then that the praxis of Agnotology covers a multitude of sins; structural ignorance, inattention, suppression, selective fact finding, secrecy, manipulation, plagiarism, and other engineering tools. These are inspired by some combination of social, political, religious, or cultural ideology (including political correctness). Indeed, many observers see Agnotology, or false narratives, as the product of social and political struggle – a kind of perverse dialectic that creates and sustains pervasive ignorance – beliefs at odds with truth.
Giving this phenomenon a name is a new development; but clearly several related practices have been around for centuries. Politicians use “opposition research” to discredit opponents, intelligence agents use disinformation, and soldiers use psychological operations (aka PSYOPS) to confuse the enemy. Perhaps the most notorious subterfuge was the Communist practice of agitation and propaganda (agitprop), the use of arts or Media to incite violence or discredit opponents. Agitprop could be compared to the contemporary use of “talking points,” repetition to sustain false narratives, a practice common to journalism and politics.
The communications revolution of the past sixty years was thought to extract the teeth from agitprop. Indeed, communications philosophers like Marshall McCluhan went so far as to forecast a “global village,” a theory that suggests that electronics would create a kind of value neutral, global central nervous system where judgments might be suspended. The content of Media, such as TV, according to McCluhan, shouldn’t matter either. Indeed, content like The View, Kieth Olberman, Bill Maher, Sixty Minutes, Homer Simpson, and Grand Theft Auto might be confirmation of McCluhan’s influence, if not his theory.
If content didn’t matter, then advertisers would be wasting their money. Commercial content seeks to influence minds and open wallets. If content doesn’t matter, then censorship shouldn’t matter either. Here Beijing Communists recently hoisted Google’s Eric Schmidt on McCluhan’s petard. Surely other morally ambiguous entrepreneurs like Microsoft now wait for the ax to drop. Indeed, the evidence to date suggests that communications philosophers, scientists, and engineers are clueless about the cultural implications of an internet revolution - “unfettered” by value judgment.
It seems that value neutral techno-optimism fails to account for two developments.
The first is the centrifugal spin of political forces since the end of WWII. The world has not become more unitary, as McCluhan had forecast, it has become more fractured. Membership at the UN has grown tenfold since 1942. Neither democracy nor enlightenment is the dominant idiom among a resounding majority of new members.
A bloom of international institutions has accompanied the colonial meltdown. Like the sponsor states, organizations like the UN, the European Union, the Arab League, and the African Union rapidly oxidized into expensive talking clubs where tyrants, apologists, oligarchs, anti-Semites, and fiscal illiterates predominate.
The second development is the realization, now formalized as science by Dr. Proctor, that communications gadgetry is as likely to spread ignorance as knowledge. Here, the growth of fanatical religious irredentism is exhibit “A.” And the donut hole of scientific integrity is being filled by theocratic barbarisms that many political “scientists” and academics defend in the name of culture or ecumenicism.
The thread of utopian optimism that guides modern science and engineering has a specific lineage in German philosophy; a theme that runs through Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Lenin, and now Fukuyama. That thread is the assumption that struggle, or dialectics, coupled with the passage of time, is somehow a kind of progress. Ironically, religious irredentists, progressive journalists, and academic utopians seem to share a similar vision of the future. Christopher Hitchens, a step-child of Marx, in his recent best seller, God is Not Great, uses language like “unfettered (sic) scientific inquiry.” Josef Mengele might have been comfortable with such imagery.
Unfortunately, the science of communications is a modern Janus: both a marketplace for ideas and a nitwit’s megaphone. The centrifugal forces of anti-democratic politics are at odds with the gravitational pull of improved communications. Indeed, some combination of technology and false content could undo the very democratic traditions that made the internet possible.
The pandering of scientific monopolies (e.g. Google and Microsoft) to totalitarian regimes has an obvious logic beyond markets. Business is thought to be a vehicle for change. Yet, the sword of commerce also cuts two ways; do they become more like us or do we become more like them? With market communists like China and Venezuela, the jury is still out. The evidence in the Muslim world is far less ambiguous. Islamism clearly has the upper hand – a growing anti-democratic malignancy within the Muslim world and the West.
The study of ignorance, or Agnotology, is still a new science. Nonetheless, a number of axioms might now be postulated:
The first is that truth, especially scientific truth, has a moral component. There are no “unfettered” sciences, especially communications.
An understanding that knowledge and ignorance (masquerading as content) have equal footing in the internet age might be a second axiom. While reason is necessary, only values are sufficient in the pursuit of truth. Unfortunately, the willingness of democracies to defend either reason or democratic values is still a cipher.
A third postulate is the realization that modern journalism is not so much “the first draft of history” as it might be the last draft of truth. Journalism (Agnotology, Proctor and Schiebinger, p. 266) is clearly the prime suspect in the viral spread of ignorance and false narratives, now formalized as Agnotology. McCluhan captured the danger when he concluded: “News, far more than art, is artifact.”
As an academic philosopher, Marshall McCluhan was familiar, no doubt, with the role of moral philosophy in the development of commerce and culture in the West; a tradition that included; Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus, Adam Smith, and Immanuel Kant. Kant was unique because he was the first great modern ethicist without religious credentials. His arguments had a profound influence on western epistemology and legal traditions. His “categorical imperative,” the admonition to do the right thing (fiat justitia, pereat mundus), was a duty; an obligation based on reason informed by values - not appeals to tradition or theology.
If there is now to be a science of ignorance, its implications are as relevant as epistemology or any subordinate field like communications theory. McCluhan was wrong. No medium, or content, is value neutral. This is not to say that McCluhan was amoral; he, like Google, Microsoft, and contemporary content providers, simply chose to ignore the values issue.
Philosophers and entrepreneurs of the Internet Age at some point will be forced to consider a “binary imperative;” step up to the ethical plate or lose the cultural game. If we fail to consider what is best, surely we will succumb to the worst.
This essay appeared in the 29 July 10 issue of Family Security Matters.
- G. Murphy Donovan
- The author is a native of the Bronx, a transplant to DC. He is a Vietnam veteran and former USAF Intelligence officer with tours at all of the major 3 button Intelligence agencies. He is a graduate of the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. School and Cardinal Hayes HS in NYC. He also has several degrees from less illustrious institutions. Check Six writes primarily at G. Murphy Donovan and Agnotology in Journalism. His work has appeared in various political, national security, and Intelligence journals.