‘Agnotology’: The study of ignorance

Prof. Robert Proctor, who teaches History of Science at Stanford University, is the co-editor of Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance. He coined this term for “the study of ignorance.” On July 8, 2020, he was a guest on Alie Ward’s “Ologies” podcast (episode: 1 hour, 8 minutes).

“Ologies with Alie Ward” podcast, July 8, 2020 episode with Robert Proctor.

In this interview, Proctor explains: We begin in ignorance when we are born. Then—because human eyes are focused, and for any number of other reasons—“we ignore almost everything. We have the focus of a predator and not the eternal watchfulness of prey.” Most of what we do notice, we must forget; that is the only way we can absorb and remember the most important information. And some kinds of ignorance are “virtuous” in their intent—for example, when a person means to protect privacy or maintain neutrality in an appropriate situation—while, by contrast, people have often practiced willful ignorance regarding the causes and effects of forms of social oppression including racism and sexism.

Outright brainwashing is one way to foster ignorance, but “misdirection campaigns” are more “subtle” and “clever” strategies to manipulate others’ thought. Big Tobacco, for example, “knew that cigarettes cause cancer,” Proctor says. “And their whole goal was to create ignorance, to stave off people learning the truth, by creating doubt, by throwing up a smokescreen, by throwing sand in the gears. And they were able to instrumentalize science by doing that. By funding genetics, by funding the study of viruses, they created all these blind alleys and false etiologies” to deflect from the fact that certain diseases were really caused by tobacco. Through trade groups, such industry agendas coordinate to become “engines of uncertainty, engines of ignorance.” Proctor studies “how science itself can become corrupted.”

“I think we live in the Golden Age of Ignorance,” he said. “Ignorance spreads at the speed of light now, and—with the rise of conspiracy theories, with the rise of denial campaigns, with the siloing of people into reinforcing ‘like’ communities through Facebook or whatever—it’s easy to find self-reinforcing bubble worlds, and that’s a huge problem.” He continued: “That democratization has also been a kind of a dumbing-down. I think a lot of media is very easy to circulate. If everyone can pop off anything they want on Twitter, and that’s all you read—there’s no quality control there.”

Proctor cited the “commercialization” and politicization of Christianity as a problem, as well as its theological exclusivity (especially in the United States, where it is uncommon—as contrasted with India—for people to claim multiple religious identities). This exclusivity limits people from examining and choosing what might be good from other religions.

“We’re going to have to rethink our metaphors,” he said, regarding how we can persuade people away from science-denialism having to do with, for example, climate change. “We’ve got to think much more creatively about how to bond people in the stories we tell—the allegories—the stories we tell about why we need to act differently from how we’ve acted in the past.”

Empathy allows us to see that much ignorance is driven by fear. To begin addressing situations in which people are acting fearfully, Proctor recommends that we take a step back and ask: “What is at stake? Who benefits? What are the alternatives?”

Is a ‘political lie’ different from a garden-variety lie?

Cover of the magazine Pesquisa Javeriana.
Cover of the magazine Pesquisa Javeriana.

The traditional definition of a lie is intentional delivery of false information to mislead someone else into believing that it’s true. Juan Samuel Santos, Andrea Catalina Zárate and Gustavo Gómez, philosophers at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia, suggest that political lies are different from other kinds of lies. The university held a symposium on the subject last August.

An article in the latest issue of the university’s Spanish-language magazine describes their positions.

Santos notes that politicians often speak to motivate their audience to feel something or take some action, but not necessarily with the intent that the audience will believe the statements. Sometimes politicians claim certain accomplishments when the audience already knows those claims aren’t quite true. These political lies nevertheless (regardless of the politician’s intent) do perpetuate false beliefs and are dangerous.

Zárate focuses on why some lies are more believable and popular than others. She examines the relationship between specific speakers and listeners, especially in light of modern mass communication and social media that allow lies to be easily replicated.

Gómez, beginning with Plato’s dialogues and citing Derrida’s notion of a “truth effect,” discusses how a publication or a repetition can create the semblance of truth even if that is not the speaker’s intent. Authors and readers alike, he says, have the responsibility to evaluate the truth of what is communicated.

To sum up: In political contexts, speakers and listeners may not care primarily about factual information. Political speech may instead serve another purpose, and people may replicate those messages because of their existing relationships and platforms, not because of the quality of the information. When they pass on the message, others may begin to perceive it as true, even if it was never intended as a factual communication.


The article in the magazine of Pontificia Universidad Javeriana.
The article in Pesquisa Javeriana.

“¿La mentira política es diferente a las otras mentiras?” Alejandro Tamayo Montoya. Pesquisa Javeriana. Sept-Nov. 2019 (available free online as PDF). pp. 10-11.

At the end of the article, these sources were recommended as further reading:

The effect of conspiracy theories

“Conspiracy,” a photo by Fleeting Pix. Colorized and digitally altered by Tucker Lieberman.
Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0 license.

How do conspiracy theories arise? Why, despite how implausible they sound to most people, are they so “sticky” for others?

Telling stories that aren’t true

If Only by Neal Roese.

Neal Roese, in If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity (2005), discusses the role of counterfactual expressions—that is, things that just aren’t so. At their best, they help us analyze a situation and seek a better path. One type of counterfactual is “it could have been worse” which is supposed to serve as consolation.

Here’s one of Roese’s examples. An employee of Cantor Fitzgerald—a company that suddenly lost hundreds of employees in New York City when the World Trade Center fell on September 11, 2001—survived because he happened to be inquiring about a gym membership and was not in the office when the plane hit the building. The counterfactual narrative that he easily might have died does not meaningfully explain why he lived. The simple observation of his near-brush with death, applied to this situation of survivor’s guilt and when taken up as an existential perspective, “is a counterfactual that shoots blanks,” Roese says. Such an approach “can get in the way of successful coping by conjuring phantom explanations and phony sense making or simply by failing to provide resolution and understanding.”

The man’s survival is random, yet that answer leaves most of us itching. Some will contort themselves to come up with a different explanation.

What existential function might a conspiracy theory serve?

A conspiracy theory—pick one, any one—is, in my view, a more elaborate kind of counterfactual. It asserts itself to be true, or at least plausible and meriting more inquiry, but it is not true. Like other counterfactuals, it serves the need to point out unresolved questions and find some way to make sense of the world.

Power Corrupts: “Conspiracy Theories.” Launches May 2, 2019.

This is explored in the “Conspiracy Theories” episode of the Power Corrupts podcast that launches today (May 2, 2019) on iTunes, Spotify, RadioPublic, and Stitcher. Brian Klaas, the podcast writer and narrator, says that the tendency to adopt conspiracy theories

“seems to be part of a coping mechanism: a human instinct to deal with large, unexpected, and often tragic events. Sometimes things just happen randomly; not for any reason, not because of sinister forces. And in human psychology, randomness is much more threatening than discernible causes, even if those causes are shadowy or sinister.”

Paranoid by David J. LaPorte.

We tend to want to believe that Someone (or Something) is calling the shots and that what happens to us (or to our known world) matters within some grand plan.

Conspiracy theories are often products of paranoia. A paranoid person believes that “you can’t trust what you see, so you need to interpret and see behind the surface presentations of situations,” David J. LaPorte wrote in Paranoid: Exploring Suspicion from the Dubious to the Delusional (2015). Such people report experiencing a “sudden clarification,” which feels as if they “immediately recognize [an event] for ‘what it really is.’” Their sudden clarification feels true even if it is not.

A believer in a conspiracy theory, Klaas says, is “choosing to discount evidence and rational thought in favor of snippets of ‘What if?’ speculation.” In this case, unfortunately, “the normal way of convincing someone of an idea by presenting rational thought and evidence just isn’t very effective.” It is hard to persuade someone to abandon these theories. They are constructed in such a way that they cannot be falsified, and criticism only triggers a paranoid person’s suspicion of outsiders.

I have never knowingly been a conspiracy theorist on any matter. Generally, such stories are repugnant to my occasionally obsessive fact-checking habits, to my worldview in which ethics does not reduce to a battle between good and evil, to my personality that tends to be more trusting and less paranoid, and to the social bonds I form with people whose attitudes are similar to my own.

I do, however, see how conspiracy theories might appeal to someone else. Counterfactuals more generally—the past that wasn’t, the future that isn’t yet—are “entertaining,” according to Roese, because they are imaginative variations on a known theme, and they are “cognigenic, meaning that they spur further creative thought.” I suggest that conspiracy theories, too, fit this description. They are intricate fictions and mostly self-contained worlds. If I were to allow myself to spend time with one and if I were to engage it on its own terms, I could see myself growing fond of it.

One of Klaas’ interviewees for Power Corrupts says that believing in a conspiracy theory predisposes one to begin believing in yet another, even if the two theories are unrelated or contradictory. Klaas describes conspiracy theories as having “a weird way of metastasizing: they morph as they spread; they grow more outlandish; the conspiracy gets weirder and weirder as people build on the unhinged beliefs of others.” For this reason, to me, such stories feel a bit dangerous, like ideological gateway drugs, and I have always avoided them when I recognize them.

What we become

At the end of the road of a multitude of conspiracy theories, a person may be well trained in the consistent rejection of logic.

Denialism by Michael Specter.

According to Michael Specter, author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives (2009), the rejection of science is a coping strategy for living in an increasingly technological society that every day becomes a little harder to understand. When people are fearful and “decide that science can’t solve their problems,” they may abandon scientific process and findings, gravitating instead toward some other answer on the merits of its perceived popularity. This is a problem: “Either you believe evidence that can be tested, verified, and repeated will lead to a better understanding of reality,” Specter warns, “or you don’t. There is nothing in between but the abyss.”

In politics, similarly, embracing a multitude of conspiracy theories may lead a person to distrust and reject democratic principles. Ultimately, experts are not believed; leaders are not trusted; process is not given credibility; norms are not understood; facts cannot be verified; no one can be held accountable. This is a terrible outcome, but it is hard to stop conspiracy theories from starting and spreading. Perhaps being aware of their psychological function can prompt us to think of other ways to confront the human fear of random, small, and impersonal causes.


More than fifty years after Algerian independence, Albert CamusAlgerian Chronicles appears here in English for the first time. Published in France in 1958, the same year the Algerian War brought about the collapse of the Fourth French Republic, it is one of Camus’ most political works—an exploration of his commitments to Algeria. Dismissed or disdained at publication, today Algerian Chronicles, with its prescient analysis of the dead end of terrorism, enjoys a new life in Arthur Goldhammer’s elegant translation.

“Believe me when I tell you that Algeria is where I hurt at this moment,” Camus, who was the most visible symbol of France’s troubled relationship with Algeria, writes, “as others feel pain in their lungs.” Gathered here are Camus’ strongest statements on Algeria from the 1930s through the 1950s, revised and supplemented by the author for publication in book form.

In her introduction, Alice Kaplan illuminates the dilemma faced by Camus: he was committed to the defense of those who suffered colonial injustices, yet was unable to support Algerian national sovereignty apart from France. An appendix of lesser-known texts that did not appear in the French edition complements the picture of a moralist who posed questions about violence and counter-violence, national identity, terrorism, and justice that continue to illuminate our contemporary

Book Review: Algerian Chronicles
Book review:  By Phillip C. Naylor

3 Quick Reads

Mean surface temperature change for 1999–2008 ...

Mean surface temperature change for 1999–2008 relative to the average temperatures from 1940 to 1980 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some items I found worth reading:

Professor Severus Snape

Watch a video?

Obviously,’ to quote Alan Rickman’s trademark retort as Severus Snape. It’s old news for scholars that Heidegger was a Nazi (if rather swiftly discarded by the Nazis) and it matters that Heidegger was an anti-Semite, as Peter Trawny shows and not less that he was racist, and misogynist, too – in the fashion of professorial womanizers. Condemnation, righteous or not and despite being deeply seductive, takes so much energy that philosophy welters. And we’re compelled to condemn. But to whom are we condemning Heidegger? Snape had Dolores Umbridge – but who disagrees concerning Heidegger? We’ve no patience for hermeneutics or context or really reading the notebooks themselves and the few bits we read are damning. What remains of the thinker? If Heidegger’s philosophy is extraordinary, bashing Heidegger is a hobby horse that drives whole careers. The most durable consequence could echo an older dismissal: “A bad man,” Gilbert Ryle once observed, “can’t be a good philosopher.” Yet from a logical point of view, Ryle’s equation fails: a good philosopher may be liable to political error, anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny. These are things we need to think about.

Prof. Babette Babich

SS: A guided tour

The Bell Tower, Tower of

London: Thomas More, Elizabeth

I, and Other Histories, Part 1

An interesting and informative description of a visit to various locations in the UK. Enjoy the trip!
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