The Man Who Studies the Spread of Ignorance

Jan 20, 2016

by Georgina Kenyon

In 1979, a secret memo from the tobacco industry was revealed to the public. Called the Smoking and Health Proposal, and written a decade earlier by the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, it revealed many of the tactics employed by big tobacco to counter “anti-cigarette forces”.

In one of the paper’s most revealing sections, it looks at how to market cigarettes to the mass public: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”

This revelation piqued the interest of Robert Proctor, a science historian from Stanford University, who started delving into the practices of tobacco firms and how they had spread confusion about whether smoking caused cancer.

Proctor had found that the cigarette industry did not want consumers to know the harms of its product, and it spent billions obscuring the facts of the health effects of smoking. This search led him to create a word for the study of deliberate propagation of ignorance: agnotology.

Agnotology is the study of wilful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or win favour.

It comes from agnosis, the neoclassical Greek word for ignorance or ‘not knowing’, and ontology, the branch of metaphysics which deals with the nature of being. Agnotology is the study of wilful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or win favour.

“I was exploring how powerful industries could promote ignorance to sell their wares. Ignorance is power… and agnotology is about the deliberate creation of ignorance.

“In looking into agnotology, I discovered the secret world of classified science, and thought historians should be giving this more attention.”

The 1969 memo and the tactics used by the tobacco industry became the perfect example of agnotology, Proctor says. “Ignorance is not just the not-yet-known, it’s also a political ploy, a deliberate creation by powerful agents who want you ‘not to know’.”

To help him in his search, Proctor enlisted the help of UC Berkeley linguist Iain Boal, and together they came up with the term – the neologism was coined in 1995, although much of Proctor’s analysis of the phenomenon had occurred in the previous decades.


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23 comments on “The Man Who Studies the Spread of Ignorance

  • @OP – Proctor had found that the cigarette industry did not want consumers to know the harms of its product, and it spent billions obscuring the facts of the health effects of smoking. This search led him to create a word for the study of deliberate propagation of ignorance: agnotology.

    . . . . . and of course the carbon industries’ denials of man-made global warming found this a ready tool for THEIR disinformation campaigns!



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  • Hmm. I wonder of a Stanford professor would spell it “favour”?

    Was it Churchill who mumbles something about “two peoples separated by a common language”?



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  • But surely our heroic media would not be easily distracted by agnatology?

    Surely our fair and balanced reporters would actively seek out and discover that they were being hoodwinked into disseminating false information?

    Surely the trust we give to publishers would be amply repaid by their righteous campaigning for truth – particularly those guardians of free speech, corporately-owned media?

    Surely every politician is energized and motivated to ensure that every citizen is educated and armed with the knowledge to judge the information that they receive, and to ensure that we have the time and wherewithal to investigate and seek out the facts because … democracy … ?

    Oh, I don’t live in a democracy.

    Old news!

    Peace.



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  • There was a movie about this, and Chomsky has written extensively on this issue. Not just smoking – but “agnatology.” Nothing new here.
    Read the manufacturing of consent. Or see the documentary.
    Harassment is pervasive.
    Are u mad at me?



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  • Big OIL is not the villain in the case of alleged Manmade Global Warming.
    I would connect the Increase of CO2 and CH 4 to the increase in temperature since the end of the Little Ice Age. When the oceans are warmed, the gases are driven out because of their reduced partial pressures. The temperature started rise at the end of the LIA so the CO2 and CH4 partial pressures reduced, then the gases started returning to the atmosphere. If the the global temperature drops significantly, then the gasses will return to the oceans.



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  • It could be said that most news sources apply a bit of agnatology as virtually all stories they broadcast (at least all political stories in a “leaning” news agency). And the particular way a story is told by a skilled reporter can twist or cloud meaning. Even being truthful can be malicious. “The truth told with bad intent beats all the lies one might invent.” (William Blake)
    We are told that agnotology is the study of wilful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or win favour. In Oklahoma the Oil & Gas industry has worn out agnotology by spreading false documents and data stating that fracking deep well fissures in the earth is not responsible for the state now experiencing the most numerous earthquakes in the world. The industry has paid off every regulatory agency, the Corporation Commission and virtually every politician. But now so much property damage has occurred that no amount of agnotology will protect their ass. The citizens have revolted and all the false data in the world will not mollify homeowners with half of the bricks missing from their walls.



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  • Errrrm? No. Not at all. I don’t understand this getting bad tempered thing. What on earth could you do in a discussion to make me cross? My views are hardly mainstream.

    Sorry if I’ve been negligent I’ve been concerned with someone’s health just at the moment and tied up the last few days with a (great!) conference and getting in some research bids.

    I promise to pay more attention in future.

    (At the moment my comments are rather snatched little interludes, which aren’t getting the attention from me they or any of you deserve.)

    Apologies.



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  • It may be old news but we always need more and better evidence for it. New language and new ways of seeing the problem are always needed. Truisms have no clout.

    The issue is how we need to get our psychopath, leaders and bosses under better democratic (less parasitic) control, to keep the cohering advantage they may bring yet turn down the mind control they employ.

    Education, education, education.



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  • Clive
    Jan 20, 2016 at 3:23 pm

    Big OIL is not the villain in the case of alleged Manmade Global Warming.

    Not only are they the villains, but the evidence of their “tobacco strategy” as “Merchants of Doubt”, and heavily funded disinformation campaigns, is well documented.
    As for their attempts to pretend various natural causes are the over-riding cause of global warming, that has been well and truly debunked.
    The world’s scientists understand the greenhouse effect, and can read the year on year trade figures for the extraction, sale and burning of oil, coal and gas, along with the increases in man-made atmospheric CO2 derived from fossil sources – as distinct from CO2 from the biosphere!
    Unsurprisingly, climatologists also have climate records of natural cycles going back decades, centuries, and millennia!



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  • Hi Phil,

    I accept your rebuke with alacrity.

    Sorry, suffering from ‘battle fatigue’, as I suspect are many people.

    In Britain, in my lifetime, corporate media and politics have merged and we’re rapidly losing any independent perspective on political dialogue and policy.

    In education the politicians all appear to be doing everything in their considerable power to undermine any subject that teaches critical thinking. My Daughter (along with all those in her cohort at English schools) even saw that short period when 13-14 year olds were given the option of choosing their timetable without science or maths and the launch of ‘academies’ and faith schools.

    I have to have a shout from time to time, or I might top myself.

    Peace.



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  • You are a remarkable man. Sorry, I’m a little insecure, and have also grown quite fond of you. I appreciate your “promise”, but please don’t ever let me make you feel in any way constrained on this site.



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  • As particles heat up, they start to move faster. That is to say their partial pressure increases. Oceans have gotten more acidic because carbon dioxide is dissolving in the water. This causes the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to be slower than expected. Which might be a good thing. However, for sea life this is devastating. Higher carbon dioxide concentrations make calcium more soluble and corals and other life forms are losing their exoskeletons etc.

    Whether oil companies are to blame I think is up to discussion. But the debate over whether climate change is real or what the basic mechanisms are must be settled by now.



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  • 19
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    @ attaaboy

    Even being truthful can be malicious. “The truth told with bad intent beats all the lies one might invent.” (William Blake)…

    Yes being truthful can be malicious in the case for example when someone is using an ugly truth as a means to an end to pursue an agenda. But I disagree with Blake’s aphorism. The harm caused by lies and deception vastly outweigh the harm done even by the ugliest truths. Especially in this day and age of corrupt politicians and systematic agnotology perpetrated by private interest groups and their far right-wing puppets.

    The public desperately needs to become aware of the truth and our very survival rests on how we will act upon it in this decade and the next.



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  • In Britain, in my lifetime, corporate media and politics have merged
    and we’re rapidly losing any independent perspective on political
    dialogue and policy.

    Tragically, it isn’t confined to just Britain.



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  • Hi NearlyNakedApe,

    I agree.

    It seems to me that there is an additional problem.

    With each generation science advances. This creates opportunities for the use, and misuse, of that new science. This might not seem a big thing: The ’50s had radio, the ’60s had vinyl and the ’70s had the Walkman.

    The ’40s had the H Bomb, the ’60s had the Cuban Missile Crisis and the ’80s had SALT.

    I’m trying to keep it positive, can you tell?

    Thing is, there are down sides. Are the down sides like climate change denial, or vaccination ignorance, or whatever, worth the traditional approach of: time will tell?

    My read on this is no.

    There are World problems that need more political urgency, energy and commitment.

    We need ugly truths to be understood and acted on now.

    In the ’60s agnatology was not moral, and remains immoral, but went unpunished. Partly agnatology succeeded because there was no perceived urgency. While I appreciate that many families missing loved ones would not agree with that assessment, nevertheless, the fact remains that fraud is, daily, substituted for truth.

    We desperately need to consider the position of media. I know, I know, my much-repeated hobby-horse.

    Think on.

    Peace.



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