Robert Proctor & Londa Schieneinger: Agnotology

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Proctor, Robert & Londa Schiebeinger, eds. Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008)

This collection of essays is organized around agnotology, Robert Proctor's name for culturally-induced ignorance. One contributor defines it in philosophically-familiar terms:

Epistemology asks how knowledge can be uncovered and secured. Anti-epistemology asks how knowledge can be covered and obscured. (p. 45, Peter Galison, "Removing Knowledge: The Logic of Modern Censorship")

As Proctor writes in the Preface, "We live in an age of ignorance, and it is important to understand how this came to be and why:"

This volume emerged from workshops held at Pennsylvania State University in 2003 and at Stanford University in 2005, the goal of which was to come to grips with how ignorance has been understood, created, and ignored, linking these ideas also to allied creations of secrecy, uncertainty, confusion, silence, absence, and impotence--especially as these pertain to scientific activities. (pp. vii-viii, Preface)

The book covers a fair amount of ground--from carbon pollution causing climate change to the clitoris, from abortifacients to cigarettes causing lung cancer. The cultural prevalence of ignorance is, not surprisingly, agenda-driven:

And so it goes today, in industry after industry, with study after study, year after year. Data is disputed, data has to be reanalyzed. Animal data is deemed not relevant, human data not representative, exposure data not reliable. More research is always needed. Uncertainty is manufactured. Its purpose is always the same: shielding corporate interests from the inconvenience and economic consequences of public health protections. (p. 96, David Michaels, "Manufactured Uncertainty: Contested Science and the Protection of the Public's Health and Environment")

The gloss of knowledge is often applied to its opposite, much as Fox "News" touts itself as being "fair and balanced" despite its incessant partisanship:

Apologists for polluters and manufacturers of dangerous products commonly complain about government regulation, asserting that the agencies are not using "sound science." In fact, many of these manufacturers of uncertainty do not want "sound science"; they want something that sounds like science, but lets them do exactly what they want. (p. 103, David Michaels, "Manufactured Uncertainty: Contested Science and the Protection of the Public's Health and Environment")

Agnotology is, alas, a burgeoning field of study, ripe for investigatory plowing. Proctor and his compatriots have done an admirable job tilling its soil, but much work remains to be done.

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