I recently became aware of a new term coined by Stanford University professor Robert N. Proctor. The term is agnotology described by Professor Proctor as “culturally constructed ignorance, created by special interest groups to create confusion and suppress truth in a societally important issue.” He uses it in the context of being especially useful to create seeds of doubt in complex scientific issues by publishing inaccurate or misleading data. The best known example according to Proctor is the tobacco industry’s claims that evidence of smoking cigarettes causes cancer was “not yet in.” This was an outright lie when scientific evidence had proved that smoking caused cancer, emphysema, heart and lung disease. According to Proctor “The tobacco industry is famous for having seen itself as a manufacturer of two different products: tobacco and doubt.” That doubt allowed cigarette sales to continue for decades before the truth surfaced and allowed state and federal oversight.
Current agnotology campaigns affect a variety of public-policy issues where enough doubt has been generated through false statements, inflammatory rhetoric and data from suspicious sources that mislead public opinion, if only for a time. Examples of current rhetoric include:
- Iraq has weapons of mass destruction
- Genetically modified crops are dangerous
- Global warming is a scientific hoax
- Vaccines cause autism
- Tax cuts pay for themselves
- Poor people caused the financial crisis
All of these statements are inaccurate and lack any factual basis. However, there are people who believe these misstatements and falsehoods. It would appear that the current presidential campaigns are totally based on the definition of agnotology. Each side generating falsehoods, using inflammatory rhetoric, and quoting data from dubious sources to mislead the public. According to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes “democracy” is meant to be “a market place of ideas” and debates are meant to present arguments to reach a truth. By the time voters go to the polls their knowledge of the details will be well-known, the finer points discussed, and they will understand what they are voting for and the consequences. However, our present presumptive candidates seem to be using agotology to win short-term victories at any and all costs. A quote by Jonathan Swift says it all “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” The thought of the consequences of voters not knowing what they are really voting for is frightening.
We expect hyperbole and exaggeration in political campaigns. However, alternate realities is another thing. We all seem to be living in different dimensions if not on different planets.
What do you think?