When Ignorance isn’t Bliss

I stumbled on a new word the other day—agnotology, meaning, as Los Angeles Times journalist Michael Hitzik writes in a recent article, “the study of the cultural production of ignorance.” The word was coined by Robert Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford. As a writer I’m fascinated by the ways language is used and misused, so I mentally latched onto this new concept, determined to learn more. I guess you could say I wanted to assuage my own ignorance about the subject of ignorance. 

I dutifully downloaded and read the first chapter of Robert Proctor’s book Agnotology, which introduces the subject and outlines his reasons for exploring ignorance and its multiple applications. Ignorance, I always thought, was simply lack of knowledge, but as Proctor writes, it “overlaps in myriad ways with . . . secrecy, stupidity, apathy, censorship, disinformation, faith, and forgetfulness.” Reading this I began to wonder about the holes in my own beliefs and the vacant corners in my convictions. Were they the result of apathy or disinformation? Where does ignorance end and faith begin? This was quickly becoming a sticky wicket.

We like to think that as we grow older that we grow wiser—it’s one of the smug compensations we derive as those years on the calendar mount up. I believe there’s truth in that idea. But I also have to admit that my age may have given me more confidence in my opinions than they deserve. And I confess that I am as swayed as I ever was—though I insist I’m not—by effective marketing and the power of media to influence my decisions. 

I long ago learned to question what I hear and read; in that sense I’m wiser than in my youth. But marketers, with social science at their backs, have grown wiser too. We’re all subject to the power of the marketplace—sometimes we’re completely enthralled. We know the demands it makes on us to spend more, want more, to look younger, look richer, to have the latest gadget, to never, ever be satisfied. They are preaching, in Proctor’s words, “deliberate ignorance,” demanding that we listen to their phony truths while ignoring the wisdom spoken by our hearts.

Much of Proctor’s focus is on this power of deliberate ignorance. How, for instance, the tobacco industry used “reasonable doubt” over the ties between tobacco and cancer and called for more research while declaiming that no proof was enough proof. That their deception succeeded for so long is our shame. But examples of deliberate ignorance issue daily from our politicians and media who, in support of advertisers or cultural bias, keep us from knowing the truth about so many things. Global climate change, for instance, or the painful decision-making before an abortion. 

When we surround ourselves with gadgets and social media and 24-hour news, we make it easy for those with power or influence to propagate ignorance. If we see it on Facebook it must be true. I find this frightening. More and more we seem willing to turn our backs on the facts because the facts don’t agree with our preconceived notions of reality, or because we simply don’t have time in our multitasking lives to seek the truth.

Finding a way out of this morass is a challenge, but at least we have a name for it now: agnotology. And it’s being studied—at least by Mr. Proctor. I wish him well. I’m glad he created the word and I’m glad he’s trying to understand the “cultural production of ignorance.” May the Force be with him.

As for those flawed beliefs and vacant corners, I can only say with certainty that I am less ignorant of the world than my cat is. Sadly, I suspect she has a deeper understanding of her own world and place in it than I do of mine. And to give her more credit, she manages to live efficiently and happily in both worlds, while I could never live in hers. She therefore lacks ignorance, whereas I’m apparently bathing in it. I will do my best, however, to avoid “deliberate ignorance,” and keep raising questions. In that way at least, I can remain open to the world.