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Ignorance and Bliss
March 9, 2014 12:59 PM   Subscribe

Cultural production of ignorance provides rich field for study. 'Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford, is one of the world's leading experts in agnotology, a neologism signifying the study of the cultural production of ignorance. It's a rich field, especially today when whole industries devote themselves to sowing public misinformation and doubt about their products and activities.' [LATimes link, use privacy setting in browser for access]

'Early in his career, he told me, he asked an advisor if Nazi science was an appropriate topic of research. "Of course," he was told. "Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship." As part of his scholarship, Proctor says he "watches Fox News all the time."'

'The dangers of ignorance's foothold in public discourse are twofold.
First, once allowed to take root, misinformation — whether cultural or manufactured — is very hard to dislodge.

In a recent study, a research team headed by Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College tried four methods to change the minds of parents who had decided not to immunize their children with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine — a factual refutation of the vaccine-autism link; two different means of warning about the risks to children from contracting measles, mumps or rubella, including "a dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died of measles"; and horrific photos of children suffering from the diseases.

Some of the interventions persuaded the parents that the autism link was specious, but not a single one made the parents more willing to vaccinate their children. And some intensified opposition to the vaccine, a "backfire" effect.'
posted by VikingSword (20 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite

 
From the article: "Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship."

Brilliant.
posted by idiopath at 1:18 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]


Brainwashing is a fascinating subject but it also attracts its victims somehow, and even religions will breed their own followers with the most success. Hardwired stubbornness might be a trait that allows anything to take hold though.
posted by Brian B. at 1:32 PM on March 9


But Proctor has hope. "My whole career is devoted to pushing back," he told me. "There is opportunity to expose these things through good journalism, good pedagogy, good scholarship. You need an educated populace."

The effort needs to begin at a young age, he says. "You really need to be teaching third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-graders that some people lie. And why do they lie? Because some people are greedy."


Truer words were never spoke.
posted by valkane at 1:34 PM on March 9 [25 favorites]


As part of his scholarship, Proctor says he "watches Fox News all the time."

Wow! That would lead me to do something very rash and regrettable.
posted by Danf at 1:34 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]


Proctor asks, "If half the country thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old, how can you really develop an effective environmental policy? This sort of traditional or inertial ignorance bars us from being able to act responsibly on large social issues."

Hey, is this guy saying that the Bible sows ignorance?
posted by telstar at 1:46 PM on March 9


Hey, is this guy saying that the Bible sows ignorance?

Only if you believe what it says.
posted by thegears at 1:56 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]


What's upsetting is that I can already hear the Fox News talking head discrediting this guy. "His area of scholarly interest is Nazi science. Nazi science? Nazis weren't known for their contributions to science. So why are liberals suddenly letting this Nazi science guy speak for them?"

Head, desk.
posted by purpleclover at 2:00 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]


The effort needs to begin at a young age, he says. "You really need to be teaching third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-graders that some people lie. And why do they lie? Because some people are greedy."

This reminds me of an episode of the A Way with Words podcast, when a father called in concerned that his child was being taught that there were "true facts" and "false facts". If kids learn at an early age that facts don't necessarily have to be true then it might follow that they'll be more tolerant of straight up lies.
posted by fuse theorem at 2:03 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]


It really is disappointing how easy it is to sow ignorance, and how difficult it is for knowledge to take root.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:04 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]




It is true that Fox News sucks. Are CNN CBS NBC and ABC really any better? In 2001 and 2008 American leadership was backed unanimously as near as I can recall it.
posted by bukvich at 2:55 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]


As Stanton A. Glantz of UC San Francisco documented last year, the tobacco industry was deeply involved in the evolution of the tea party movement, which promoted some of the industry's cherished aims, such as fighting tobacco taxes and anti-smoking laws.

That's a bit shocking really.
posted by glasseyes at 3:13 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]


Although this is a good research approach (given the article's description of it), it seems to me to lack a level of epistemological nuance. Proctor's formulation is that modern social problems are caused by a cognitive deficit that he calls ignorance, but he does not provide any rigorous justification of this formulation.
posted by polymodus at 3:14 PM on March 9 [3 favorites]


Most Americans Are Unaware Of [Insert Issue Here]

Cato Unbound hosted a debate in essay-and-response on political ignorance and its potential benefits. Eugene Volokh has touched on it repeatedly.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:44 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]


polymodus: Proctor's introduction to the edited collection Agnotology provides a better introduction. Important to note that Proctor does not think of ignorance as a single thing; rather, there are multiple types of ignorance, produced in divergent ways and with divergent effects.
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:33 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]


Some of the interventions persuaded the parents that the autism link was specious, but not a single one made the parents more willing to vaccinate their children. And some intensified opposition to the vaccine, a "backfire" effect.'

It is a cruel world where anti-vaxers maintain their beliefs due to inoculation theory.
posted by srboisvert at 5:16 PM on March 9 [4 favorites]


But it's easier to propagate ignorance.

Short term, yes. Consequences of long-term ignorance, no. It is really much easier to just face the truth head on and deal, but sometimes I suspect that some people are willfully ignorant so they can sucker other people into cleaning up their messes later on...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 5:18 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]


the man of twists and turns, one of Philip Mirowski's contentions in his examination of the Neoliberal agenda is that, analogous to market inequality, there will also be knowledge inequality that is "good" in the grand scheme of things, at least for Neoliberals. The state can function to structure markets, and it (and its allies) can also structure the marketplace of ideas. Within this market, it's ok for political forces to introduce "noise" (or increase ignorance) because the market will sort out the right... choices or policies anyway. He makes specific reference to Proctor in one of the talks I've listened to, where he's using the example of global warming and the use of denialist arguments to further some Neoliberal goals as an example of Agnotology, although he doesn't go into a lot of detail.

Clearly there can be political benefits from some types of ignorance, but whether this ignorance will lead to better or worse outcomes remains to be seen.
posted by sneebler at 8:53 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]


Life has an ample selection of strategies that are useful because they hurt everyone in the game, but hurt you the least.

That a strategy wins is orthogonal to morality or even fairness (or whatever the hell they think "OK" means).
posted by idiopath at 8:50 AM on March 10


Important to note that Proctor does not think of ignorance as a single thing; rather, there are multiple types of ignorance, produced in divergent ways and with divergent effects.

That's not the problem I have with this. If you read someone like Kahn (Yale?), ignorance is flat out the wrong model to use. Given that I don't see how Proctor could use "ignorance" in a consistent way while respecting the validity of other social/psychological theories.
posted by polymodus at 5:39 PM on March 10


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