U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A New USIH Sub-subspecialty: Agnotology (Or Is It Agnoiology)?

To this point, I have usually grouped the historical study of ignorance under the genus of Richard Hofstadter’s term, ‘anti-intellectualism’. Why? Because the term has been around for a long time—since 1909 according to the OED, or even 1821 if you accept a related noun. As such, it seemed easier think about purposed and accidental ignorance as species of the same genus—namely, the refusal to engage the real terms of a situation, whether concrete or abstract. One could resist or avoid intellectuals or ideas, but the result was the same: anti-thoughtfulness. This seemed close enough to anti-intellectualism to keep the term. Increasingly, however, I’ve noticed the use of the term ‘agnotology’ to describe studies of ignorance.

The last link, a Wikipedia entry, relays that… a Stanford University historian of science, Robert Proctor, came up with agnotology. He meant it to denote topics which are “victim[s] of scientific disinterest,” or a “structured apathy” he called “the social construction of ignorance.” Proctor has since co-chaired two events to explore his topic: a 2003 workshop titled “Agnatology: The Cultural Production of Ignorance” (no link available) and a 2005 conference titled “Agnotology: The Cultural Production of Ignorance.” [Aside: I have no idea why the spellings for the conferences are different.] To the right is a book Proctor co-edited with a Stanford colleague Londa Schiebinger, titled Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Stanford U. Press, 2008).

But then Wikipedia also notes that a similar term, “agnoiology,” coined in the nineteenth-century by Scottish philosopher James Frederick Ferrier (1808-1864), means (a) “the science or study of ignorance, which determines its quality and conditions” or (b) “the doctrine concerning those things of which we are necessarily ignorant.” I’ve also discovered that Keith Lehrer (emeritus philosophy professor, University of Arizona) used the term in a 1971 article, “Why Not Skepticism?” that appeared in The Philosophical Forum (2.3, 283–298, citation here, at bottom).

Based on these notes and little entries, it seems to me that scientists and philosophers have an affinity for the term agnotology because it implies (a) science (or more accurately anti-science), (b) the living present, (c) a repository for things that do not fit comfortably into epistemology, and (d) sources of ignorance (purposed and otherwise) that range beyond the individual (i.e. sociology of ignorance).

Despite the relation to science and philosophy, both Proctor and Schiebinger are both historians of science. Go figure. As such, I sense the potential for a future USIH conference that is friendly to scientists and philosophers. The conference’s goal could be a reconciliation of the notions of anti-intellectualism and agnotology.

24 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I last encountered this with Andrew Hartman’s blog post here on the Nation a few posts back — some historians don’t seem to take science very seriously. Or really be able to understand what scientists mean, or are saying.

    In this case, agnotology is really nothing like classic anti-intellectualism, although it uses tropes from anti-intellectualism. The classic cases for agnotology are tobacco science, followed by global climate change denialism. These are not really anti-intellectual, because they purport to use science. Neither one could exist without tame “scientists” funded by industry to make the science seem to be contested. In this, they follow general developments in the right wing in the U.S., which obtained its own intellectuals through a network of think tanks and then demanded to be taken seriously as having “ideas”.

    So agniology isn’t really comparable either. Agnotology refers to (in most cases in which I’ve seen the term) manufactured ignorance, in the same sense in which Noam Chomsky claims that consent is manufactured. Sense (b) of the definition of agniology that you quote doesn’t apply at all, and sense (a) is too general.

  2. Rich: Without going into the specifics of the agnotology conversation, it’s absurd to claim that our back-and-forth is any indication that “some historians don’t seem to take science very seriously. Or really be able to understand what scientists mean, or are saying.” Our conversation entailed me forgiving Alexander Cockburn’s global climate change denialism because I like his other opinion pieces–and you being unable to forgive him for such a transgression. So take better aim with your insults.

  3. My description of that conversation stands. I understand that you don’t see it that way, which really is more evidence for the truth of what I’m saying. If you took the science seriously, you wouldn’t be able to “forgive him for such a transgression” — or, to restate this without the sarcasm, accept him as being worth listening to on other matters — either.

  4. Rich: “the truth of what you’re saying” is only “true” in post-hoc fallacy land–because Cockburn is wrong on A, he must be wrong on B, C, and D (which have absolutely nothing to do with A). And because I’m wrong in thinking Cockburn should be forgiven his transgression, I must not take science seriously. Makes sense. If I also lived in post-hoc fallacy land, I would point out here that I should discount all of your opinions because you clearly don’t take basic logic seriously.

  5. Rich,

    I think you’ve misread my post, as well as my knowledge of, and concern for, the topics it contains.

    First, there’s nothing to prevent historical instances of “manufactured ignorance” from being a subset of a general view of the history of anti-intellectualism. But whether we’re speaking historically or presently, manufactured ignorance seems to imply a more general anti-intellectualism.

    Second, it seems you’ve taken my post to be antagonistic to “science.” That’s just not true. If anything, I’m saying that science-based anti-intellectualism (whether we call it (a) agnotology, (b) manufactured ignorance, or (c) the outright rejection of (c.1.) inductive or empirically-factual claims from science, or (c.2.) generally-accepted claims/tenets in the scientific community) is just a subset of anti-intellectualism generally.

    Third, I don’t know what you mean by “classic anti-intellectualism” in comparison to the more general, non-specific genus (just ‘anti-intellectualism’) I’m making a claim for here. This comment format won’t let me draw a root chart, but I see anti-intellectualism as the tree with many roots (‘agnotology’ being one). Can you tell me the difference between general anti-intellectualism and “classic anti-intellectualism”? Also, from where do you get this distinction (a book, an article, your understanding)?

    Fourth, your overall comment seems to contain a contradiction. The first paragraph claims that I don’t take science very seriously, and/or don’t understand science very well. But your last paragraph denies that this topic (agnotology) falls within science generally. Maybe it would’ve been more accurate for you to say that I don’t take the sociology of ideas very seriously—which also wouldn’t have been true.

    Finally, a personal note: I do indeed take science seriously. I’m not as close to the subject as I was about 15 years ago, but my undergraduate degree is a B.S. in chemistry. I also worked in the environmental field for about three years, working on science-based property investigations. That history doesn’t excuse me from making mistakes or incorrect claims, but it does contradict your “taking science seriously” claim.

    – TL

  6. We went through this on the previous thread. He’s wrong about something important that he can be provably wrong about. You apparently don’t think that this is serious enough to make people doubt his general trustworthiness. You’re in the exact position of someone who says “Oh, I know that Pundit X is a Holocaust denier, and of course I think he’s wrong about that, but the rest of his stuff is entertaining, and I see no reason why him being a Holocaust denier might make him more likely to be wrong about issues B, C, and D that are unrelated to history. “

    Yeah, I’m Godwinning again. But I don’t know of any other issue within history that has an active denial movement and that is related to the potential, future deaths of millions.

  7. “If anything, I’m saying that science-based anti-intellectualism (whether we call it (a) agnotology, (b) manufactured ignorance, or (c) the outright rejection of (c.1.) inductive or empirically-factual claims from science, or (c.2.) generally-accepted claims/tenets in the scientific community) is just a subset of anti-intellectualism generally.”

    I take anti-intellectualism to involve a general distrust of scientists, “scientist” being a subset of the general class of intellectuals. The issues that I’ve seen discussed under the topic of agnotology never seem to work by calling a general distrust of intellectuals into play. Instead, they call on competing intellectuals. Global warming denial does not generally involve “distrust all scientists”, it generally involves “our scientists say different, and so the matter is still not known.” But science (and therefore intellectualism) is still being called on as a source of authority.

    Global warming denialism does often make use of what I consider to be standard (in the Hofstadterian sense, I suppose) anti-intellectual tropes — as when people are told that there is a conspiracy of scientists who want to make money off of foisting this off on the public. But that’s a down-market version, occupying the same kind of space that overt appeals to racism occupy in U.S. right-wing discourse.

    The problem seems to me to be in this statement: “As such, it seemed easier think about purposed and accidental ignorance as species of the same genus—namely, the refusal to engage the real terms of a situation, whether concrete or abstract. One could resist or avoid intellectuals or ideas, but the result was the same: anti-thoughtfulness. This seemed close enough to anti-intellectualism to keep the term.” It’s not presented as anti-thoughtfulness at all, and to think of it as such reveals that you don’t really understand it. It’s presented as being thoughtful, as being intellectual.

  8. Rich,

    Thank you for this much more focused comment. Let me hone in on your last paragraph.

    If we’re going to use global-warming deniers/denial as our one particular and most valid example of agnotology, I still believe it’s right to say that being intentionally “choosy” with the science you’ll accept and reject (as a practitioner of agnotology) implies anti-intellectualism in the realm of science generally. Why? That person, or persons, is rejecting the mainline claims of experts (a term Hoftstadter used synonymously with intellectual).

    If, as a global-warming denier, you choose to respect the intellectual work of the scientific outliers, then you stand against the legitimately accepted claims of the mainline community. It’s like saying that you’re not an anti-intellectual because you rely on the work of one (or 2) “scientists” who claim that vaccines cause autism.

    Anyway, what’s your choice for a better term than ‘anti-intellectualism’ that’s as inclusive as mine? I’m taking Hofstadter as my starting point, and folding in other kinds of purposed and indirect rejections of legitimate knowledge. It’s not as if ‘anti-intellectualism’ only applies to one kind of intellectuals, or singular people. In *Anti-Intellectualism in American Life* Hofstadter uses the term to signify both a movement and ~and/or~ specific people who reject experts. In sum, we may have to agree to disagree.

    – TL

  9. Your use of “anti-intellectualism” would seem to exclude most of the prominent right-wingers who work as intellectuals from being intellectuals. For instance, the mainline claims of economic experts generally involve some version of Keynesianism. There are a wide variety of right-wing economic experts — in the sense that they are economics professors at widely regarded academic institutions, who write op-eds and the like — who disagree. I don’t think that calling those people anti-intellectuals, or as being part of an anti-intellectual movement, really works descriptively.

    Here’s another example — would you describe postmodernism as an anti-intellectual set of ideas? People who hold to one of the varieties of postmodern thought are generally intellectuals, yet they question the mainline claims of experts. A lot of how agnotology works, in fact, depends on right-wing postmodernism of one kind or another.

    In short, there’s a reason why people came up with the term “agnotology”, and why it’s seeing wider use. “Anti-intellectual” seemed inadequate in a way that your post didn’t seem to allow for.

  10. Rich,

    It’s time for another distinction. The context of science in the comments above involved the hard sciences. The instances you bring now involve the social sciences. Outliers in the social science community involve people and groups like Holocaust deniers. Outliers in the hard sciences involve, well, global-warming and evolution deniers (young earth types). It’s about the denial of empirical evidence in both cases, but the social sciences have always had a wider latitude in terms of human interpretations and applications (culturally specific meanings and interps). The hard sciences aspire to singular, cross-cultural interpretations (in relation to the logical “law”/goal of non-contradiction).

    – TL

  11. In other words, I don’t see how Keynesianism vs. Monetarism vs. Supply-siders involves the same universality of claims, so I wouldn’t divide up disagreeable communities within economics as intellectual vs. anti-intellectual. The same applies to psychology, sociology, political science, and the myriad of other human sciences. What matters in those kinds of sciences are the few universally accepted claims within them, not interps based on evidence. – TL

  12. I think that you’re making a stronger distinction between hard science and social science than really exists. Anthropogenic global warming, for instance, acts through a mechanism that is hard-science (the response of the atmosphere, sea, and climate systems to changing concentrations of various gasses), but the inputs to the process involve social science (the changing concentrations of gasses are determined via inputs that all involve human activity, such as economic and political policy). It’s conceivable for a denier to insist that that agree with the hard-science part but claim that various social science concerns will make everything magically work out OK under the current regime.

    There’s also a reason for my persistent Godwinning — I think it calls into question this supposed “wider latitude in terms of human interpretations and applications” in the social sciences. Are historians really ready to excuse Holocaust deniers as merely having a differing interpretation? No, I don’t think so.

  13. Rich: On your last sentence, that’s not at all what I said. I carefully distinguished between evidence and interp. Holocaust denial involves the ignorance and denial of explicit empirical evidence; it has nothing to do with interpretation. That’s not an outlier; it’s not factual (or untrue, if you prefer). Holocaust deniers are both anti-intellectuals and agnotologists. An interpretation, for instance, would be about the effects of the Holocaust, or it’s deepest causes; 99% of historians do no debate Holocaust’s existence. Agnotologists are those who manufacture ignorance. – TL

  14. I’m a bit confused by the distinction that you seemed to be drawing (“Outliers in the social science community involve people and groups like Holocaust deniers. Outliers in the hard sciences involve, well, global-warming and evolution deniers (young earth types). It’s about the denial of empirical evidence in both cases, but the social sciences have always had a wider latitude in terms of human interpretations […]”) that you say isn’t one, because both involve empirical evidence. I think that this leads one further into the evaluation of competing claims within other disciplines, in order to decide which involve evidence and which involve interpretation of evidence, than one may really be ready for.

    But in any case, your preferred mode of description leads squarely to describing Cockburn as an anti-intellectual. I can understand why you would say that he was, after reading your explanation above. I don’t think that anyone would understand without this explanation. As I wrote originally, I don’t think that the concept of anti-intellectualism really stretches to cover intellectuals who are firmly in the wrong.

  15. It’s interesting, Mark Lilla coined the term “counter intellectuals” to describe people who “present themselves as people who care deeply about ideas” but participate in the debate as an necessity to wrest political power from “the intellectuals”:

    http://tinyurl.com/3r9yvt2

  16. I meant to say, he coined the term because “anti-intellectual” didn’t fit someone who presents themselves as caring about ideas, but in an important sense is arguing in bad faith (see the article for details)…

  17. JJ,

    Thanks for the comments. Thanks also for the Lilla reference.

    I think that “counter intellectuals” fit in my framework, with some caveats. It depends on their goals, process, as well as goals and process considered together. Allow me a somewhat discursive, rather than rigorous, explanation.

    If the counter intellectual are acting in bad faith against the considered, well-intentioned, and widely accepted goals and truths of an intellectual community (scientific especially, but also otherwise), then the counter group is acting within an anti-intellectual framework. I define bad faith as acting on behalf of a selfish minority going against ethical community standards (e.g. the former pursuing or conserving wealth and power for their small, unethical and immoral interests). They may be smart, and technically something of intellectuals, but they’re acting against well-thought-out, ethical, and moral intellectual consensus on truths. So much for goals.

    Counter intellectuals are anti-intellectual in terms of process when they knowingly (or out of willful ignorance) use fallacy or logical sleight-of-hand to subvert the process of thinking correctly. So again, it doesn’t matter how smart they are or if they have some claims to the title “intellectual.” It matters if they are acting in bad faith in relation to the process of thinking correctly.

    Why would they do this? It might be willful ignorance, but probably comes back to selfish, unethical, or immoral goals. In any case, it’s still under the rubric of “anti-intellectual” as I conceived of it.

    Note: One can move in and out of being an anti-intellectual or participating in anti-intellectualism. It’s issue dependent, or mental-health dependent, or energy dependent.

    I won’t pretend that all of this is rigorous and airtight. I’m building a framework for thinking about anti-intellectualism historically, in a way that includes ignorance, as well as the technically smart.

    – TL

  18. “Yeah, I’m Godwinning again. But I don’t know of any other issue within history that has an active denial movement and that is related to the potential, future deaths of millions.”

    I wasn’t aware of any issue within history that may or may not do anything in the future. Because the future, last time I checked, wasn’t part of history. At that level of analysis, one might as well claim that the number one likely cause of the potential, future deaths of millions is their mortality. The reason for “persistent ‘Godwinning'” here seems to be no more than an aversion to following even elementary canons of logic, evidence, and argumentation. But I think Andrew has already pointed that out.

    Godwinning? No. Godlosing? Duh.

  19. If you’re going to flame, Varad Mehta, then I’ll point out in turn that both your answer and Andrew’s are nonsensical. Andrew is pretending that he doesn’t understand that disparate issues are linked when they bear on the reliability of a particular pundit. If someone claims that the Earth is flat, and then goes on to make a complicated claim that you can’t easily check about politics, you’re perfectly justified in saying that that person isn’t a trustworthy source about politics because they also believe in a flat Earth. The flat-Earth claim indicates that that person isn’t trustworthy on anything.

    And I’m not surprised that, having found Andrew convincing on that subject, you also think that Holocaust denial is not related to potential future deaths in any way. Why, for example, did historian Martin Gilbert write an introductory book called “Never Again: A History of the Holocaust”? I guess that must be just a puzzle.

  20. Rich: Because I don’t consider myself a clueless idiot, I like to think I can judge a political argument on its merits rather than on its lack of a relationship to a different argument made by the same author.

  21. “If you’re going to flame, Varad Mehta, then I’ll point out in turn that both your answer and Andrew’s are nonsensical.”

    I certainly am convinced of your bonafides as an expert on nonsense.

  22. You’d certainly like to think that you’re capable of that, Andrew, but in fact you aren’t, as evidenced by you thinking that Cockburn “points to many of the liberal orthodoxies in the arguments put forward about global warming, such that cap-and-trade or any other market solution would really make a difference” despite being flatly wrong about global warming. Judging by how much you appear to know about cap-and-trade, you really would have been better off with a heuristic that said that since Cockburn was obviously wrong about the basics, maybe he’s not a good source for anything else. I’d guess that your confidence in your ability to evaluate arguments on issues that you really don’t know much about has more to do with the Dunning-Kruger effect than anything else.

  23. Pingback: Willful Ignorance At-Large and Anti-Intellectualism in the Academy: Lee McIntyre's Recycled "Two Culture" Problem | s-usih.dev

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