The production of ignorance

The key characteristic of the Enlightenment was the pursuit, production and promulgation of knowledge. Its impetus was the need to combat ignorance, superstition and fear. Unfortunately today the need is still as great as we face the systematic pursuit, production and promulgation of ignorance.

In the past week the blog has come across two pieces on how the production of ignorance is flourishing. The first from the George Mason University Centre for Climate Change Communication was an article published in the American Geophysical Union open-access journal. The Centre, in announcing the paper’s publication, said: “The climate science community needs to do more to communicate the scientific consensus because: (a) most Americans don’t know there is a scientific consensus on this point; (b) this lack of awareness undermines people’s engagement in the issue; and (c) research by our team – and others – has shown that simple messages that communicate this basic scientific conclusion are highly effective, especially with political conservatives.”

The article, Climate scientists need to set the record straight: There is a scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is happening, was written by Edward Maibach, Teresa Myers and Anthony Leiserowitz. It can be found at Among other things it says: “The pervasiveness of this misperception is not an accident. Rather, it is the result of a disinformation campaign by individuals and organizations in the U.S. – and increasingly in other nations around the world (Norgaard, 2006; Dunlap & McCright, 2011) – who oppose government action to reduce carbon emissions (e.g., Oreskes & Conway, 2010). The claim that climate scientists are still arguing over the reality of human-caused climate change was designed to resonate with the sensibilities of political conservatives who are inherently suspicious of government intervention in markets and societies. This targeted disinformation campaign has been highly effective in the United States: far more political conservatives (49%) than liberals (18%) currently believe there is “a lot of disagreement among the experts about global warming” (Leiserowitz et al, 2013). While originally launched in the U.S., this disinformation campaign is also now being pursued in Canada, the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand (Dunlap & McCright, 2011).”

About the same time the blog got the paper the blog’s friend John Spitzer sent a link to a Physics Today article which discusses the work of Stanford University’s Robert Proctor, a professor of the history of science, on ‘agnotology’ or how ignorance gets produced.

The article, by Steven T. Corneliussen, explains that ‘agnotology’ is “a neologism signifying the study of the cultural production of ignorance.” The article ranges over taxpayer funds for schools which teach the Earth is less than 10,000 years old and Adam and Eve shared the world with the dinosaurs (happens in Australia too); the role of the Wall Street Journal in producing ignorance (also happens here from the same media company); the tobacco industry; and, climate change denialism (the latter making a trifecta of Australian echoes and making a nonsense of the phrase ‘only in America’).

Agnotology has a Wikipedia page  and the first chapter of Agnotology:The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (edited by Proctor and Londa Schiebinger) is available to be read for free online. For the blog though, the challenge facing the PR industry is that public relations practitioners are in the thick of all this.  We may talk loudly about ethics but an awful lot of our fellow practitioners are making an awful lot of money and giving an awful lot of ammunition to our critics while doing their best to roll back the advances the Enlightenment has made possible. Staying ignorant of this reality does no-one in the industry any good.