It is not uncommon to run across a word that is unrecognized. The world is full of big words, and the legal and medical professions in particular seem to like them. I recently saw "agnotology" and found it intriguing. The idea revolves around the concept of "culturally-induced ignorance or doubt." The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) published a story featuring a discussion of ignorance and its allegation of how industries or individuals may employ agnotology to encourage disregard for one set of beliefs by inducing doubt or substituting other beliefs.
The initial read drew me back to Forest Gump and his infamous "stupid is as stupid does" quote. Forest was not the best at remembering things perhaps, but he was persistently focused upon what his mama told him. Isn't everyone to some degree? We have been told that people are more likely to believe things they have heard before. See Repetition and Trial (January 2023). Thus, perhaps indoctrination is real, and what we learn in kindergarten may be as critical as we have been led to believe.
The BBC story in 2016 suggested that there are "people or companies" that "spread ignorance and obfuscate knowledge." The focus there is largely on tobacco companies and the contention that they knowingly and purposefully fostered doubt about the challenges and risks of smoking tobacco in order to encourage and maintain their sales and thus profits.
Many today will largely lack perspective on cigarette advertisements. Tobacco ads on television and radio were banned in 1970 (on April Fool's Day). Such ads for "smokeless" tobacco continued through the mid-1980s. It was touted as a "safe alternative." There were those who saw inconsistency in the advertisements for vaping that arrived and persisted, thereafter.
The day will perhaps come when a similar discussion will occur regarding the potential dangers of vaping, pot, and more that is wildly popular today. The cycle of introduction, adoption, growth, and the onset of reality seems familiar. In the meantime, some conclude that the absence of evidence is indeed proof of absence. And, to argue that marijuana smoking could or does cause cancer would perhaps be seen by some as Agnotology. But is the conclusion that pot cannot cause lung cancer any better?
The BBC article focuses on the employment of doubt in marketing, and companies fostering at least some perception that criticisms are less than absolute. As a tobacco company memo in the 1970s concluded, "Doubt is our product" and was "the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public." Through a process of "controversy” regarding what people should believe, the campaign was reportedly focused on maintaining doubt and thus sales. Is there, in the minds of the public today, at least some association between any smoking and cancer?
The article proceeds to explain an Agnotology study, and the etymology of "agnotology," which is related to this campaign of doubt. The word comes from the same root as agnostic - agnosis, merged with "tology" to denote study, and perhaps to suggest or engender a perception of science. It is interesting in light of our predisposition to believe things we already know. Repetition and Trial (January 2023). We perhaps naturally and emotionally embrace things we are exposed to repetitively. It appears at least that marketing and advertising work. We can be conditioned to accept and believe things. Why would it be so difficult to be conditioned similarly to doubt?
There is a variety of products and services in our society that one might question. Of course, with the current world sentiment one might catch a great deal of abuse in the cancel-culture just for questioning. The Agnotologists would suggest that any debate or disagreement might be disinformation and worse. There is a great spirit in modern America to coerce toeing the line regarding group-think and widely accepted beliefs. We persistently see individuals ridiculed in social media, the press, and the world for daring to suggest that the emperor is unclad. Some of the responses to conspiracy theorists and their conclusions may be right on point.
In fact, there are those who use that same emperor reference to suggest that their own argument is just and righteous. Is there an empirical reason to ban pot, or has it remained federally forbidden because of a rote agreement to its prohibition by people, scientists, and more who simply bought into an initial untruth about its potentials and dangers? See Jack Herer, The Emperor Wears No Clothes: A History of Cannabis/Hemp/Marijuana. The pot advocates would not likely accede to the posture that questioning and debate are wrong, ineffective, or Agnotology.
Why do we believe what we do? And, when did we start? Can you identify the moment when you bought into your particular beliefs? There are those among us who have adopted intriguing practices regarding diet, exercise, work, recreation, and more. They express belief and acceptance of their own preference or course, and often seem to doubt your intellect because you might even question their conclusions. People can be self-righteous, imperious, insulting, and even incorrect. And, often, their conclusions and belief processes have been influenced by those who have an interest in fostering those beliefs, that group-think, or consensus.
Is the concept of a campaign of doubt a product of tobacco and the 1970s? How hard would one have to search in order to find some earlier historical introduction of doubt, uncertainty, and fear in the marketing of concepts, products, and more? Perhaps not so far indeed. While the BBC author suggests that "the tobacco industry" is "the perfect example," there are perhaps many more. Possibly, the doubt perspective has been at play throughout our existence even since the world's leading scientific thinkers believed strongly in the geo-centric universe?
They once put Gallileo on trial. Who was focused on doubt in that disagreement, the church or the scientist? Is it possible that both relied to some degree on the doubt that is possible in a world of imperfect knowledge? Is it possible for scientists to disagree regarding what is, why, and where that might lead us? In a world that vilifies those that express different views, and challenge the accepted (currently) truths, is it practical to doubt anything? Or, for that matter, everything? Our recent experience with COVID certainly highlighted the challenges of opinion and doubt, not to mention science (or some scientists).
The BBC author seems to vilify the conclusion that debate can be positive in many or most instances. There is a benefit to differing views. But, the BBC article and its subject scientist, support the suggestion that anyone debating or disagreeing is perhaps a victim (or perpetrator) of this Agnotology, manipulated doubt, or other obfuscation (conspiracy theorists). The article promotes that "the common idea that there will always be two opposing views does not always result in a rational conclusion." Ah, but in that expression of "not always" there is the admission that the consideration of multiple views might indeed lead to a rational outcome in at least some and perhaps most instances.
The BBC conclusion is seemingly that because a particular argument is eventually discredited or disproven, this result is proof that debate and discussion may not always be appropriate. The logic is that some singular example argument was unfounded (perhaps purposely so) and thus, we should restrain ourselves from doubt generally because we allowed there to be the discussion as regards tobacco. This is an absolutist and imperious approach that suggests someone, somewhere, will dictate what is or is not appropriate debate. That, begs the question of who that someone is? Is it the group-think of the elites and social media influencers?
The article proceeds to denigrate any that doubt. Its perspective is, perhaps, disingenuous and self-serving. It is a suggestion, perhaps, that we sheep should simply get in line and believe what we are told. It is conspicuously quiet regarding the many instances in which doubters asked hard questions that were not answered. It is an overall indictment of inquiry and debate founded on selected examples and conclusions of absolute truth. And, in the end, it is seemingly suggestion that questioning and debate are unhealthy except within the framework or construct of some particular perspective.
Instead, the author and sources insist that the truth is critical. It is the answer to societal challenges such as "faith or tradition, or propaganda." They advocate that we move forward from what is believed and instead accept the "facts." Armed with the "facts," they suggest, we will be immune from the debate and the discussion, immune from the doubt. And, with that conclusion, they ignore the "fact" that the sun revolves around the earth, or so the consensus of group-think and contemporary science once held.
There is a disconnect, perhaps. We live in a world in which one week there is a scientific certainty that eggs are bad for us, followed the next week by a scientific conclusion we should eat more eggs. There is a persistent parade of conclusions in which the truth is either that we should or should not wear face masks, and similar. There are scientific conclusions and successes, and there are later studies that undermine or disprove them. We are persistently presented with advice about what cannot harm us, and later see some product, practice, or suggestion fall from vogue for precisely that harm.
There is room in society for doubt, discussion, and debate. While there is perhaps the potential for doubt to be introduced, that threat is a double-edged sword in which any belief or conclusion might be engaged. Doubt of any conclusions, of whatever source, may be necessary and absolutely critical to rational decision-making. Perhaps doubt and debate are our best paths, paths that we might celebrate instead of condemning? This is not to say we join every conspiracy theory, but that we critically analyze theories generally.
There is a great threat, perhaps, in the group think, the cancel culture, and the power of social media for thought censorship. There is likewise danger in the obfuscation of the truth. And, in the end, there is likely no perfect world to be had in which we will all accept the same conclusions and adopt identical beliefs. Truth in some instances will be an absolute, and in others merely a conclusion.
Thus, Justice Brandies' conclusions in Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927) are likely still worthy. The answer to speech with which your values disagree is not censorship or cancellation or name-calling (agnotology), it is more speech. And, it is likely worthwhile for all of us to listen to speech with which we disagree, that is contra to our own truth. In the debate and discussion, we will either adopt new perspectives or reinforce our own. Neither outcome is damaging.