Agnotology—choosing ignorance

Agnotology is a new area of science that studies culturally induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data. In the modern world of misinformation and mistruths it is an important addition to scientific discipline.

The meaning of agnotology

The neologism (new word) was coined by Robert N. Proctor, a Stanford University professor specialising in the history of science and technology. He was an early opponent of the tobacco industry and its misinformation campaigns. He summarised his study of agnotology as:

“how ignorance has been understood, created, and ignored, linking these ideas also to allied creations of secrecy, uncertainty, confusion, silence, absence, and impotence—especially as these pertain to scientific activities”.

In his AGNOTOLOGY—The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance he stated:

“The idea is that a great deal of attention has been given to epistemology (the study of how we know) when “how or why we don’t know” is often just as important, usually far more scandalous, and remarkably undertheorized”.

Deliberate ignorance is contrary to the idea that people are curious and keen to pursue knowledge. Having full knowledge and all information about a difficult situation may not align with everyone’s emotional well-being. The decision to embrace or avoid knowledge can be down to many things.

Deliberate ignorance is a self-imposed decision, and can be explained by four primary motives as follows.

1. Avoidance of bad news

People may choose ignorance to avoid potentially distressing news, especially when there is no remedy or prevention available (the idea that ignorance is bliss). Many people avoid accessing information about their health, including genetic markers for diseases or life expectancy predictions even though they are accessible. There is an aspect of this also in climate change denial.

2. Maintenance of surprise

The desire to maintain surprise and suspense can motivate deliberate ignorance. During the Rugby World Cup many fans don’t want to know the results of matches until they can watch the replays (while Wallaby fans don’t want to know the results at all).

3. Strategic ignorance

Strategic ignorance can be advantageous when individuals intentionally remain oblivious to potential risks to shift responsibility onto others (“playing chicken”). In financial crises and in politics, strategic blindness allows individuals or entities to avoid accountability and taking action. Climate change denial by the Australian government is a strong example.

4. Ignorance to avoid bias

Deliberate ignorance can be a means of achieving fairness and impartiality. This is common in law when pre-knowledge of defendants may be considered prejudicial to a fair trial.

Deliberate ignorance challenges the conventional pursuit of knowledge. Understanding the factors influencing this phenomenon is crucial in a society that often prioritises access to information and knowledge and is dealing with large levels of misinformation.