The Ignorance of the Learned

PAH First 2012 Article: The Ignorance of the Learned

Most university professors are happy enough when their publications are acclaimed by their colleagues, and by reviewers in influential periodicals. But some more ambitious ones hunt bigger game. They proclaim the creations of new ’emergent disciplines’. These hothouse products increase the over-specialization already plaguing academic studies, and have also, too often, been the means by which entrenched professorial prejudices can be repackaged as new justifications for the oppressive alliance of political fashions and expanded state power.

For a decade now, just such an emerging nuisance, called ‘agnotology’, has been cultivated with loving care by two Stanford professors in the history of science, both Harvard Ph.D.s with many academic laurels, Robert Proctor and his wife, Londa Schiebinger. ‘Agnotology’ has already been sanctified by Wikipedia, which defines it as ‘the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data’.

Proctor coined the word in a 1995 book, deriving it from the Greek ‘agnosis’, or ‘not knowing’. He maintains that ignorance a complex entity, with a ‘changing political geography…often an excellent indicator of the politics of knowledge’. Later, he applied the term ‘only half jokingly’ to a study he made of the limited geologic knowledge of agate, discovered over two thousand years ago, contrasted with the more detailed research on rocks and minerals with commercial value. Agate had been the victim of a ‘structured apathy’, part of ‘the social construction of ignorance’.

Soon he was not joking. In 2003, he and his wife organized an agnotology ‘workship’ at Pennsylvania State University. In 2004, Schiebinger gave a paper on gender effects on 18th century scientific explorations – her speciality is ‘gender relations in science’ – which found some more agnotological ignorance, ‘the outcome of cultural and political struggle’.

By 2005, the couple were able to launch a full-scale agnotology conference at Stanford; by then, the concept was beginning to appear in popular books. In 2010, a Marxist art and film critic, Michael Betancourt joined the pursuit, claiming in an article, that the whole 1980 – 2008 economy had been one long ‘bubble’, the creation of what he called ‘agnotologic capitalism’.

Exciting counterfactual historical investigations may thus now unfold, explaining why various forms of ‘knowledge’ did not ‘come to be’. At the 2005 conference, for example, Proctor claimed that the science of plate tectonics was delayed a decade by military censorship of evidence about the seabed. But he could have added that it was the WW II interest of the U. S. Navy in possible undersea hiding places for subs that had led to the seabed studies in the first place.

Proctor has achieved more public celebrity for his research on how tobacco companies, government regulators, scientists, and media reports shaped what his 1995 book called The Cancer Wars. He attacked the tobacco industry for ‘manufacturing doubt’ about the increased risk of cancer from tobacco use, including the subsidizing of scientific research about everything but tobacco hazards. He has also written on a topic that apparently was a big surprise to him, although familiar to many historians, The Nazi War on Cancer. He was quite stunned to discover that the Nazis were far ‘ahead’ of the U. S. in not only recognizing the carcinogenic nature of tobacco, but in waging a public anti-smoking campaign. The failure of America to learn quickly from the Nazis was clearly a case of agnotology striking again.

Agnotology has so many things wrong with it that another ’emerging discipline’ could be launched to refute it. It could start by returning to the word’s Greek derivation, this time expanding not on agnosis, but on gnosis, not its antonym, but another academic concept, this one advanced by the conservative thinker and historian of ideas, Eric Vogelin (1901-1985). Vogelin was an e’migre’ German scholar who devoted his life to studying the causes of the political violence and totalitarianism of the 20th century. He is unlikely ever to become a favourite at Harvard. Apart from having a difficult style, and drawing on a deep understanding of classical and modern European history, Vogelin is simply too serious for Harvard, a standing rebuke to professional superficiality. But he has important things to say, not only about the ideas that shaped the 20th century totalitarians, but about present intellectual life.

Gnosis was one of Vogelin’s central concepts, ironically quite suitable for describing the reasoning of the agnotologists. Vogelin maintained that it was an intellectual deformation arising from the abandonment of a sense of transcendance and trust, that can never be fully defined or described, but only partially comprehended in symbols, and which provides the enduring basis of order. Its ‘gnostic’ replacement takes the form of ‘a purported direct, immediate apprehension or vision of truth…the special gift of a spiritual and cognitive elite’.

Nowadays, that is not just a description of obvious ideological fanatics, but something close to the blind and bland incomprehension of Ivy League progressive professors. These include the new agnotologists. First of all, only years of shelter in academia could allow anyone to take seriously the idea that public ‘confusion’ about the cancer risks of tobacco or the possible threat of global warming has required much in the way of conscious ‘manipulation’ to explain it.

No mattter how serious these threats may be over the long term, the far more obvious reason for public resistance to coercive government policies intended to set them on a more healthy and righteous path is the simple remoteness of the threats, compared to both the pleasurable and highly addictive nature of tobacco, and the alarming immediate costs demanded for rapid conversion to what are still very uneconomic non-fossil-fuels means of providing energy.

Books and articles that minimize, dismiss, or at least introduce ‘doubt’ about health or climate risks may sometimes be tendentious and wrongheaded, but at best or worst have only a limited role in explaining public ‘ignorance’ about these topics. The far more powerful factor is the commonsensical attachment to what is immediately persuasive, and a recognition that learned theories about future dangers have so often been shown to be wrong. That stolid indifference may indeed sometimes lead the masses of mankind into folly, but has also saved them from it. It was ‘future-orented’ intellectuals who were most rapidly and dangerously seduced by Marxism, fascism, schemes of eugenic improvement, and all other forms of what Vogelin called gnosticism.

Not only that, the agnotologists resemble past Marxists in their incapacity to consider the merits of arguments opposing them as such, completely preoccupied by speculative theories about the parti pris of those who do not agree with them. For example, the evidence that actual smoking is a major risk factor for cancer has long been overwhelming, but the reason that many scientists have raised ‘doubt’ about the risks attendant on second-hand smoke is not simply calculated efforts to confuse the issue by tobacco companies, but the real weakness of the statistical evidence. It is the anti-smoking crusade which itself has confused that issue.

Similarly, even if ‘climate change sceptics’ have wrongly underestimated the seriousness and immediacy of the threat of global warming, their scepticism is genuine. It is simply nonsense to imagine that they are all merely tools of the giant oil companies; indeed, several of the latter have joined the ‘need for remedial action’ chorus. And whether the public policy issue is smoking restriction, government action on energy consumption, or something else, even arguments made that are demonstrably partisan are not therefore demonstrably false. Even Hitler and the Nazis were not wrong about everything, disturbing as Proctor found this; they were quite clever about a number of things besides the dangers of smoking, but were still a gang of murderous thugs.

Oddest of all for two ‘historians of science’, Proctor and Siebinger don’t seem to realize that they have merely introduced a minor verbal variation on Francis Bacon’s 500-year-old arguments about the influence on thought of what he called ‘idols’, of the tribe, the theatre, etc. Nor do they seem to be aware that the weakness of Baconianism, like that of Freudianism, Marxism, or the ‘sociology of knowledge’ theories of writers like Karl Mannheim, is that they all wind up, as do all other would-be ‘unmaking’ theories, entangled in a version of the Cretan liar’s paradox. That is, if Professor P attempts to dismiss Proposition X on the grounds, not that it is contradicted by evidence or logic, but because it was advanced by someone working out his Oedipus Complex, displaying his class-based ‘false consciousness’, dedicated to the spreading of agnotological confusion, or whatever, any third commentator can dismiss the objections of Professor X in exactly the same way, and all reasoning and dialogue therefore collapses.

Bacon, Freud, Marx, Mannheim, and the agnotologists can all still sometimes make persuasive arguments, as also hold for Neo-Marxists, Postmodernists, and the many other current academic descendants of the Laputans in Gulliver’s Travels. Even stopped clocks are right twice a day. But there is no place like the Ivy League for confusing stopped clocks with binoculars.


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