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Description: Have you heard of agnotology? According to a number of social scientists you should really work on wanting to know what this term is and what its implications are for how we are forming our beliefs and opinions and developing our “expertise”. In the 1960s a tobacco company developed a number of strategies and tactics to counter the claims being made by increasingly vocal groups of anti-cigarette lobbyists. Some of the strategies are quite effective and essentially resulted in large numbers of people remaining essentially willfully ignorant of the mounting evidence about the dangers of cigarette smoking. Robert Proctor developed the term agnotology to capture efforts by groups like the cigarette company noted above to spread ignorance in ways that are beneficial to their bottom line. Before you read the article try and think about some other areas where people seem to be drawn into purposely not attending to the details of positions or statements or beliefs that might in fact be rather important (hint, think American election). After you’ve given that some thought read to the article and see how what it says fits with your own thoughts on the subject.

Source: The man who studies the spread of ignorance, Georgina Kenyon, BBC, Science and Environment, Language.

Date: November 13, 2016


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The scholars and researchers whose work is discussed in the article linked above are essential asking us to consider how it is that we go about deciding when we do or do not know enough information or have thought hard enough to have an opinion or to feel like we hold expertise in a particular area. David Dunning, in particular, is arguing that we sometimes find it too easy to make up our minds and that we do so before we consider enough sources or possible alternative explanations for the data in front of us. Essentially Dunning is suggesting that we can correct our own imperfections if we simply broaden our scope of inquiry and pay attention to what more people have to say before making up our minds. Dunning and Proctor who are paralleling work being done in social and cognitive psychology would suggest that we need to be cautious about our tendency to move too quickly from minimal one-sided data to a position or to beliefs that may not in fact map the world very well at all. Especially in light of a number of examples of this sort of behaviour that can be readily be seen by reviewing coverage of the recently completed US presidential election it may be important for all of us to pause and reflect somewhat on the nature of agnotology.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is agnotology and what are several examples from past or current media coverage?
  2. Are there any evolutionary reasons you can think of for why we may be susceptible to agnotology’s?
  3. What are some things that we might try and get in the habit of doing that will minimize the possibility of us falling victim to the sorts of things that Dunning and Proctor have in mind when they talk about agnotology?

References (Read Further):

Proctor, R., & Schiebinger, L. L. (Eds.). (2008). Agnotology: The making and unmaking of ignorance. Stanford University Press.

Bedford, D., & Cook, J. (2013). Agnotology, scientific consensus, and the teaching and learning of climate change: A response to Legates, Soon and Briggs. Science & Education, 22(8), 2019-2030.

Teo, T. (2013). Agnotology in the dialectics of the history and philosophy of psychology. Theory & Psychology, 23(6), 840-851.

Dunning, David; Johnson, Kerri; Ehrlinger, Joyce; Kruger, Justin (2003). “Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence” .  Current Directions in Psychological Science. 12 (3): 83–87.

Dunning, David (2005). Self-Insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself (Essays in Social Psychology). Psychology Press.