Sunday, 28 August 2011

Agnotology: or denialism as policy

When I entered medical school I strongly believed that knowledge was the answer to most, if not all, problems. By the same token I thought that in any debate, just offering your opponent a well-supported argument had to lead to its acceptance.

Not so. Apparently, for psychological reasons humans reject evidence that contradicts strongly held beliefs. Hence the need for denialism. Because of that I coined the phrase: there is no cure for stupidity. As I remarked before, there are two sides to that coin. One, there are those that sincerely refuse to accept scientific facts, mostly through lack of understanding. Eventhough studies show increasing their knowledge does not help, I sincerely hope it does. Unfortunately, they evade venues that offer critical thinking courses.

Unfortunately, there is another group. They do not reject science, they understand and accept it. However, their monetary gains, religious and political powers, are severly damaged should certain scientific facts become known and accepted by the general public. To protect profitable companies, policies, et cetera they attempt to keep uncomfortable information hidden, and are actively aided by politicians. And if that does not work they soften the blow by pointing out the science is not settled, or even making us distrust science.
We were first shown that tactic by the tabacco industry (PDF) , which despite increasing evidence smoking is detrimental to our health, made it possible to stall legislation. Their trick: manufacturing scientific doubt.

Following that success new acolytes appeared: global warming does not exist, vaccination kills, evolution is merely another opinion, the financial industry Ponzi scheme, non-medicine-medicine, only plebeians commit crimes, we guarantee your safety, privacy will be the end of us all, militarism and ignoring the law breeds democracy. The recurring theme is misinformation, misrepresentation, and fullblown denialism.

Putting as many sticks as possible in the wheels of the bicycle called science has become a major strategy which is detailed in Merchants of Doubt. The cause is self-evident: if people hear smoking kills you lose customers, once evolution is accepted and the bible is proven to be a set of fairy tales that book can no longer be used to indoctrinate the rabble, if global warming is true you need to make costly adaptations to factories and cars, if security theatre does not prevent terrorist attacks we won't spent billions on the military-industrial-complex incarnation called security firms.

That technique of creating confusion is known as agnotology. According to Dah Wiki this:
is the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data.
The term was invented by Robert Proctor in 1992. An example is given by Stéphane Foucart for The Guardian:
A famous internal memo issued by the US cigarette manufacturer Brown & Williamson put it bluntly: "Doubt is our product." The campaign by the tobacco industry to spread ignorance, which became a deliberate ploy in the 1950s, has since been copied in other fields.
Hmm, doubt as a product, where have I heard that before?

Today the intertoobs are a highly effective method of disseminating misinformation. There are numerous echo chambers promoting "alternative views" by experts without knowledge. Countering the deliberate manufacture of debate becomes increasingly difficult. Especially when exposing those fabricating facts results in abuse like the recent unpleasantness.

Not only facts are misrepresented, also language is conscripted  in this war on reason. Something Orwell years ago explained to us, which is why today we call such abuse of language Orwellian.

The sad thing is I expect powerful factions to mislead in order to gain money and power, I have been turned into a cynic by Il Principe combined with a lack of interest in the latest Hollywood gossip. What annoys me is that the one institute whose raison d'être should be exposing such blatant fraud is refusing to do so. Or, in the case of one news organisation, participating in the scheme to mislead us. Commenting on the P.R.-departments we call media David Roberts writes:
There's one thing we haven't learned from climategate (or death panels or birtherism). U.S. politics now contains a large, well-funded, tightly networked, and highly amplified tribe that defines itself through rejection of "lamestream" truth claims and standards of evidence. How should our political culture relate to that tribe?
We haven't figured it out. Politicians and the political press have tried to accommodate the shibboleths of the right as legitimate positions for debate. The press in particular has practically sworn off plain judgments of accuracy or fact. But all that's done is confuse and mislead the broader public, while the tribe pushes ever further into extremity. The tribe does not want to be accommodated. It is fueled by elite rejection.
At this point mainstream institutions like the press are in a bind: either accept the tribe's assertions as legitimate or be deemed "biased." Until there is a way out of that trap, there will be more and more Climategates.
Confronted with such opposition to change, i.e. advancement of knowledge, I am reminded of my school days. During physics lessons Lenz's law was introduced to me.
An induced current is always in such a direction as to oppose the motion or change causing it.
Add to that a pinch of Newton:
To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.
which completes my version of quantum-woo to explain The Force is behind the anti-science movement.

Update: Added image borrowed from Waldenswimmer.

Update II: Yet another brilliant picture from Joe Romm, for Think Progress:

Nice flow-chart of The Denier Industrial Complex.


  1. I know this deep down to be true but you have articulated my intuition to perfection. Thanks a million.

  2. Very intellectually stimulating entry. Also, thanks for the link.

  3. "The sad thing is I expect powerful factions to mislead in order to gain money and power, I have been turned into a cynic by Il Principe "

    This kind of cynicism is nothing but good.

    Unrealistic idealism is the cause of much pain and suffering in this world.

  4. You confuse the study of willful ignorance (agnotolgy) with the perpetuation of willful ignorance. The two are not at all the same. Big mistake.