Agnotology: “where reality dies screaming.”


Agnotology is a word invented by Stanford historian Robert Proctor, derived from the Greek agnosis and means “the study of culturally constructed ignorance.”

The sub-title of this blog* is Life in a Post-rational World, reflecting my concerns about the wave of anti-intellectualism which has swept America and the efforts of the extreme right wing, the Bush Administration and, to an extent, the establishment itself, to foster same. This is right in my wheelhouse, in other words.

Clive Thompson writes about Proctor and his new terminology in the just-released issue of Wired Magazine [17.02] (not yet online, but it will be at that URL eventually).

As Proctor argues, when society doesn’t know something, it’s often because special interests work hard to create confusion. Anti-Obama groups likely spent millions insisting he’s a Muslim.; church groups have shelled out even more pushing Creationism. The oil and auto industries carefully seed doubt about the the causes of global warming. And when the dust settles, society knows less than it did before.

Maybe the internet itself has inherently agnotological side effects. People graze all day on information tailored to their existing world-view. And when bloggers or talking heads actually engage in debate, it often consists of pelting one another with mutually contradictory studies they’ve Googled….

As Farhad Manjoo notes in True Enough: Learning to live in a Post-Fact Society, if we argue about what a fact means, we are having a debate. If we argue about what the facts are, it’s agnotological Armageddon, where reality dies screaming.

There’s a lot not mentioned there (things which  may be addressed in either Manjoo’s book or Proctor’s writings, neither of which I have seen): the technological impact of the right wing radio scream machine and advertisers willingness to support same; the fact that the craven mainstream media has  allowed itself to be driven to a “he said, he said” standard under which even the most absurd argument is presented, without comment, next to a rational one; the quivering fear of virtually all opinion makers to raise a defense as the wall between religion and government is increasingly breached.


* The title is  from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, a poem about a man paralyzed by his own sense of inadequacy; make of that what you will.

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