• Paul Anthony Jones

Agnotology

(n.) the study of culturally-propagated ignorance or doubt in provable fact



Here’s a useful word for 2021: agnotology is the study of culturally-propagated ignorance or doubt—often about entirely factual or provable things—that is sewn in society by misinformation, or the manipulation of scientific data.



Derived from a Greek word, agnosis, literally meaning ‘not knowing’ (the origin of agnosticism, too), the term agnotology was coined as recently as 1995 by Stanford Professor of the History of Science Robert N Proctor. In his book The Cancer Wars, Proctor explained that:


Ignorance ... has a distinct and changing political geography that is often an excellent indicator of the politics of knowledge. We need a political agnotology to complement our political epistemologies.

In doing so, he coined a new word for the kind of ignorance or denialism that is commonly intentionally sewn and propagated in a society.


As useful a term as this is, agnotology remained somewhat on the sidelines of the language until the early 2000s, when Proctor’s fellow Stanford scholar (and wife) Londa Schiebinger contrasted the word with epistemiology. In her 2004 paper Feminist History of Colonial Science, Schiebinger outlined that while epistemiology is the study of human knowledge—or essentially, the study of how we know what we know—agnotology is the study of why we do not know. Schiebinger’s paper brought the concept of agnotology another step closer to the scientific and philosophical mainstream, and it has remained a useful term (if rather seldom used) in such contexts ever since.


Incidentally, it’s worth pointing out that as the opposite of epistemiology, agnotology is joined by another fairly unfamiliar concept, agnoiology, that was coined by the Scottish metaphysical scholar and writer James Frederick Ferrier way back in 1854. But while agnotology concerns itself with how and why ignorance may be propagated culturally, Ferrier’s agnoiology was meant essentially as a foil to epistemiology—and so concerns itself not just with ignorance, but with what is unknowable rather than merely unknown.

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