The exotic fruit of ignorance

I was recently seduced I think. I’m sorry; I should have been more careful, I suppose. I blame it on my age, of course; I find my years a ready excuse when previously acknowledged boundaries begin to slip away. I don’t think it’s an intentional abrogation of intellectual capacities or anything -merely a slippage, a lapse in memory of things past, connections not recognized, or worse, ignored…

Along with being embarrassed, I have to admit that I failed to spot a family resemblance -easily discernable had I dimmed my excitement long enough to look. It was another example of an otherwise understandable agnotological error, I’m afraid. But I’m elderly now; I really should have known better. I obviously should have thought it through more thoroughly…

I imagine it was the allure of the delightfully costumed word ‘agnotology’ which led me astray. Who would have thought that the tempting term referred to the study of ignorance -a clever derivative from the neoclassical Greek word ‘agnosis’ meaning ‘not knowing’? It is, I suspect, an erudite neologism whose etymology, I have to admit I missed somehow. Still, I do not pretend a leading role in agnotological research or anything, and I merely feel its wind if it stands too close to me; it is the best a man of my age can hope for. But I should mention that lately I have been more than ruffled by such barometric outbursts.

Agnotology, though, caught me by surprise. I mean, who would actually dedicate their career to studying the effects of ignorance? I would have thought that there would be no ologies left unclaimed by now, but I guess it just demonstrates how out of the loop I find myself after retirement. Or, perhaps it is merely an Age thing -something I must no longer look to have. Just mouth honour and curses not loud but deep.

But I digress, and I fear I am also straying into terra incognita here, so perhaps I should reveal the source of my current obsession.

I was strolling through the apps on my phone the other day when I was waylaid by an essay in an old BBC Future article on the obfuscation of knowledge by vested interests who seek to spread ignorance. It was written by Georgina Kenyon, a multitalented journalist who has contributed to both the Guardian and the BBC.  

In the article, she spends a lot of time explaining how the tobacco industry tried to confuse the public and plant seeds of doubt about whether or not their product was harmful. She quotes the work of Robert Proctor, a science historian from Stanford University, who researched the practices of tobacco firms and how they had spread confusion about whether smoking caused cancer. Unfortunately, that part was wasted on me -I was never able to smoke successfully… well, at all, really -although I liked the smell of those rum soaked cigarillos one of my more Goth-like girlfriends used to brandish.

I certainly remember my first and only experiment with smoking –it happened in the lane behind our house in 1950ies Winnipeg. I was only six or seven years old, and Jake had told me that what you were supposed to smoke in a corncob pipe was corncobs. We were both quite innocent in those days and it made sense. Anyway, he reasoned that because cob leaves resembled that of tobacco plants it must be the same family, or something.  So, he had shredded some of the cob and managed to stuff it into a pipe he had found in his father’s bedside table. The first thing that seemed unusual was the dense, opaque and queer looking smoke that didn’t smell at all like the sweetish plume of my father’s cigarettes. The second clue was the severe vomiting it caused after a lungful of it.

Anyway, as a result of my fumological experiment, I skimmed through most of the tobaccan part of Kenyon’s essay. I was more interested in her other examples of agnotoses. Like, say, the politically motivated doubt that was thrown over former U.S. President Barack Obama’s nationality for months by his opponents. Or the statement ‘that ignorance can often be propagated under the guise of balanced debate. For example, the common idea that there will always be two opposing views does not always result in a rational conclusion. This was behind how tobacco firms used science to make their products look harmless, and is used today by climate change deniers to argue against the scientific evidence.’ As Proctor warns, “We live in a world of radical ignorance, and the marvel is that any kind of truth cuts through the noise… Even though knowledge is ‘accessible’, it does not mean it is accessed… the knowledge people have often comes from faith or tradition, or propaganda, more than anywhere else.”

I was particularly interested in Proctor’s views on climate change obfuscation. “The fight is not just over the existence of climate change, it’s over whether God has created the Earth for us to exploit, whether government has the right to regulate industry, whether environmentalists should be empowered, and so on. It’s not just about the facts, it’s about what is imagined to flow from and into such facts.”

Then Kenyon delves into the work of another academic, David Dunning, from Cornell University and his idea that the internet is helping propagate ignorance. Everybody online begins to feel they have become an expert, and this in turn can mislead them into a false sense of their own omniscience.

His point, I think, is that ‘We should consult with others much more… [they] may be imperfect as well, but often their opinions go a long way toward correcting our own imperfections, as our own imperfect expertise helps to correct their errors.’ By trying to unravel the reasons why others hold the beliefs they do rather than merely dismissing them, we can perhaps better understand, or even amend the context for our own. Sometimes Truth is a horizon we can only keep trying to reach…

I find it fascinating to think that we can often learn from the imperfect opinions of others. It makes sense, I guess, but does it apply to the author of this article as well? I wonder if Kenyon herself believes the information she imparted is trustworthy; is she, in fact, only consulting with her readers in hopes of reaching a more perfect middle road? Am I safe in assuming she is not a closet agnotophiliac -especially after my long journey through her essay? Having come this far, I really want to believe I have arrived at a Truth -not merely approached it. Has she led me there, or merely to a motel along the highway -a Möbius strip with only one side no matter how you twist it? It’s all rather tenuous perhaps, but nonetheless seductive…

Age doesn’t make things any easier, you know…

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