In 1979, a secret memo from the tobacco industry was revealed to the public. Called the Smoking and Health Proposal, and written a decade earlier by the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, it revealed many of the tactics employed by big tobacco to counter “anti-cigarette forces”.
In one of the paper’s most revealing sections, it looks at how to market cigarettes to the mass public: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
This revelation piqued the interest of Robert Proctor, a science historian from Stanford University, who started delving into the practices of tobacco firms and how they had spread confusion about whether smoking caused cancer.
Proctor had found that the cigarette industry did not want consumers to know the harms of its product, and it spent billions obscuring the facts of the health effects of smoking. This search led him to create a word for the study of deliberate propagation of ignorance: agnotology.
Agnotology is the study of wilful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or win favour
It comes from agnosis, the neoclassical Greek word for ignorance or ‘not knowing’, and ontology, the branch of metaphysics which deals with the nature of being. Agnotology is the study of wilful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or win favour.
“I was exploring how powerful industries could promote ignorance to sell their wares. Ignorance is power… and agnotology is about the deliberate creation of ignorance.
“In looking into agnotology, I discovered the secret world of classified science, and thought historians should be giving this more attention.”
The 1969 memo and the tactics used by the tobacco industry became the perfect example of agnotology, Proctor says. “Ignorance is not just the not-yet-known, it’s also a political ploy, a deliberate creation by powerful agents who want you ‘not to know’.”
To help him in his search, Proctor enlisted the help of UC Berkeley linguist Iain Boal, and together they came up with the term – the neologism was coined in 1995, although much of Proctor’s analysis of the phenomenon had occurred in the previous decades.
Agnotology is as important today as it was back when Proctor studied the tobacco industry’s obfuscation of facts about cancer and smoking. For example, politically motivated doubt was sown over US President Barack Obama’s nationality for many months by opponents until he revealed his birth certificate in 2011. In another case, some political commentators in Australia attempted to stoke panic by likening the country’s credit rating to that of Greece, despite readily available public information from ratings agencies showing the two economies are very different.
Proctor explains 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.
“This ‘balance routine’ has allowed the cigarette men, or climate deniers today, to claim that there are two sides to every story, that ‘experts disagree’ – creating a false picture of the truth, hence ignorance.”
We live in a world of radical ignorance – Robert Proctor
For example, says Proctor, many of the studies linking carcinogens in tobacco were conducted in mice initially, and the tobacco industry responded by saying that studies into mice did not mean that people were at risk, despite adverse health outcomes in many smokers.
A new era of ignorance
“We live in a world of radical ignorance, and the marvel is that any kind of truth cuts through the noise,” says Proctor. Even though knowledge is ‘accessible’, it does not mean it is accessed, he warns.
“Although for most things this is trivial – like, for example, the boiling point of mercury – but for bigger questions of political and philosophical import, the knowledge people have often comes from faith or tradition, or propaganda, more than anywhere else.”