I recently encountered a word that stopped me dead in my internet perusing tracks and left me nodding my head toward the computer while saying, “that’s a good one.”
The word, which I came across in an article by Georgina Kenyon on bbc.com, is agnotology, which is “the study of willful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or win favour.”
Agnotology was coined by science historian Robert Proctor to help describe the practice of tobacco firms investing billions of dollars to spread confusion in the public about whether smoking causes cancer.
The tobacco industry’s tactics to keep citizens ignorant and confused about the health affects of smoking is an archetype of agnotology, but the use of this tactic is widespread.
Billions of dollars are spent every year through the communication budgets of companies and political organizations to influence how we think and feel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
But when the public’s interests are at odds with the goals of these organizations, as was the case of big tobacco, then agnotology becomes much more important in their communication strategies.
A consequence of the rampant use of agnotology today is the erosion of public trust in our political processes, companies and science itself.
Social media is saturated with agnotology. There are countless bogus “news” sites from all over the political spectrum spewing countless bogus “studies,” and it’s not surprising that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to cut through this clutter and mistruths to find a grain of knowledge.
Knowledge has appeared to have taken such a back seat in some public discourse that it, as a value and sought after goal, has become so compromised as to be irrelevant in some public spheres.
With the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, the apparently concerted effort to “dumb down America” may have reached its goal.
Analysis of Trump’s speeches and Twitter account inevitably conclude that he rarely tells the truth, unless the “truth” is considered to be whatever happens to momentarily pop into his mind.
Trump supporters likely don’t like him because he is knowledgeable or consistent. Some claim to like him because he “tells it like it is,” which apparently doesn’t have to be grounded in any verifiable fact.
The rise in Trump’s popularity can be considered one of those “chickens come home to roost” situations.
When there is a well-funded and consistent effort to manipulate and confuse a population with the use of tactics such as agnotology, it’s only a matter of time before the public becomes confused and makes bad decisions that hurt everyone.