Agnotology in politics

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, 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.

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  • Harold

    WP. Maybe its just me, but I have a problem following your Article. If you take the word Agnotology (Study of) and exchange it in your article with the word Biology or Psychology if you wish, you may see the difficulty. “Buyer beware” was borne from willful acts of deceit, and has been here since the beginning of time. It is no different in this era as it has been in the past. (snake Oil). To study Deceit, there has to be a liar first. Good liars tell the truth, just not the whole truth. Bad liars tell a lie. Good liars are known after the whole truth is exposed. How did they do it?; Agnotology may be a warning or a hand book to the innocent, rather than a reference for a personal achievement to deceive. No one needs a reference book to lie. Not really. They certainly didn’t have Agnotology in the old days. Maybe a Bible. As far as big Tobacco, their were huge embellishments on both sides of that fence. When big money is being made by Government and the Medical subsidiary’s on the back of smokers, including their cessation products, do you expect to see truth standing beside it? Advocates or money-makers? How much does education cost? All of my children are non smokers and it came with 10 minutes of information. Had they chose to smoke; its their body. Its ridicules how many foods are identifiable of the same nature, and have not seen the same aggression. (how many smokers are in the hospital vs. how many smokers are in the cancer clinics) Re; Donald Trump. He is not the manifestation of a dumbed up Nation. Even absurd at times, I like the fact he gets people talking. The example of the dumbed up Nation was the enactment of the Patriot Act and the subsequent general orders. This Act gives the government protection from its own citizens, using every police force, including military might, at its disposal, and the Americans didn’t even hic-up. (passed off as anti-terrorism) Canadians now have our own version of the patriot act. Bill C-51. Any hic-ups? News coverage? Trump just may be Crazy enough to give America back to the American people. One further bit of Agnotology. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Without the lengthy document wording, it states in part, that it is a “common standard of achievement” ….”is of the greatest importance”…. “Is the common standard for all peoples”….”every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by aggressive measures……” Now I ask you: the government pays for the education it wants: where is it? Is it possible to obey something you’ve never heard? Is it possible to act upon or against anything you’ve never heard? Here’s a challenge. Out of 30 Articles of the Declaration, and of the persons in your work place or family, how many articles will they Know? Now ask if they can name 30 TV shows and movies. We have room in our minds to know both. If Canadians and Americans are dummied up, its not by their own doing. If you don’t want something- there is no crime in taking it away. I don’t wonder what’s going on.
    Im in a position to regularly talk to graduate students, and my kids are grown, but I went to a local school and they became Hostile when I inquired about the teaching and display of the UDHR. Apparently its none of my business. A learning institution no less. Political Parties and the billion dollars play no part. Is that bad?


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