Agnotology, Science Denialism, and Joan Slonczewski

A column in the business section of the LA Times this morning, by Michael Hiltzik, Cultural production of ignorance provides rich field for study [curiously the print edition that I read this morning has the title “Sowing doubt about science”] is about a professor of the history of science at Stanford, Robert Proctor, whose specialty is “agnotology”, the study of the cultural production of ignorance.

It’s a rich field, especially today when whole industries devote themselves to sowing public misinformation and doubt about their products and activities.

Beginning with the tobacco industry in the 1960s, which tried to discredit scientific studies showing links between smoking and lung cancer. Today’s descendants:

Big Tobacco’s program has been carefully studied by the sugar industry, which has become a major target of public health advocates.

It’s also echoed by vaccination opponents, who continue to use a single dishonest and thoroughly discredited British paper to sow doubts about the safety of childhood immunizations, and by climate change deniers.

And all those fabricated Obamacare horror stories wholesaled by Republican and conservative opponents of the Affordable Care Act and their aiders and abetters in the right-wing press? Their purpose is to sow doubt about the entire project of healthcare reform; if the aim were to identify specific shortcomings of the act, they’d have to accompany every story with a proposal about how to fix it.

The article keys off the recent report that you just can’t change anti-vaxxers’ minds; facts and evidence seem not to matter. The article concludes with Proctor saying

“My whole career is devoted to pushing back,” he told me. “There is opportunity to expose these things through good journalism, good pedagogy, good scholarship. You need an educated populace.”

The effort needs to begin at a young age, he says. “You really need to be teaching third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-graders that some people lie. And why do they lie? Because some people are greedy.”

Quite coincidentally I sat down this afternoon to post on Locus Online selections from Locus Magazine’s interview with microbiologist and author Joan Slonczewski, and found her making nearly identical points as this article, and one of the themes of this blog.

The trouble is that some people think false science has no consequence. Who cares if it happened six thousand years ago or four billion? But it does have a consequence, because we are evolving creatures. Biology is evolution. If you want medicine, that’s evolution. The planet is evolving, life forms all over the planet are evolving to cope with climate change. Forests, as part of their response to increasing carbon dioxide, now draw less water from the earth. The problem with that is that if they draw less water from the earth, then they make fewer clouds. Trees make rain – you think rain makes trees, but trees make the clouds. We’re going to have fewer clouds that make rain then. It will become drier because of the CO2 effect.

People who reject good science don’t realize they are manipulated by powers that earn money off their disbelief. The people who have churches that believe this stuff sincerely don’t realize they are manipulated by the Koch brothers and by other entities that stand to make a lot of money off technologies that are destroying the Earth, like fracking. You have this coupling of the industry that wants to frack and so on with the science-denying churches, and the churches don’t realize how they are being manipulated.

More at the link.

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