What Is the Study of Ignorance Called?

Two Stanford historians of science have developed a new field of study: agnotology. Don’t know what that is? You’re right, in an ironic sort of way. It is the study of ignorance. There’s even a new book to spread knowledge… or is it ignorance?… of the new discipline around: Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance. The editors are Robert N. Proctor and Londa Schiebinger.

As the blurb at the Stanford University Press website puts it:

The essays assembled in Agnotology show that ignorance is often more than just an absence of knowledge; it can also be the outcome of cultural and political struggles. Ignorance has a history and a political geography, but there are also things people don’t want you to know (“Doubt is our product” is the tobacco industry slogan). Individual chapters treat examples from the realms of global climate change, military secrecy, female orgasm, environmental denialism, Native American paleontology, theoretical archaeology, racial ignorance, and more. The goal of this volume is to better understand how and why various forms of knowing do not come to be, or have disappeared, or have become invisible.

In a recent column on the book in Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee writes:

Ignorance is not simply a veil between the knower and the unknown. It is an active – indeed vigorous – force in the world. Ignorance is strength; ignorance is bliss. There is big money in knowing how to change the subject – by claiming the need for “more research” into whether tobacco contains carcinogens, for example, or whether the powerful jaws of dinosaurs once helped Adam and Eve to crack open coconuts.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.