Early last week Mike Allen of Politico.com broke the news of Scott McClellan’s forthcoming book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. In it, McClellan confesses to have knowingly kept the public in the dark on many important issues. Public ignorance of government affairs is not a new development, but the kinds of egregious abuses of information-withholding McClellan claims in his book warrant another look at how ignorance is created and promulgated. What don't we know, and why don't we know it? What keeps ignorance alive and allows it to be used as a political instrument?
These questions are addressed in Agnotology (May 2008), an introduction to the study of how ignorance is produced and maintained. Through a collection of essays, Proctor and Schiebinger present a new and much-needed perspective for scholars across all research fields (most of whom have spent their careers learning what is already known). They also provide a theoretical framework for non-academics who can recognize ignorance as more than a void.
The essays assembled in Agnotology strive to prove just that – that ignorance is often much more than a void of knowledge; it is the outcome of cultural and political struggles. Arguing that ignorance has a history and a political geography all its own, the authors outline why there are more than a handful of things people don't want you to know ("Doubt is our product" is the tobacco industry slogan).
The authors acknowledge that the causes of ignorance are multiple and diverse; ignorance can be “brought about by neglect, forgetfulness, myopia, extinction, secrecy, or suppression.” But to facilitate discussion, Proctor and Schiebinger divide ignorance into three broad categories: ignorance as native state, ignorance as lost realm, and ignorance as a deliberately engineered and strategic ploy. By defining and discussing the different qualities of each category, the authors demonstrate that ignorance can be the result of pure innocence, pure deceit, and everything in between.
Why do so few people know that the biggest building in the world is a facility built to produce explosive uranium-235 near a nondescript town in southern Ohio? Why did epidemiologists miss the high levels of vitamin deficiency diseases among early-twentieth-century African Americans? How did the first probes into the effects of alcohol on fetuses become “scientifically uninteresting”? Proctor and Schiebinger give such questions serious reflection and provide examples from many subject areas: from global climate change to military secrecy; from the female orgasm to Native American paleontology.
According to Proctor, Schiebinger, and the collection of essays in Agnotology, there is a lot to know about what we don’t know. Ignorance may seem like nothing but it is, in fact, a myriad of things: “It’s no excuse, it’s what can’t hurt you, it’s bliss.”