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Scientists have a word for studying the post-truth world: agnotology

Scientists have a word for studying the post-truth world: agnotology

As we watch Donald Trump take on the most powerful position in the world, many of us are left asking how a man who has consistently lied to his public could get so far.

Some pundits are calling this the dawn of a new era. They say we now live in a post-fact or post-truth world. This is a time where the emphasis is not on coherence or rationality but on sensationalism, no matter the cost. And of course, this phenomenon has a concrete influence in the way we envision and govern our world.

But scientists have another word for “post-truth”. You might have heard of epistemology, or the study of knowledge. This field helps define what we know and why we know it. On the flip side of this is agnotology, or the study of ignorance. Agnotology is not often discussed, because studying the absence of something — in this case knowledge — is incredibly difficult.

Doubt is our product

Agnotology is more than the study of what we don’t know; it’s also the study of why we are not supposed to know it. One of its more important aspects is revealing how people, usually powerful ones, use ignorance as a strategic tool to hide or divert attention from societal problems in which they have a vested interest.

A perfect example is the tobacco industry’s dissemination of reports that continuously questioned the link between smoking and cancer. As one tobacco employee famously stated, “Doubt is our product.”

Up in smoke.

In a similar way, conservative think tanks such as The Heartland Institute work to discredit the science behind human-caused climate change.

Despite the fact that 97% of scientists support the anthropogenic causes of climate change, hired “experts” have been able to populate talk shows, news programmes, and the op-ed pages to suggest a lack of credible data or established consensus, even with evidence to the contrary.

These institutes generate pseudo-academic reports to counter scientific results. In this way, they are responsible for promoting ignorance.

Agnotology 2.0

Agnotology has always been present, but it is transforming. Now, the goal is no longer to create ignorance, because there is little to no preoccupation in public media with determining the validity of knowledge.

Under agnotology 2.0, truth becomes a moot point. It is the sensation that counts. Public media leaders create an impact with whichever arguments they can muster based in whatever fictional data they can create.

In the past it took powerful people, billionaires or major corporations, to generate significant levels of doubt; now, with social media, anyone can provide counter-factual information to create doubt.

This was nowhere more evident than in the case of “pizzagate”: in early December a man drove from North Carolina to a pizzeria in Washington DC, to verify whether children were being trafficked by Hillary Clinton and other leaders as part of an underground sex ring. He shot a rifle in the air, scaring the pizzeria’s workers and customers. The man was arrested, but the restaurant’s owner has been the subject of harassment, all because of tweets peddling false information.

When post-truth rumours have real world consequences. Reuters

Group cohesion based on fear is not conducive to open-minded discourse and problem-solving. More and more, ignorance-induced fear is a sure bet for stoking xenophobia and populism.

The end of science?

The separation of facts from opinions in recent discourse dominated the American presidential election. Facts no longer mattered, and Donald Trump’s many lies and contradictions did not affect his popularity. Any publicity was good publicity.

As the question of “why” hangs over Trump’s inauguration, we are left to wonder about the effects of having too much information at our fingertips. Perhaps we are inundated with so much information that we cannot decipher it all. Or perhaps it takes too much time and effort to verify information as factual.

Perhaps change in how news is brought to the public leads to irresponsible reporting. Or our education system might lack training in critical thinking. Probably, it is a mix of all of these things and more.

Donald Trump entering the White House is the pinnacle of agnotology 2.0. Washington Post journalist Fareed Zakaria has argued that in politics, what matters is no longer the economy but identity; we would like to suggest that the problem runs deeper than that.

The issue is not whether we should search for identity, for fame, or for sensational opinions and entertainment. The overarching issue is the fallen status of our collective search for truth, in its many forms. It is no longer a positive attribute to seek out truth, determine biases, evaluate facts, or share knowledge.

Under agnotology 2.0, scientific thinking itself is under attack. In a post-fact and post-truth era, we could very well become post-science.