Word of the day: Agnotology

« previous post | next post »

Cecilia Tomori, "Scientists: don’t feed the doubt machine", Nature 11/2/2021:

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been saddened at how science has been hijacked. Arguments around herd immunity exemplify this: proponents claimed that acquiring immunity by infection was fine for most people and also that communities were well on their way to achieving herd immunity. The messages downplayed dangers for those with high risks of exposure or severe illness. Technical arguments over infection rates silently cemented the assumption that disabled or immunocompromised people did not merit collective protective action; nor did the workers whose jobs required dangerous public contact.

Although many scientific champions did provide appropriate context, I watched several respected colleagues step into debates on when, or if, society would reach herd immunity without realizing that the discussion was not simply a scientific debate. Their too-narrow focus unintentionally helped to promote controversy and doubt, and that ultimately impeded an effective public-health response. The same happened around mask use, vaccination and school policies. This helped to shift public opinion on which public-health measures were ‘acceptable’: the fewer the better.

The field of agnotology (the study of deliberate spreading of confusion) shows how ignorance and doubt can be purposefully manufactured. Famous scholars include David Michaels, Marion Nestle and Naomi Oreskes. In September, Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, a non-profit organization based in Arlington, Virginia, quoted environmentalist Bill McKibben on Twitter in regard to climate change: “We spent a long time thinking we were engaged in an argument about data and reason …. But now we realize it’s a fight over money and power.” Hayhoe elaborated: “‘Objections’ were always, entirely, professionally, and verrrry cleverly couched in scientific terms. They [industry] focused their lasers on the science and like cats we followed their pointer and their lead.” Some elements of manufactured doubt in this pandemic might seem fuzzier, especially when vested interests are not always clear. Nonetheless, the same lessons apply.

Tomori offers a three-step answer to the question, "How can researchers keep from being distracted like cats?" The first step is that "researchers must learn to identify authors of research, and their relationships with industry and with non-profit groups that have specialized agendas."  Evidence for growing awareness of this issue is journals' and conferences' increasingly common requirement for extensive conflict-of-interest questionnaires.

[If Tomori's Nature article is blocked for you, this link should work.]

Wiktionary tells us that agnotology was "Coined by Irish linguist Iain Boal in 1992", and means "The study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data."

There's no entry in Merriam-Webster or the OED.

Some related concepts are discussed in a blog post by Jacob Rob and Jacob Shapiro, "A Brief History of Online Influence Operations", Lawfare 10/28/2021. See also Allan English et al., "Influence Operations: Historical and Contemporary Dimensions (Les Dimensions Historiques et Contemporaines des Operations d'Influence)", July 2007:

This report was written to support research by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) Toronto designed to enhance the ability of the Canadian Forces (CF) to plan, implement, and evaluate "influence" campaigns in future expeditionary operations. It contributes to a one-year scoping study that is being conducted to better define the CF's requirements for further research in this area. The report is based on a review of relevant academic disciplines and provides a broad, representative coverage of the area of investigation by clarifying the range of influence activities and providing a classification scheme for those activities.



  1. Tom Dawkes said,

    November 10, 2021 @ 5:41 pm

    Google Scholar shows over 3,600 entries under “agnotology’ and over 300 for “agnotological”.

  2. AntC said,

    November 10, 2021 @ 11:47 pm

    culturally-induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data.

    (the study of deliberate spreading of confusion

    With the pandemic, I don't think we need attribute to any scientist being "misleading" or "deliberate spreading" — although there's been plenty of that as well coming from ill-intentioned players.

    The science was never sure; it got a lot less sure with the Delta variant; it's still not sure today. Should Public Health advisers or governments — even with the best of intentions to care for the population — wait until people are dying like flies? So the population can believe there's a real need to act. Or should they act early out of an abundance of caution, taking what was no more than an educated guess that inaction would lead to many deaths?

    What governments could be a lot more sure about was that confining everybody to their homes would devastate the economy, and that would cause great distress if not actual deaths.

    If there's a culturally-induced anything in scientifically literate societies, there's a belief science establishes facts, not probabilities. Then it's hard (for me, at least) to follow that Public Health science deals in little else than probabilities. They won't say that vaccination will keep you alive, or that it'll prevent you catching Covid, or prevent you getting severe infection or prevent you suffering 'long Covid'. They won't say 70% or 80% or 90% vaccination rate will deliver herd immunity. (And there's a wild variety of targets out there in different countries.)

    Is all that hand sanitizer I'm chugging doing any good against the Covid? (Or perhaps it's protecting against other flu's and viruses?) Is wearing a mask protecting me or those around me? Then why are kids exempt from wearing masks? None of this science is secure.

    Then it's easy to see why those already disposed to mistrust modern technological governments, whose efforts seem self-serving to 'protect' the elite before they help the under-privileged (if indeed they do that at all), will point to the rash of probables-not-definites and distrust the whole lot.

    (I'm speaking as someone 100% vaccinated, who always wears a mask and always applies hand sanitizer; in New Zealand where we have fewer than 50 deaths attributed to Covid all-time to date in a population of ~5 million, now very close to 90% of the population having received at least one jab.)

    I have an expectation that when the science can catch up with the current turmoil, we'll find a large part of the scientifically-informed measures will turn out to have been ineffective/unnecessary. Right now we just don't know which.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 4:40 am

    "They [industry] focused their lasers on the science and like cats we followed their pointer and their lead” . Why "like cats" ? If any animal is less likely to follow another animal's pointer or lead, it is most certainly the cat — independent, focussed, and capable of sitting for hours waiting for the prey to shew its head.

  4. John Swindle said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 5:21 am

    Cats are believed to enjoy hunting things that run from them. Can I catch the pesky red dot that’s running around on the floor? (I haven’t actually tried it with, you know, an actual cat.) Note the clever shift in first-person reference.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 5:37 am

    Well, that is certainly true, so if "pointer" was meant in the laser-pointer sense then I withdraw my remark.

  6. John Swindle said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 6:46 am

    When the sermon has "laser" and "pointer" in the same sentence, the congregation will visualize laser pointers (and maybe even cats) if the preacher has done it right.

  7. KeithB said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 9:00 am

    I think the science is more settled than you think.
    I refer you to Politifact, FactCheck.org, Science Based Medicine and, if you have a snarky bent, Repectful Insolence.

    I imagine the first great attempt at what Agnotology studies was by the cigarette mfg's. Of course, at a lower level Urban Legends have been around much longer than that.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 4:04 pm

    I misread the coinage as "agnatology," which I suppose would be a homophone (via reduced vowel in second syllable), which seemed like a perfectly cromulent coinage for the scholarly study of agnates (just as "cognatology" would be the scholarly study of cognates), although I was not following what that had to do with the rest of the theme of the post.

    There is perhaps a certain irony in Prof. Tomori, whose own doctorate is in the non-science or perhaps post-science of anthropology, indulging in the sort of rhetoric that strongly presupposes there is such a thing as objective scientific truth Out There (which all people of good will would defer to if their minds were not corrupted by wicked propaganda). Hasn't her professional association condemned that sort of thinking?

  9. Stephen Hart said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 6:53 pm

    John Swindle said,
    (I haven’t actually tried it with, you know, an actual cat.)

    We have had several cats, mostly sequentially, and all chased laser pointer dots on the floor, at least until they got bored.

    That said, as a science writer, "focused their lasers" makes me cringe.

  10. Viseguy said,

    November 11, 2021 @ 11:08 pm

    Wonderful word, and it should be admitted asap into the generally-acceptable lexicon. Unless culturally-induced ignorance is on the wane — in which case, as Emily Litella used to say, "Never mind!"

  11. R. Fenwick said,

    November 12, 2021 @ 10:59 pm

    @AntC: With the pandemic, I don't think we need attribute to any scientist being "misleading" or "deliberate spreading"

    I think you've misunderstood: it seems that an agnotologist is a scientist who does not engage in the deliberate spread of misinformation, but who studies the processes by which others engage in such behaviour, so that it can be more effectively engaged with.

  12. R. Fenwick said,

    November 12, 2021 @ 11:37 pm

    @Stephen Hart: the defining characteristic of laser light is its coherence, not its focus. It's just that the coherence of laser light does allow it to be very tightly focused, so applications in which a light source must be focused on a very small target usually relies on a laser to do so.

    In the professional scientific literature Google Scholar gives c. 2,930 hits for "focused the laser" dating back to at least 1963: "A lens with a focal length of 7 in. focused the laser beam on the polished and etched end of a 20-mil W wire" (Giori, MacKenzie, and McKinney 1963, Applied Physics Letters 3 (2): 25-27). Although the phrasing more often has a lens or other focusing device as the grammatical subject, animate subjects are well-attested too: "During one of these Nd:YAG procedures, we inadvertently focused the laser on the interlenticular space…" (Gayton et al., Journal of Cataract and Refractive Surgery 27:1511-1513); "We focused the laser on the soma of a ChR2-YFP expressing cell and captured YFP fluorescence excited at different laser intensities…" (Schoenenberger et al., Brain Cell Biology 36: 119-127); "Each time we focused the laser on an individual bird we recorded the length of time the laser was on…" (Glahn et al., The Ninth Wildlife Damage Management Conference Proceedings (ed. M. C. Brittingham), 34-45); "We then focused the laser on the single spot and tunned the laser energy until the magnitude and pulse width were close." (Watkins et al., 2018 IEEE AUTOTESTCON 2018: 1-4).

  13. AG (yet another one) said,

    November 13, 2021 @ 2:21 am

    The quote from Tomori's article mentions Naomi Oreskes. She and Erik M. Conway co-authored a brilliant historical survey of the subject for the non-specialist, "Merchants of Doubt" (2010), demonstrating in particular how certain scientists became guns for hire (Mr Doubt-hire?) in fields unrelated to their academic specialty. It's probably time for a post-COVID-19 update.

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    November 13, 2021 @ 6:37 am

    When one "focusses one's attention", no lens is required, and I very much suspect that in most of Rhona's quotations "focus[sed]" was being used to mean no more than "point[ed] at". But what the h@ll does "tunned the laser energy until the magnitude and pulse width were close" mean ?!

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 13, 2021 @ 10:11 am

    @Philip T.: I think it more likely that "tunned" is a typo for "tuned" than that it is a specialized laser-jargon word, although I suppose anything's possible. See e.g. this piece about laser-tuning. https://aip.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/5.0018576

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    November 13, 2021 @ 11:18 am

    Wel, it wasn't just "tunned" that bothered me, it was also "until the magnitude and pulse width were close". As "close" finished the sentence, there was no clue as to what they were close, and they are not commensurable so can't be "close" to each other …

RSS feed for comments on this post