We don’t know what we don’t know…and somebody is constructing our ignorance. Welcome to agnotology

A/UK is currently engaging with the “Making Art, Making Politics” process at Concordia University, Montreal. As part of that engagement, we are delighted to run an essay from a participating student, Dave Shaw, who did a presentation at a previous session (here’s the PDF of the slides) on the topic of agnotology.

Agnotology sounds forbidding, but is actually acutely relevant to our times. It’s the study of how ignorance is consciously produced in a population, by the strategies of various operators and actors. We asked Dave to apply his understanding to a specific example of the generation of ignorance - the discussion around climate change.

This piece will make you alive to the media forces around you. Thanks Dave, and enjoy.

Climate Agnotology: Mapping Uncertainties In The Talk Around Climate Change

By Dave Shaw, Concordia University

Agnotology” refers to the study of the production of ignorance and uncertainty. Coined by historian Robert Proctor and linguist Iain Boal in the mid-90s, the term comes from the Greek word agnōsis, or “not knowing”.

It aims to serve as a counterbalance to epistemology, or the study of knowledge. Epistemology asks us to question where knowledge comes from. But agnotology asks us to consider the causes of ignorance and uncertainty. 

As Londa Schiebinger argues, ignorance “is often not merely the absence of knowledge, but an outcome of cultural and political struggle. What we know or do not know at any one time or place is shaped by particular histories, local and global priorities, the hierarchies of institutions and disciplines, personal and professional myopia, and much else as well.”  

Though it has emerged through academia, it’s not difficult to see how agnotology could be a useful addition to our general public discourse. Through agnotological inquiry, theorists and citizens alike are offered a new viewpoint from which to consider the uncertainty that permeates our daily lives. 

In his edited collection Agnotology, Proctor outlines a useful scheme for talking about different types of ignorance. He breaks ignorance down into three basic types: 

  1. ignorance as a native state

  2. ignorance as passive construct

  3. ignorance as active construct.

The first form of ignorance is “something to be fought or overcome”, says Proctor. “We hope and plan for it to disappear over time, as knowledge triumphs over foolish superstition”.

Ignorance in this sense implies a basically fatalistic relationship between ignorance and knowledge: the latter will naturally overcome the former, as when an infant reaches out for language. As Proctor goes on to elaborate, this is a naive understanding of ignorance. It actually comprises very little of the uncertainty we encounter in our daily lives.

The second form (as a “passive construct”) sees ignorance not as an empty void to be filled, but as a space with an observable structure. Just as knowledge is constructed through academic labour and the support of institutions, ignorance in this sense is cultivated through the absence of such labour and support.

Here, what remains unknown is seen as the result of “ten thousand accidents (and deliberations) of social fortune.” We don’t choose to be ignorant of something so much as never specifically choose to produce knowledge about it. Nevertheless, what we don’t know here still has an observable and mappable structure. This ignorance is not so much a void as it is a space: we have constructed this (however passively) through actual institutions and decisions. 

The third form - ignorance as an “active construct” - is, as Proctor describes, “something that is made, maintained, and manipulated by means of certain arts and sciences.” This is a form of ignorance that is consciously being produced to hinder the production of knowledge, or to cast doubt upon knowledge that already exists.

The best example of this is captured by a now infamous internal memo, circulated in the late ‘60s within Brown & Williamson, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco. The memo addresses how the tobacco industry might combat the rising public concern of the health impact of cigarettes.

It points out that “doubt is our product—since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.”

Helping Us Not To Know About Climate change

There is a long and obfuscated history of the use of uncertainty or doubt as a means of combating knowledge in public discourse. Agnotology can help us reveal that.

For example, take climate change. Because of its diffuse and multifaceted nature, this topic provides a useful (if somewhat bleak) opportunity to consider the role of agnotology in our daily lives.

There is currently a broad scientific consensus supporting the fact that, as a result of anthropogenic intervention, the earth’s climate is warming. One might expect, then, that taking action on climate change should be fairly straightforward.

Experts on the subject should point to clear evidence of negative anthropogenic impact on global climate. We might then hope that our meticulous and developed democratic institutions should respond accordingly. 

Of course, this isn’t actually what’s happening. In fact, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, most major institutions seem prepared to treat climate change as a kind of fringe issue. It's something worth considering in the abstract - but easy to dismiss in deference to more immediately pressing concerns.


Here in Canada, for example, Justin Trudeau speaks openly about the importance of transitioning to a “low-carbon economy”— while simultaneously supporting the development of fossil fuel infrastructure. 

A similar disjunct between rhetoric and action holds true on an individual level, too. Even as someone who myself accepts that anthropogenic climate change is real and immanent, I struggle to integrate this basic acceptance into my daily life. The fact of anthropogenic climate change is positioned as a kind of looming, uncertain problem among other problems. In both cases, it never quite feels immanent enough. 

What’s important to note is that we’re not simply describing a lack of knowledge. On both the governmental and individual level, our relationship to anthropogenic climate change is mediated by a whole set of passively and actively constructed forms of uncertainty. We may not be choosing to ignore it, but, as a function of our tentative engagement, a choice is slowly being made. 

It might help if we could see a map that showed the network of institutions through which active and passive uncertainty is constructed.

For example, in a recent study Jennifer Good found that at the height of hurricane season in 2017, only around 5% of coverage on eight major North American news networks made any connection to climate change. As she says, this is not necessarily due to any conscious or conspiratorial effort to suppress knowledge about climate change. 

The problem, in many cases, is structural. Media coverage is directly tethered to an increasingly rapid news cycle. And this cycle privileges singular events, with identifiable characters. It’s not a medium that lends itself easily to a nuanced discussion of the relationship between more extreme weather events and climate change.

But our task is to grapple with this media to make it work better.  As Good points out, "In times of crisis, there are many immediate and urgent stories that need to be told about lives and loss, bravery and struggle. But crisis also provides an opportunity for change — an opportunity to shift our frames and include the ideas we desperately need.”

Passive uncertainty about climate change often mixes with actively-constructed uncertainly. The latter can be seen clearly when we look back at it, but in the moment it’s extremely difficult to identify and engage with.

In 2016, for example, the non-profit news organization Inside Climate News won a Pulitzer for their investigative work on oil and gas corporation Exxon (now Exxonmobil). Their story revealed that not only did Exxon’s own research confirm the impact of fossil fuels on global climate dynamics as early as 1972, but they then actively worked to cultivate doubt and uncertainty in climate science in the decades that followed.

As Inside Climate News reporters David Hasemyer and John H. Cushman Jr. describe, "Exxon wanted scientists who disputed the mainstream science on climate change to oversee Washington's work with the IPCC, the authoritative body that defines the scientific consensus on global warming… The company wanted a new strategy to focus on the uncertainties” [our emphasis].

In this way, Exxon was able to mobilize uncertainty as a means of distracting our attention on climate discourse. Without a robust public understanding of both how and why uncertainty permeates our public conversation, we’re left with few options to defend ourselves - and we’re easily coopted by the powerful.

With these examples we can begin to get a sense of the role that agnotology might play. Facts and statistics are obviously useful and important tools, but they’ve proven to be limited in their ability to produce meaningful change. To achieve consensus in the domain of knowledge is not enough.

What we need is a coherent response to the actively and passively constructed uncertainty that paralyzes actual progress. Agnotology offers methods and tools to intervene in the public discourse; to move our social conversation beyond what is known; and to directly address the limits of our ability to know.

More on agnotology from BBC Future and Huffington Post.

UPDATE: This George Lakoff piece on how journalists should attend to Donald Trump’s strategies of disinformation, though it doesn’t reference the concept, seems to us a classic example of an agnotological critique.