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Agnotology: The making and unmaking of ignoranceBook review

Agnotology: The making and unmaking of ignorance
by Robert N Proctor and Londa Schiebinger (Eds)
Stanford University Press 2008
ISBN 0-8047-5901-4

I saw this book in my local public library and it caught my eye because I'm interested in ignorance. It is ignorance that drives many of the matters of interest to The Millenium Project – ignorance of science, ignorance of logic, ignorance of culture, ignorance of religion (even by believers who should be expected to know their own faith), ignorance of philosophy, … . I thought it was about time that someone looked at the phenomenon, maybe following up on the work of Dunning and Kruger. I was more than a little disappointed and I learnt an important lesson – look at the biographies of anthology editors for clues that books might not be worth reading.

As it is an anthology of writing by various people it shouldn't matter what order it is read, so I randomly picked a chapter about climate change denial to start. ("Challenging Knowledge: How climate science became a victim of the Cold War", by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway.) It was quite a good analysis of the origin of organised climate change denial in the US and the way that leading figures in the movement had moved from support of the Strategic Defense Initiative boondoggle (after the collapse of the USSR) through championing the lying "science" of tobacco companies to denying climate change for purely political reasons. What the article wasn't good at was identifying any ignorance. Yes, we know that people of the extreme political right hated Russia and believe that actions against smoking or pollution or resource depletion are just examples of the government interfering in the lives of citizens. These people might be unhinged, but they are not ignorant. They know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it, and the truth or acceptance of science has nothing to do with it.

The next article I looked at was "West Indian Abortifacients and the Making of Ignorance" by Londa Schiebinger. It argued that despite pharmaceutical companies developing many medicines based on plants they had deliberately avoided taking the folk knowledge of women into consideration and using that knowledge to create home abortion products. About halfway down the first page I realised that I was reading a stereotypical feminist loon rant based on suppression of women by the patriarchy. I looked up the author's biography and there it was – she teaches and writes about "gendered science" as if such a thing exists. Worse still, she is one of the editors of the book, which did not augur well for the rest of the collection.

I then went on to read "Suppression of Indigenous Fossil Knowledge" by Adrienne Mayor. It is always a red flag for conspiracy theory when you see the word "suppression" and this was no exception. Apparently Native Americans had comprehensive knowledge of the formation, history, and investigation of dinosaur fossil beds and this information was stolen by paleontologists (a discipline invented for the purpose of theft) and its origins suppressed so that others could receive the kudos and Nobel Prizes.

The next article I tackled was "Removing Knowledge: The logic of modern censorship" by Peter Galison. This was a standard conspiracist rant about how there is suppressed and hidden secret knowledge that ordinary people don't have access to – government secrets, military secrets, diplomatic secrets, trade secrets, etc. I didn't read far enough into it to see if the suppression of the truth abut 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination were given as examples, but they would have dropped into the article without creating a ripple.

I had almost given up at that point but I soldiered on. The next thing I looked at was "Coming to Understand: Orgasm and the epistemology of ignorance" by Nancy Tuana. Here was another piece of "suppression by the patriarchy" drivel, written by someone who, like the book's editor, teaches and writes about the non-existent "feminist science". I briefly dipped in to "Risk Management versus the Precautionary Principle: Agnotology as a strategy in the debate over genetically engineered organisms" by David Magnus. This started off alarmingly by referring to other chapters in the book which did not exist, suggesting that it had been published elsewhere and simply reproduced verbatim without editing. The article was not particularly coherent, but its thesis seemed to be that the opponents of GMOs had somehow perverted the original meaning and intention of the Precautionary Principle in order to obstruct those fine companies who want an unrestricted ability to improve our food. I should point out that much of the opposition to GMOs is firmly based on ignorance of science, but that didn't seem to be the point of this article, or even mentioned. The last thing I looked at (with dread) was "White Ignorance" by Charles W Mills. It pretended to be a commentary on epistemology (but written at a junior undergraduate level) and I was surprised to find that it took a page and a half before the expression "white males" was used. At that point I gave up the book completely.

I'm taking the book back to the library, resisting the temptation to print out this review and glue it inside the front cover. It was not a book about the study of ignorance, it was a collection of examples. It contained many of the ignorances I listed in the first paragraph above. I can't say I wasn't warned though. As I alluded above, Londa Schiebinger's author bio on the back cover did say that she works in "gender research". I assume that it was only a coincidence that the predominant ink on the back cover was the colour of bullshit.

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