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.”
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 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.