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Cultural production of ignorance provides rich field for study

Robert Proctor is one of the world's leading experts in agnotology, a neologism signifying the study of the cultural production of ignorance.

Michael Hiltzik

The Economy Hub

8:00 AM EDT, March 9, 2014

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Robert Proctor doesn't think ignorance is bliss. He thinks that what you don't know can hurt you. And that there's more ignorance around than there used to be, and that its purveyors have gotten much better at filling our heads with nonsense.

Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford, is one of the world's leading experts in agnotology, a neologism signifying the study of the cultural production of ignorance. It's a rich field, especially today when whole industries devote themselves to sowing public misinformation and doubt about their products and activities.

The tobacco industry was a pioneer at this. Its goal was to erode public acceptance of the scientifically proven links between smoking and disease: In the words of an internal 1969 memo legal opponents extracted from Brown & Williamson's files, "Doubt is our product." Big Tobacco's method should not be to debunk the evidence, the memo's author wrote, but to establish a "controversy."

When this sort of manipulation of information is done for profit, or to confound the development of beneficial public policy, it becomes a threat to health and to democratic society. Big Tobacco's program has been carefully studied by the sugar industry, which has become a major target of public health advocates.

It's also echoed by vaccination opponents, who continue to use a single dishonest and thoroughly discredited British paper to sow doubts about the safety of childhood immunizations, and by climate change deniers.

And all those fabricated Obamacare horror stories wholesaled by Republican and conservative opponents of the Affordable Care Act and their aiders and abetters in the right-wing press? Their purpose is to sow doubt about the entire project of healthcare reform; if the aim were to identify specific shortcomings of the act, they'd have to accompany every story with a proposal about how to fix it.

Proctor came to the study of agnotology through his study of the Nazi scientific establishment and subsequently of the tobacco industry's defensive campaign.

Early in his career, he told me, he asked an advisor if Nazi science was an appropriate topic of research. "Of course," he was told. "Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship." As part of his scholarship, Proctor says he "watches Fox News all the time."

Proctor acknowledges that not all ignorance is bad.

"There are reasons we don't want people to know how to make an airborne AIDS virus or biological weapons," he says. "And the right to privacy is based on a kind of sanctioned ignorance — we don't want everyone to know everything about us all the time."

But then there's ignorance custom-designed to manipulate the public. "The myth of the 'information society' is that we're drowning in knowledge," he says. "But it's easier to propagate ignorance."

That's especially so when issues are so complicated that it's easier to present them as the topics for discussion in which both sides are granted equal time.

Big Tobacco's public relations campaign against the anti-smoking movement, for example, was aimed at "manufacturing a 'debate,' convincing the mass media that responsible journalists had an obligation to present 'both sides' of it," reported Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their 2010 book, "Merchants of Doubt."

The industry correctly perceived that no journalist would ever get fired for giving the two sides equal weight, even when that balance wasn't warranted by the facts.

What has made the modern era so nurturing for ignorance and doubt is the decline of scientific credibility. Norton Wise, a historian of science at UCLA, says scientists deserve a good deal of the blame for that.

"The question is the degree to which the commercialization of academic science is increasing public doubt and destroying the public good at the university and at places like the CDC [Centers for Disease Control]," he says. "Such that they no longer look distinctly different from the tobacco industry or Big Pharma. This is a big problem, given the rampant commercialization at major research universities like UCLA."

Wise cites a 2004 British parliamentary report showing that three-quarters of all randomized trials appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Assn. and the British Journal Lancet are funded by the pharmaceutical industry. "These are the kinds of things emerging that undermine public trust," he said.

Indeed, efforts to stamp out the canard that the measles vaccine causes autism are often countered by anti-vaccination activists asserting that government assurances of vaccine safety are part of a conspiracy to safeguard Big Pharma's profits.

The dangers of ignorance's foothold in public discourse are twofold.

First, once allowed to take root, misinformation — whether cultural or manufactured — is very hard to dislodge.

In a recent study, a research team headed by Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College tried four methods to change the minds of parents who had decided not to immunize their children with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine — a factual refutation of the vaccine-autism link; two different means of warning about the risks to children from contracting measles, mumps or rubella, including "a dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died of measles"; and horrific photos of children suffering from the diseases.

Some of the interventions persuaded the parents that the autism link was specious, but not a single one made the parents more willing to vaccinate their children. And some intensified opposition to the vaccine, a "backfire" effect.

A second danger is that ignorance interferes with the creation of intelligent policy. Citing the results of a 2012 Gallup poll, Proctor asks, "If half the country thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old, how can you really develop an effective environmental policy? This sort of traditional or inertial ignorance bars us from being able to act responsibly on large social issues."

Still, it's commercially manufactured ignorance that's most insidious. And Big Tobacco, that great pioneer in the field, is still at it.

The industry has succeeded in persuading the public and politicians that it has lost the smoking war, but that's a myth. Proctor says 40 million Americans still smoke and tobacco use is still rising in much of the world. Moreover, the industry's program isn't just about cigarettes, but part of "a larger agnotological project to promote free-market fundamentalism," he points out.

As Stanton A. Glantz of UC San Francisco documented last year, the tobacco industry was deeply involved in the evolution of the tea party movement, which promoted some of the industry's cherished aims, such as fighting tobacco taxes and anti-smoking laws.

"The Tea Party of the late 2000s has become the 'movement'" envisioned by a Reynolds executive 10 years earlier, Glantz concluded, "grounded in patriotic values of 'freedom' and 'choice' to change how people see the role of 'government' and 'big business' in their lives."

Given the torrent of misinformation washing about the public space and the multiplicity of pathways for its distribution, is there any hope for beating back the tide? Agnotologists are divided. "I don't see any easy out," says UCLA's Wise. "All of the forces are on the side of undermining public trust in science."

But Proctor has hope. "My whole career is devoted to pushing back," he told me. "There is opportunity to expose these things through good journalism, good pedagogy, good scholarship. You need an educated populace."

The effort needs to begin at a young age, he says. "You really need to be teaching third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-graders that some people lie. And why do they lie? Because some people are greedy."

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Read his blog, the Economy Hub, at latimes.com/business/hiltzik, reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @hiltzikm on Twitter.