Studying Ignorance as a Form of Knowledge


We tend to think of knowledge as something to be found.  We study ways of knowing or discovering; these epistemologies are our instruments for unearthing what we presume is passively awaiting our perceptions.

Robert Proctor’s absorption with the successful public relations survival  techniques used by the tobacco industry has jump-started a fecund stream of scholarship based on a more robust appreciation for the complexity of knowledge formation. There have always been those who would prefer not to know anything more about our world than we currently know. New knowledge does not come with a promise of stability nor certainty.

But as Proctor and colleagues are now highlighting, sexism, racism, and class rigidity join hands with the profit motive to form a well-financed cabal intent on sustaining and even creating ignorance. Hence, those of us who desire knowledge enhancement have the extra challenge of sorting through the fog of misinformation, denial and reframing efforts of those who focus on what I would call “managed knowledge.”  “Managed reasoning”   refers to preconceived conclusions surrounded with a patina of carefully selected reasons that provide a make-sense cover story for that conclusion.

But managed knowledge is the active formation of knowledge claims in an effort to sustain existing power relations. As many as 4000 new tobacco addicts are created every week in the United States. The cost in premature death, heart attacks, bladder cancer, lung disease and unnecessary human misery is no longer debatable.  So how does the tobacco industry continue to be one of the most profitable of American industries?

The answer is ingenious. Perhaps the best evidence we have of the danger of tobacco comes ironically from the research done by industry scientists. For decades that evidence was closeting carefully in the vaults of the industry. But now public relations experts have urged the industry to embrace the evidence that they once so feverishly denied. The industry now represents itself as a responsible producer of a dangerous product.  In other words, they are just like General Motors, Vegas casinos, and the local pharmacist. Their products can harm users severely, and the public should be aware of that danger. Spurious analogies serve to frame tobacco as another problem that can sometimes do serious damage to its human users. The film Merchants of Doubt provides a strong introduction to the obstacles faced by organized society when the construction of ignorance becomes a major impediment to our understanding.

In case I have not stimulated your curiosity about managed knowledge, let me mention a quite different chapter in Proctor’s Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance–one far afield from industry misinformation about tobacco products. Nancy Tuana traces the intentional repression of female sexuality by male scientists guided by the seductress archetype of womanhood. What did they do? They focused our understanding of sexuality on the penis. Rather than explain, let me simply tell you how Professor Tuana initially started her exploration of this particular ignorance-generation enterprise.  She noticed that her female biology students at Penn State University were well-versed in the details of the anatomy of the penis and almost entirely unfamiliar with the clitoris. I hope you will let her tell you why.

Add a Comment