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Plenty to Go Around

Plenty to Go Around
June 25, 2008

Epistemology, as everyone around these parts is surely aware, is the study of the problems associated with knowledge – what it is, from whence it comes, and how it is you know that you know what you know (or think you do).

It gets recursive mighty fast. And questions about the relationship between epistemology and ethics are potentially even more so. Most of us just accept the wisdom of Emil Faber, the legendary founder of Faber College in bucolic Pennsylvania, who proclaimed, “Knowledge is good.” (At least that's what it says on the plaque in front of the campus library, as I recall, though it's been many years since my last viewing of "Animal House.")

But what about ignorance? Arguably there is more of it in the world than knowledge. Who studies it, though? Shouldn't epistemology have its equal but opposite counterpart?

A new book from Stanford University Press called Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance proposes that such a field of study is necessary – that we need rigorous and careful thinking about the structure and function and typology of cluelessness. The editors, Robert N. Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, are both professors of history of science at Stanford University. Their volume is a collection of papers by various scholars, rather than a systematic treatment of its (perhaps inexhaustible) subject. But the field of agnotology seems to cohere around a simple, if challenging, point: Ignorance, like knowledge, is both socially produced and socially productive.

This goes against the grain of more familiar ways of thinking. The most commonplace way of understanding ignorance, after all, is to define it as a deficit – knowledge with a minus sign in front of it.

A rather more sophisticated approach (which got Socrates in trouble) treats heightening the awareness of one’s own ignorance as the beginning of wisdom. And the emergence of modern scientific research, a few centuries back, treated ignorance as a kind of raw material: fuel for the engines of inquiry. As with any fuel, the prospect of a shortage seems catastrophic. “New ignorance must forever be rustled up to feed the insatiable appetite for science,” writes Proctor about the common trope of ignorance as resource. “The world’s stock of ignorance is not being depleted, however, since (by wondrous fortune and hydra-like) two new questions arise for every one answered....The nightmare would be if we were somehow to run out of ignorance, idling the engines of knowledge production.”

Each of these familiar perspectives on ignorance -- treating it as deficit, as Socratic proving ground, or as spur for scientific inquiry -- frames it as something outside the processes of knowledge-production and formal education. If those processes are carried on successfully enough, then ignorance will decline.

The agnotologists know better (if I can put it that way).

Ignorance is not simply a veil between the knower and the unknown. It is an active – indeed vigorous – force in the world. Ignorance is strength; ignorance is bliss. There is big money in knowing how to change the subject – by claiming the need for “more research” into whether tobacco contains carcinogens, for example, or whether the powerful jaws of dinosaurs once helped Adam and Eve to crack open coconuts.

Having a memory so spotty that is a small miracle one can recall one’s own name is a wonderfully convenient thing, at least for Bush administration officials facing Congressional hearings. The Internet complicates the relationship between information and ignorance ceaselessly, and in ever newer ways. Poverty fosters ignorance. But affluence, it seems, does it no real harm.

This is, then, a field with much potential for growth. Most of the dozen papers in Agnotology are inquries into how particular bodies of ignorance have emerged and reproduced themselves over time. Nobody quotes the remark by Upton Sinclair that Al Gore made famous: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.” Still, that line certainly applies to how blindspots have taken shape in the discourse over climate change, public health, and the history of racial oppression. (In a speech, Ronald Reagan once attributed the greatness of the United States to the fact that “it has never known slavery.”)

Any sufficiently rigorous line of agnotological inquiry must, however, recognize that there is more to ignorance than political manipulation or economic malfeasance. It also serves to foster a wide range of social and cognitive goods.

The paper “Social Theories of Ignorance” by Michael J. Smithson, a professor of psychology at the Australian National University, spells out some of the benefits. A zone of carefully cultivated ignorance is involved in privacy and politeness, for example. It is also intrinsic to specialization. “The stereotypical explanation for specialization,” writes Smithson, “is that it arises when there is too much for any one person to learn anything.” But another way of looking at it is to regard specialization as a means whereby “the risk of being ignorant about crucial matters is spread by diversifying ignorance.”

Smithson also cites the research of A.R. Luria (a figure something like the Soviet era’s equivalent to Oliver Sacks) who studied an individual with the peculiar ability to absorb and retain every bit of information he had encountered in his lifetime. Such a person would have no advantage over the garden variety ignoramus. On the contrary,“higher cognitive functions such as abstraction or even mere classification would be extremely difficult,” writes Smithson. “Information acquired decades ago would be as vividly recalled as information acquired seconds ago, so older memories would interfere with more recent usually more relevant recollections.”

So a certain penumbra of haziness has its uses. Perhaps someone should contact the trustees of Faber College. The sign in front of the campus library could be changed to read “Diversifying Ignorance is Good.”

 

 

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