5 Feb 2017

"The golden age of ignorance"

From Sunday Morning, 10:32 am on 5 February 2017

In this era of 'post-truth' and 'fake news' who do we turn to to find out what's real and what's not?

Stanford science historian Professor Robert Proctor is an expert in ignorance, in fact he believes we’re living in a “golden age of ignorance”.

He coined the phrase agnotology to describe wilful acts designed to spread confusion or deceit, the practice of keeping ignorance alive, well and thriving.

Fake news graphic

Photo: wikipedia

He has made the study of ignorance his life’s work as he says there’s more ignorance than there is knowledge in the world.

“Ignorance, like knowledge, can be created. There are powerful organisations, trade associations, secret organisations that create ignorance.”

The tobacco industry famously used ignorance mongering to defend its business, he says.

One of the more sensational examples of this was the leaked memo in 1969 from the maker of Kool cigarettes that said “doubt is our product”.

“Unfortunately we’re now seeing other bodies pick up on this the chemical industry, the sugar industry and the telecommunications industry.

“We’re seeing this broader franchising of this doubt-making product.”

Professor Robert Proctor

Professor Robert Proctor Photo: supplied

The media’s misconstrued idea of balance has in the past fuelled the spread of ignorance, he says. The fallibility of being open-minded has allowed dishonesty to flourish

“Tobacco captured this notion of open mindedness, or maybe global warming isn’t real, some scientists disagree.

“Don’t be so open-minded your brains fall out!”

The opposite of the truth, he says, is not some other truth, it’s a lie.

Prof Proctor says things are likely to get worse before they improve.

“Who to trust? It’s a big issue all news in a way looks the same on a 3 by 5 screen. There’s a flattening out of reliability when bogus news gets as big a play as good news.”

He calls this new, dangerous era “the endarkenment”.

“Information is too neutral a term, were also awash in misinformation. That’s going to be one of the biggest problems of our time.

“Donald Trump is walking talking agnotology,” Prof Proctor says.

Trump’s election as president is a “dire moment” he says.

“We live in a dangerous moment and we do have to defend the pursuit of truth, the pursuit of quality, we have to defend the planet. The planet is in many ways under siege.”