Are You an Agnotologist?

Clive Thompson on How More Info Leads to Less Knowledge

                        By Clive Thompson

Is global warming caused by humans? Is Barack Obama a Christian? Is evolution a well-supported theory?

You might think these questions have been incontrovertibly answered in the affirmative, proven by settled facts. But for a lot of Americans, they haven’t. Among Republicans, belief in anthropogenic global warming declined from 52 percent to 42 percent between 2003 and 2008. Just days before the election, nearly a quarter of respondents in one Texas poll were convinced that Obama is a Muslim. And the proportion of Americans who believe God did not guide evolution? It’s 14 percent today, a two-point decline since the ’90s, according to Gallup.

What’s going on? Normally, we expect society to progress, amassing deeper scientific understanding and basic facts every year. Knowledge only increases, right?

Robert Proctor doesn’t think so. A historian of science at Stanford, Proctor points out that when it comes to many contentious subjects, our usual relationship to information is reversed: Ignorance increases.

He has developed a word inspired by this trend: agnotology. Derived from the Greek root agnosis, it is “the study of culturally constructed ignorance.”

As Proctor argues, when society doesn’t know something, it’s often because special interests work hard to create confusion. Anti-Obama groups likely spent millions insisting he’s a Muslim; church groups have shelled out even more pushing creationism. The oil and auto industries carefully seed doubt about the causes of global warming. And when the dust settles, society knows less than it did before.

“People always assume that if someone doesn’t know something, it’s because they haven’t paid attention or haven’t yet figured it out,” Proctor says. “But ignorance also comes from people literally suppressing truth—or drowning it out—or trying to make it so confusing that people stop caring about what’s true and what’s not.”

After years of celebrating the information revolution, we need to focus on the countervailing force: The disinformation revolution. The ur-example of what Proctor calls an agnotological campaign is the funding of bogus studies by cigarette companies trying to link lung cancer to baldness, viruses—anything but their product.

Think of the world of software today: Tech firms regularly sue geeks who reverse-engineer their code to look for flaws. They want their customers to be ignorant of how their apps work.

Even the financial meltdown was driven by ignorance. Credit-default swaps were designed not merely to dilute risk but to dilute knowledge; after they’d changed hands and been serially securitized, no one knew what they were worth.

Maybe the Internet itself has inherently agnotological side effects. People graze all day on information tailored to their existing worldview. And when bloggers or talking heads actually engage in debate, it often consists of pelting one another with mutually contradictory studies they’ve Googled: “Greenland’s ice shield is melting 10 years ahead of schedule!” vs. “The sun is cooling down and Earth is getting colder!”

As Farhad Manjoo notes in True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, if we argue about what a fact means, we’re having a debate. If we argue about what the facts are, it’s agnotological Armageddon, where reality dies screaming.

Can we fight off these attempts to foster ignorance? Despite his fears about the Internet’s combative culture, Proctor is optimistic. During last year’s election, campaign-trail lies were quickly exposed via YouTube and transcripts. The Web makes secrets harder to keep.

We need to fashion information tools that are designed to combat agnotological rot. Like Wikipedia: It encourages users to build real knowledge through consensus, and the result manages to (mostly) satisfy even people who hate each other’s guts. Because the most important thing these days might just be knowing what we know.


‘Pope and Mussolini’ reveals a dark alliance

‘Pope and Mussolini’ reveals a dark alliance

If 20th-century fascism could be reduced to a coin, heads would be Hitler, tails Mussolini. Twinned in a twisted ideology of geopolitical domination and racial extermination, these tyrants did their worst to steep civilization in a war that benighted Europe and redrew the physical and psychic map of the world.

Benito Mussolini, though, had the more regional role — ever in Hitler’s awful shadow — as Italy’s preening, jut-jawed “Il Duce.” He seems, by now, a caricature of despotism, a thuggish narcissist who led his people to the wrong side of history and paid the price, shot by Italian communist partisans as the war ended, his body hung upside down on meat hooks to what seems eternal ridicule.

But as Brown University professor David I. Kertzer makes clear in The Pope and Mussolini, his vividly recounted history, the rise of Italian fascism is a tale of a very different partnering than that of Il Duce and Der Führer.  Instead, Kertzer portrays the alliance of Mussolini and Pope Pius XI. Both came to power in 1922, when the destiny of Europe, still reeling after World War I, was unforeseeable, and fascism was viewed as a form of authoritarianism that had its practical advantage for a nation seeking political order and a church that had fallen from its height of influence.

Importantly, Kertzer had access to recently opened Vatican archives regarding Pius XI, and his thorough research goes a long way in overturning conventional notions about Catholic church resistance to Mussolini. If anything, it’s a tragic story of a pope’s too-late realization that Hitler’s and Mussolini’s pagan tide of anti-Semitism had drowned any rationale for church support.

The complex history of the Vatican’s role during the Holocaust – and especially the debated history of Pius XI’s successor, Pius XII, who assumed the papacy in 1939, on the eve of Hitler’s push toward war – is the shadow that overhangs this book. Kertzer shows how the church’s accommodation with Mussolini in the 1920s and ’30s helped pave the way for the fascist nightmare Pius XI would regret on his deathbed. He died feeling deeply betrayed by Mussolini’s embrace of Hitler, who had undercut the Catholic Church in Germany while establishing nothing less than a religion of Nazism. And he was horrified, Kertzer affirms, by Mussolini’s decision to brand the Jews “a noxious foreign people.”

Born Achille Ratti in a small town near Milan — where the coarse and unschooled Mussolini had been born to the son of a blacksmith — the bookish, stoic Pius XI rose from the humble rank of Vatican librarian to become an officious pope, a bespectacled cleric whom no one would mistake for a visionary. But he was fiercely loyal to the church, and keenly aware of how the Vatican’s privileges and its stature among the Italian masses had withered during the First World War, under the thumb of a feckless Italian government and monarchy.

As Mussolini’s fascist squadristi, the infamous blackshirts, advanced from the countryside toward Rome in 1921, amassing power where socialists and democrats had mainly sown division, it wasn’t long before an insecure King Victor Emamanuel III chose to install Mussolini as prime minister rather than risk bloodshed.

Once in power, Il Duce was shrewd in using the church to shore up popular support. Though not a religious man, he courted Catholic approval, as Kertzer describes: “He ordered crucifixes to be placed on hospital rooms. He made it a crime to insult a priest or speak disparagingly of the Catholic religion. … He showered the church with money, including three million lire to restore churches damaged during the war.” He even had his wife and three children baptized.

As for Pius XI, Kertzer notes that the pope “had seen something in Mussolini he liked. Despite all their differences, the two men shared some important values. Neither had any sympathy for parliamentary democracy. Neither believed in freedom of speech or freedom of association. Both saw Communism as a grave threat.”

Only a cynic could call this a match made in heaven, but for the pope, Mussolini was manna, helping to restore the church to a central role in Catholic life. Perhaps it seemed a small price for Pius XI to limit criticism of the fascist government in church publications, or to trust Mussolini’s empty promise that he would control squadristi violence. The catastrophe to come was never quite clear to this well-meaning man of God, who was hardly alone in his failure to see.