How anti-corporate agnotology studies got swamped by pro-corporate misinformation studies
by| Feb 22, 2023
In the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a burgeoning field in the social sciences dedicated to the study of ignorance. Linguist Iain Boal coined the term “agnotology” (from the Greek ἄgnosis, “not knowing” + logía, “the study of”) to describe the field and it was popularized by Stanford medical historian Robert Proctor.
The premise of agnotology is both simple and profound. Most people think of ignorance as the absence of knowledge. Proctor and others in the field argue the opposite — that ignorance is socially constructed in the same way that knowledge is. Powerful interests instruct society to pay attention to some things and not others through a variety of inducements (you get paid to study certain topics and not others) and punishments (you will be blacklisted if you ask too many questions about forbidden topics). Over time these values become invisible and just a part of culture.
The field was thoroughly anti-corporate. Proctor’s research revealed how the tobacco industry rigged studies about the safety of cigarettes for decades. And Proctor stuck it to all aspects of the cancer industry (from cancer charities to Pharma and government regulators) with his book Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know And Don’t Know About Cancer — that is now out of print and difficult to find (the best bet is to try ebay). In 2008, Stanford University Press published the definitive guide to the field, Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance and it’s an absolute masterpiece.
Agnotology is a powerful tool for describing the ways in which toxic industries condition society to accept products that cause harm. One can apply agnotology studies to any industry or sphere of power in society. In many ways, Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance is a fitting sequel to Steven Lukes’ Power: A Radical View that argues that true power is measured by the ability of certain institutions to shape the aspirations and ideation of oppressed groups.
And then in the 2010s a curious thing happened. A giant object passed in front of the sun. Few people talk or write about agnotology anymore, in spite of its abundant utility. Instead, thousands of universities now have professorships and staff positions dedicated to “misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation” studies. And it seems that every day another unemployed PR hack starts an astroturf “think tank” dedicated to studying “misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation” — and they are all effortlessly flush with cash.
“Misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation” studies occupy the intellectual space formerly held by those who study agnotology — but the content of their work is the exact opposite of agnotology studies. “Misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation” studies are thoroughly corporate. Their goal is to declare anything that contradicts the mainstream corporate narrative as officially off limits and then for good measure these fake scholars launch witch hunts to blacklist critical thinkers on behalf of the various cartels that fund them.
Ironically, “misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation” studies are exactly the sort of weaponized corporate ignorance that agnotology studies warned us about — now on a global scale.
It does not take a lot of imagination to figure out how this happened. These fake university departments and fake think tanks are often cagey about their donors but somehow the money just rolls in. There are conferences, books, associations, and these hacks can easily get published in corporate-controlled journals and get softball interviews on corporate TV and radio. I’m sure if we traced the money trail all the way back to the source we would find the usual villains — the predatory billionaires who want to enslave the world (mainly Gates and Soros), the robber baron foundations, pharmaceutical companies, and others toxic industries (Big Food, Big Ag, Big Chem, and Big Wireless) footing the bill. (Let’s crowdsource this: if you have links that show the money trail please post them in the comments.)
I bring all of this up not just to hate on “misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation” studies. The entire industry is indeed vile and fascist and the privatized heir of the SS, Stasi, and KGB. Everyone who works in that field should be ashamed of themselves and history will judge them as antihuman trash.
But the main reason I bring this up is because of what it tells us about the American economy and the economy of the developed world.
I am fascinated by the way that the base (the economic mode of production of any era) determines the superstructure (the values of that society as embodied in art, religion, and law).
Right now a huge portion of the U.S. economy is based on junk science. Pharma is the most glaring example of this. The business model of Pharma is to cause harms via vaccines and then those harms are paid for by citizens (out of their own pockets) and government. In 2020, RFK, Jr. estimated the revenue from vaccines at about $50 billion annually and the revenue from the products used to treat vaccine injuries (Epi pens, diabetes meds, Risperdal, etc.) was $500 billion annually. Covid shots likely double those numbers. If Pharma was forced to internalize (pay for) those “negative externalities” the industry would not exist.
So in order to continue generating profits, Pharma requires totalitarian levels of censorship and control of the population. Pharma cannot exist without liability protection to stay out of the courts and censorship to keep the public from waking up. Pharma also requires government, schools, teachers’ unions, and universities to sell the entire childhood population to the industry in order to keep the profits flowing. Totalitarianism is central to Pharma’s business model, it cannot survive without it.
What’s wild is to see the bougiecrats jumping like trout for the fly on Pharma’s hook. Every underemployed cultural and media studies major seems to jump at the chance to become a respected member of the new corporate Stasi. The money is great, and it beats working at Starbucks with a master’s or Ph.D. I’m sure the SS, Stasi, and KGB also paid better than the prevailing wage in the area at the time.
This dynamic — profitable junk science combined with waves and waves of bougie shock troops to protect it IS the American economy right now (and a huge portion of the European and Australian economy as well). And this perilous dynamic is an existential threat to the future of our country and the entire developed world. This is what we are fighting against. And if we are to survive, we absolutely must find a way to shift our economy to more productive purposes.
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