Agnotology is a term that is likely unfamiliar to most of us (it was to me until this morning). It comes from the Greek words agnoia (ignorance) and ontologia (ontology). It was coined by Robert Proctor, a science historian from Stanford, to describe the “deliberate propagation of ignorance” and is one of the most prevalent forces in business and politics today.
But, as the BBC’s Georgina Kenyon describes, Proctor’s study was first inspired by a secret memo from the tobacco industry that was released in 1979. The memo, called the Smoking and Health Proposal, was written a decade earlier by the Brown & Williamson tobacco company and one of its most interesting parts was the recommendations for how to effectively market tobacco. Its authors noted that “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.”
Essentially, the memo was a guide for the most effective ways to manipulate the flow of information in order to prevent people from understanding the truth about cigarettes. Because that information could not be taken away from the public, the most effective tactic was to call its legitimacy into question while introducing more nuanced information in an attempt to drown it out.
One of the most common techniques for distributing ignorance, used by the tobacco industry then and still being used by others today, is the notion that there must be two sides to every story. It’s an attractive idea and one that only seems fair when a piece of information casts one party in a negative light. However, oftentimes the truth is far more straightforward than it is presented and the idea that there must be an alternative perspective that deserves equal consideration can distract us from fully accepting what is correct.
And while the tobacco industry may have been the original inspiration for his study, Proctor continues to explore the concept’s other applications as well. Politics is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the venues in which agnotology is most widely applied today. You don’t have to listen to many debates or political advertisements to understand that people on both sides of the political aisle are often far more interested in propagating the facts that support their cause rather than the whole truth.
That said, agnotology often comes in far less intentional forms as well. As Cornell’s David Dunning warns, the internet is playing a crucial role in the propagation of ignorance, though perhaps not in the way you might expect. While the abundance of information can lead to information overload, he argues that the real danger is that “many will be misled into a false sense of expertise. My worry is not that we are losing the ability to make up our own minds, but that it’s becoming too easy to do so.” He goes on to describe the need for dialogue with others as a defense against this misplaced confidence in our own understanding.
That need to communicate with others in order to avoid a false sense of expertise is especially crucial when it comes to the way we think about God. While we can hope that church leaders are not willfully disseminating ignorance to their congregations, that doesn’t mean that everything that we are taught is correct either. That is one of the primary reasons that theological conversations should be a fundamental part of every Christian’s life. Most of the time, such conversations take place at home, at a Bible study, or in talking with friends, but they can happen in most any context where two people are genuinely seeking a better understanding of their faith.
Throughout Christian history, some of the most dangerous ideas were those developed in private and accepted without testing. Such blind faith in the teachings of a fellow sinner led to the rise of heresies in the early church and has continued to generate some of the most destructive periods in the Church’s history since (Manichaeism and the abuses of the medieval papacy are two such examples). Such examination of another’s views should be a standard part of the Christian walk. Paul himself praised the Berean Jews because they did not blindly accept his teachings but rather tested them against the truth of Scripture (Acts 17:11). If the Bible teaches that we should test the teachings of the apostles against what is said in God’s word, shouldn’t we do the same for everyone else?
So the next time you hear a sermon, Sunday school lesson, or simply take part in a conversation about the Lord, don’t just sit there and blindly accept everything that you hear. Rather, in the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, engage with what is being said. Now that doesn’t mean interrupting the pastor in the middle of his sermon, but it does mean checking what you hear against the truth of Scripture. Such active participation will not only help you guard against misunderstanding but also gain a deeper knowledge of God’s truth. And really, shouldn’t that be what we want most?