IGNORANCE IS POWER
The social function of science is manifested in increasing the understanding of reality through the production of knowledge. It is in the public interest to use that knowledge, among other things, to reduce ignorance or popularly, to “raise social awareness”. However, what happens when certain social actors who already “have awareness” are engaged in “raising awareness” themselves, only in accordance with their own interests, and when they do not do it spontaneously and hastily, but very systematically and in the long term. They often know the same things that experts know about e.g. climate change, sometimes even more, because they have more resources than publicly funded scientific institutions. However, instead of contributing to the consolidation of knowledge and scientific consensus in public discourse, and indirectly to climate action, they “raise awareness” about how climate change is a natural phenomenon, how there is no evidence that climate change is caused by humans, etc.
Just the other day, the chairman of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), Sultan Al-Jaber, told us in front of the world that there is no science behind the demand to phase out fossil fuels to keep global warming at 1.5°. Was that just a spur-of-the-moment maneuver during a heated argument? Or is it part of the strategic and deliberate production of ignorance, uncertainty, and doubt in the scientific consensus? The first would be disinformation, and the second would be a more deviant social phenomenon.
Let’s take the recent example of the state of California filing a lawsuit against major oil companies alleging that they deliberately and for decades misled the public about climate change and the risks of fossil fuels despite thorough knowledge of the destructive consequences. The lawsuit was preceded by the disclosure of data indicating that the company Exxon Mobile had an admirable knowledge of climate change since 1977, around ten years before it became a public issue. Despite this, according to the prosecutor, Exxon refused to publicly acknowledge the existence of climate change for decades and systematically invested in the production of disinformation and uncertainty regarding the scientific consensus in the public. During the 1970s and 1980s, they allegedly hired top scientists and conducted extensive research on the negative effects of carbon dioxide, while creating rigorous climate models and investing millions of dollars. The company was actively engaged in high-quality science, just not in the public interest. Cases like this together with the trend of commercialization and privatization of science led to the emergence of a discipline that deals exclusively with this social phenomenon – agnotology.
AGNOTOLOGY ATTEMPTS TO UNDERSTAND HOW DIFFERENT INTEREST GROUPS METHODICALLY USE SCIENCE TO PRODUCE IGNORANCE, AND DOUBT IN THE SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS.
Here we are not talking about the banal reproduction of fake news due to the incompetence and laziness of pseudo-journalists, amateurs, and hobbyists who are playing broken telephones. So as a result, the conclusion of the research that states: “Based on the data on the XY sample, tendencies were shown that coffee under XY conditions can contribute to the development of the XY type tumors in XY type patients”, after several iterations becomes: “Scientists prove that coffee causes cancer”.
Here we are talking about a phenomenon where certain interest groups strategically produce ignorance by funding research that casts doubt on the scientific consensus (obscurantism), selectively presenting information, conducting disinformation campaigns, emphasizing uncertainty, and encouraging ambiguity, thereby creating a false space for multiple interpretations in the public. Thus, the scientific claim: “in 25 out of 30 municipalities the air is excessively polluted”, becomes: “scientists have no evidence that the air is excessively polluted in all cities”, which unfoundedly opens up space for different opinions, creates the illusion of uncertainty and emphasizes the element of ignorance in science. To some extent, power is drawn by exploiting a lack of understanding of the role of ignorance in science. How? Because in public opinion, unfortunately, the legitimate space of ignorance is seen as a shortcoming of science, as a negative trait in itself, and ignorance itself as the opposite of science or as bad science. Therefore, emphasizing a certain level of ignorance in science (regardless of its extent) easily arouses suspicion among public opinion. However, science is founded on ignorance. The role of science is epistemic, but as we open up a new field of knowledge, at the same time we discover a whole universe of ignorance. We call this recognized ignorance (what we know that we don’t know) and we also have deep ignorance (what we don’t know that we don’t know).
ACCEPTING IGNORANCE AS A STARTING POSITION ALLOWS THE TRANSFER OF DEEP IGNORANCE INTO RECOGNIZED IGNORANCE AND THIS IS WHAT GIVES SCIENCE AND CRITICAL THINKING THEIR EPISTEMIC POWER.
It is important to understand when ignorance is an appropriate, legitimate part of our experience and the scientific process, and when it is misused, as well as the difference between the concept of ignorance as wrong knowledge and ignorance as a lack of knowledge.
As individuals, we have limited knowledge about individual topics and infinite ignorance about everything else (it’s similar on a collective level). We love to know and are easily offended when someone points out that we don’t know something. This puts us in a biased, susceptible and epistemically impotent position from which we adopt information that matches our existing beliefs, attitudes and values more easily, and which makes it much more difficult to try to truly find something out (cherry picking). It is a nice feeling when we are “right” and it has never been easier to “be right” than today, when instead of lacking information we have an overflow of information that is easy to indiscriminately abuse for the sake of legitimizing existing beliefs, attitudes and values. However, accepting ignorance as a starting position is one of the necessary prerequisites for a more impartial acquisition of knowledge. It is a “supernatural” power that requires constant struggle with oneself.
It is crucial that all social actors who communicate of science, in any way, become more involved in raising critical scientific literacy in order for us to better cope with the inevitable daily contact with the sea of information. It is not enough to spread the contents of scientific knowledge because then we only left to believe or not believe what is presented as such. What makes our job even more difficult in this case is the fact that every legitimate communication absolutely must contain incorrect parts that are sacrificed for the sake of simplification, which is necessary when communication is adapted to a certain form and audience (lies-to-children). The principle of simplification is methodologically useful for experts as well and we often witness it through the creation of models and conducting experiments in controlled conditions when one part of reality (potential knowledge) is deliberately omitted for the sake of better dealing with a certain part of reality (we call this strategic ignorance). Together with presenting contemporary scientific content, it is also necessary to communicate the fundamentals of the scientific process, scientific practices and scientific culture, that is, the tacit knowledge of science (critical scientific literacy).
TOGETHER WITH INCREASING KNOWLEDGE, IT IS EQUALLY IMPORTANT TO ACTIVELY WORK ON PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING OF IGNORANCE AND ITS NECESSARY AND LEGITIMATE ROLE IN THE SCIENTIFIC PROCESS AS ONE OF THE CENTRAL ASPECTS OF SCIENTIFIC LITERACY, CRITICAL THINKING AND PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING OF SCIENCE.
A step further represents the practical involvement of citizens in the process of creating scientific knowledge through the methods of citizen science, which was also recently recognized in the Strategy of Scientific and Technological Development of the Republic of Serbia for the period from 2021 to 2025. In this context, citizens co-create knowledge together with scientists and have the opportunity to adopt tacit knowledge of the scientific method (often taken for granted by scientists), which resides in the domain of scientific culture.
Although scientific knowledge is superior in the epistemic sense, it is not the only one that exists, and sometimes it is not even the most useful. Even the most respected Ph.D. in botany goes to the Amazon rainforest accompanied by locals who possess knowledge of the terrain and experience in recognizing and using plants that may not even be scientifically described. In order to achieve a high-quality social impact, science in practice must be supplemented with other types of knowledge (e.g., knowledge of different interested parties and local populations). Epistemic power is in placing a top scientist in the context of ignorance in order to get to better understand the local system, adopt other forms of knowledge, modify previous knowledge and ultimately create a social impact.
The same applies in cases where we want to use scientific knowledge as a basis for creating public policies or any socially goal-oriented action. Instead of imposing some kind of agenda/knowledge on social actors, one should study the existing systemic relations, culture, and social norms as well as their tacit and passive knowledge. When institutions, NGOs, and all other actors who wish to change something, put themselves in a superior position of knowledge, we will most likely witness a grueling process with modest results. It is more desirable and more socially responsible to switch from the popular “awareness raising” or transfer of knowledge to methods of knowledge exchange that are possible only if we accept a certain amount of ignorance every step of the way. Therefore, the position of strategic ignorance is what gives us power.
Science starts from ignorance, from the lack of answers to questions, it does not operate in a social vacuum, it is reproduced by people with their own biases and interests, it is in constant interaction with other social elements (economic, political, etc.), with the environment, and with itself, it is not perfect yet it changes and improves itself, which still makes it the most potent epistemic tool in a secular society that we should not abuse.
Author: Siniša Borota, sociologist