Does the partner in a corporation owe her staff information about career placement and advancement?  In a conversation with a partner in a large accounting firm, and a friend, I was told no.  The staff need to act to get what they want, including promotions and raises; the partner owes them no information unless asked, and the asking needs to be specific.

Credit card companies frequently add generic ‘fees’ to customer statements with no explanation.  A second friend explained how it works:  some people will complain, and the company will remove the fees if asked; for the rest who don’t bother asking, it’s pure company profit, and good business practice.

But is it?  Why should I have to ask my employer – who is a colleague after all – to make the machinations of my advancement in the business transparent?  Or ask why a company is billing me for nothing?  Advantage is the motivator for the accounting partner and credit card company:  more money, less accountability, more personal control and power.  And for the rest of us, the piling on of ignorance makes a culture of cynicism and deceit.

So, clearly ignorance isn’t only a matter of lack of education, as we see in the examples above.  It can also be manufactured in order to control people and gain advantage.  Furthermore, it’s pervasive in our lives say the editors of the new book Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance:  “We live in an age of ignorance and it is important to understand why this came to be and why,”  they say in their preface.

Indeed, we should not only study what we know – epistemology – but also try to learn about what we don’t – agnotology.  The love affair with dumb is white hot, but mostly unchallenged and unstudied; why not turn the lamp of scrutiny on it?

From press releases:

… ignorance is often more than just an absence of knowledge; it can also be the outcome of cultural and political struggles. Ignorance has a history and a political geography, but there are also things people don’t want you to know (“Doubt is our product” is the tobacco industry slogan). Individual chapters treat examples from the realms of global climate change, military secrecy, female orgasm, environmental denialism, Native American paleontology, theoretical archaeology, racial ignorance, and more. The goal of this volume is to better understand how and why various forms of knowing do not come to be, or have disappeared, or have become invisible.

Description, Agnotology:  The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, Stanford University Press

“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.”

Agnotology:  The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, Edited by Robert N. Proctor and Londa Schiebinger

The authors acknowledge that the causes of ignorance are multiple and diverse; ignorance can be “brought about by neglect, forgetfulness, myopia, extinction, secrecy, or suppression.” But to facilitate discussion, Proctor and Schiebinger divide ignorance into three broad categories: ignorance as native state, ignorance as lost realm, and ignorance as a deliberately engineered and strategic ploy. By defining and discussing the different qualities of each category, the authors demonstrate that ignorance can be the result of pure innocence, pure deceit, and everything in between.

Agnotology: The Study of Ignorance, Stanford University Press Blog

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