6 May 2017


Agnotology comes from two neoclassical Greek words: agnosis for ignorance or “not knowing” and ontologia “ontology” which deals with the nature of being. Agnotology is the study of willful human action to spread ignorance, confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or to win support for a cause. Agnotology is an old phenomenon but very much a contemporary virus. We see it in politics, religion, and business.

As an historian I would not say that history repeats itself; but rather that people do not learn from history, until it is often too late or just about too late.

Institutions and institutional leaders often promote ignorance as a way of exercising power over people or as a way of protecting the power of authoritarian leaders. Yes we can look at the White House for current examples. We can also look at other contemporary political leaders in places like Turkey, North Korea, and Russia. Maybe France? (I write this on the day before the final French presidential election.) I can think of university officials concealing professorial sexual abuse because top professors bring money and prestige to the university. And of course, I have seen it up close in the actions of some bishops and cardinals, who protect or conceal child abusive ordained ministers to maintain their own power base. The argument: to protect the good name of the church.  

When people abandon or reconfigure facts, agnotology rules life. As Yale University professor, Timothy Synder, wrote in his most recent little book On Tyranny: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no none can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.” 

Down the slippery slope to deadly agnotology: 

(1) People begin to succumb to the disease when they renounce the difference between what they want to hear and what is really the case. “Conservatives” do it; but “liberals and progressives” do it as well. Progressives too can be arrogant narcissists, who adjust the truth, to promote their own power-base.

(2) We need to be aware of the seductive character of leaders who promote ignorance through an endless repetition of certain phrases that cloud and conceal reality or turn individual people into dangerous stereotypes. Continual refrains of anti-abortion rhetoric cloud and conceal the reality of anti-abortion politicians who are certainly not pro-life in any way. Some of the most vocal anti-gay ecclesiastics and politicians, by way of another example, are in fact very active closet gays.

(3) When people begin to base their big decisions on feelings more than reason, the disease has begun to metastasize. Feelings can be positive or negative but cannot replace the importance of critical reflection and rational argumentation. Shortly after Obama’s first presidential election, a fellow in Southern Michigan put up a big sign on his property (I saw it.): “We used to hang niggers and now we put them in the White House.” Today that fellow rejoices that we finally have: “a good WHITE man in the WHITE House.”

(4) The Romanian-French playwright, Eugène Ionesco, watched one friend after another slip into fascism in the 1930s. He described the phenomenon in his 1959 play “Rhinoceros.” Ionesco wrote: “University professors, students, intellectuals were turning Nazi, becoming Iron Guards, one after the other. At the beginning, certainly they were not Nazis. About fifteen of us would get together to talk and to try to find arguments opposing theirs. It was not easy….From time to time, one of our friends said ‘I don’t agree with them, to be sure, but on certain points, nevertheless, I must admit, for example, the Jews…’ etc. And this was a symptom. Three weeks later, this person would become a Nazi. He was caught in the mechanism, he accepted everything, he became a rhinoceros.”

(5) Infectious symptoms are when influential people begin to despise the accepted truths of daily existence; when clever slogans appeal to fearful feelings and resonate in popular rhetoric like a new religion; and when convenient myths replace facts, history, and critical journalism.

And Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)

6 thoughts on “Not Knowing: Agnotology, a Deadly Contemporary Virus

  1. A timely and critically important reminder of our current danger. Thanks, Jack.

  2. Thank you, Jack, for this timely reminder for vigilance in our persute of knowledge and truth, and to always keep an open and questioning mind to authority and leaders.

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