Tag Archives: pseudoscience

Agnotology: The science of ignorance

luckyMany of my fellow citizens believe that the Apollo program was faked, evolution is a lie, global warming is a sinister plot by Al Gore to take away their Hummers, and President Obama is some kind of Nazi foreigner whose healthcare plan will lead to mass euthanasia. Disinformation seems to be a winning tactic.

So, yes, Discover Magazine’s interview with Robert Proctor, Stanford science historian and co-editor of Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance, had some resonance with me.


Just what is agnotology?
It’s the study of the politics of ignorance. I’m looking at how ignorance is actively created through things like military secrecy in science or through deliberate policies like the tobacco industry’s effort to manufacture doubt through their “doubt is our product” strategy [spelled out in a 1969 tobacco company memo [pdf]]. So it’s not that science inherently always grows. It can actually be destroyed in certain ways, or ignorance can actually be created.

Have you continued your focus on tobacco?
I recently collaborated on an exhibit of the most outrageous tobacco ads called “Not a Cough in a Carload.” It’s centered on medical-themed tobacco ads: that tobacco’s good for your T-zone, that it calms your nerves. Scientific tests prove that brand A is better than B, or, you know, 20,000 physicians recommend Camels, and so forth. The use of athletes and models, and the artwork is just beautiful.

How do you maintain the perspective essential to your kind of research?… [I]t’s important to see the past the way the people saw it. So I’ve written two books on Nazi medicine, and the goal there was not just to condemn them, but to see how in the world they came up with those ideas and those movements and how they justified them to themselves. So we see them as full humans and not just scarecrows, so we can actually understand the depth of the depravity or whatever. But at least we see it honestly, and that’s a traditional historical virtue.

[Image: leifpeng]

Evangelicals more rational than non-evangelicals?

ghost If we could just get rid of religion, we could march forward into a glorious future where everyone would think rationally and believe only what can be scientifically proven, right?

Wrong. At least, that’s what’s suggested by “What Americans Really Believe,” a study by Baylor University. In what seems to be a case of “you’ve got to believe in something or you’ll believe in anything,” the study shows that (in the words of Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, writing in the Wall Street Journal):

…traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology. It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians.

The Gallup Organization, under contract to Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, asked American adults a series of questions to gauge credulity. Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science?

The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.

Even among Christians, there were disparities. While 36% of those belonging to the United Church of Christ, Sen. Barack Obama’s former denomination, expressed strong beliefs in the paranormal, only 14% of those belonging to the Assemblies of God, Sarah Palin’s former denomination, did. In fact, the more traditional and evangelical the respondent, the less likely he was to believe in, for instance, the possibility of communicating with people who are dead.

Other studies have shown the same thing: according to a 1980 study published in Skeptical Inquirer, irreligious college students were by far the most likely to embrace paranormal beliefs, while born-again Christian college students were the least likely. Two years ago, another study published in Skeptical Inquirer showed that:

while less than one-quarter of college freshmen surveyed expressed a general belief in such superstitions as ghosts, psychic healing, haunted houses, demonic possession, clairvoyance and witches, the figure jumped to 31% of college seniors and 34% of graduate students.

Perhaps this is evidence for the “God gene,” something within the human genome that tends us toward belief in things we haven’t seen (or seen evidence for) ourselves. Perhaps it’s a by-product of our ability to imagine things that aren’t real–and thus a by-product of our ability to create fantasy and science fiction tales.

And perhaps it’s an indication devout atheists need to dig a little deeper into why people believe what they believe, because by aiming at the same oft-ridiculed Christian evangelicals, they’re missing a much bigger–and more gullible–target.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]religion, atheism, paranormal, pseudoscience[/tags]