DRMacIver's Notebook

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

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

This was a good book and is going on my rereading shelf, but I would maybe only softly recommend it.

The book starts with a discussion of why they thought a new words was needed and the process by which they went about coining it, which automatically makes me like them more.

Agnotology is proposed as a sort of dual to epistemology. The claim (which I believe) is that ignorance is more helpfully viewed as a thing in its own right rather than a mere absence of knowledge. In particular, ignorance is something that can be produced actively in its own right (a subject previously discussed in my review of Trans Like Me).

I think maybe the main thing I got out of it is a lot more clarity of the process and history behind how science is (ab)used by corporations to manufacture uncertainty when it is in their interests - e.g.~climate change denial and tobacco companies. It also prompted me to think a lot more about the intersection between power and how knowledge and ignorance are constructed, though I’m not sure that was necessarily a set of questions that were well posed by the book.

I had two major problems with the book:

The first is that it suffers the problems that many books which are collections of essays do, which is that by virtue of being a whole bunch of chapters written by different people it’s both a bit lacking in coherence and is also incomplete. The chapters do not support each other well, and it often feels like there are some missing gaps. For example there are lots of good empirical/historical chapters about ignorance being bad, and a number of chapters pointing out that ignorance isn’t necessarily bad on theoretical grounds, but I felt like the theory on bad ignorance and empiricism on good ignorance were both quite light on the ground in comparison.

The result is that it is a collection of very good essays rather than a very good collection of essays.

The second thing, which I think is more damning, is that it is incredibly North America, and in particular USA, centric. To the degree that it references Europe and Africa it is almost always as a precursor to the main story in North America (in fairness one chapter - on genetic engineering - is a bit more even handed). I increasingly do not trust theorising that comes out of the USA, because what inevitably happens is that it results in arguments from first principles and claims about the fundamental nature of humanity that describe patterns that you only really see in the united states because the USA is really fucking weird. If you want to know how ignorance is manufactured, I submit that looking at the way people build their understanding of the world and the nature of knowledge based entirely on examples centered around a single country would be an excellent topic of study, but instead this book is merely an example of that.

I also would have appreciated more coverage of the intersection of ignorance and privilege. The chapter on White Ignorance was pretty good for that, but I think there were a lot of things it did not cover, and it would have been interesting to see more about that. Maybe I just need to go read more Kristie Dotson instead though (this isn’t exactly her area, but epistemic justice and social epistemology are pretty strongly adjacent).