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Invisible Messaging: the Power of Agnotology in Political Rhetoric

Several years ago, at an earth science conference, I learned a new word that would permanently change my understanding of political communication: agnotology.

The speaker was Bob Proctor, a Stanford professor of the History of Science. He coined the term along with linguist Iain Boal.

In broad terms, Proctor defined agnotology as the study of "deliberate, culturally-induced ignorance or doubt." In specific terms, he talked about this:

This isn't an old computer mainframe. It's a cigarette maker. Proctor used this example because machines like this are largely invisible to us, though their operation is arguably responsible for thousands of illnesses and deaths. Tobacco companies don't like it when people, particularly policymakers, focus on their products and the harm those products can cause. So why show off their machines and operations? Instead, tobacco companies spent decades inventing new forms of public relations, propaganda and lobbying.

Even today, Philip Morris, which rebranded itself as the innocuous-sounding "Altria," would like you know it's not a tobacco company. Please just ignore all the tobacco and nicotine-based products it's selling.

In some ways, it's easy to pick on the tobacco companies because they've lost a lot of political battles and because we know a lot about their influence campaigns, lies and censorship of scientific data thanks to a series of state and federal lawsuits.

At the conference, Proctor drew some obvious parallels to the fossil fuel industry, which has also worked to cover up the pollution and climate damage from its products. Faced with the prospect of similar lawsuits, they've even hired many of the same PR firms and lawyers the tobacco industry used.

As the years went on, as our media ecosystem degraded, and as I found myself working more and more on democracy issues, the idea of "agnotology" stuck with me and I could often see the same forms of culturally induced ignorance play out in other arenas.

For instance, the gun lobby often argues from a place of culturally induced ignorance. When the "assault weapons ban" expired in 2004, we essentially lost a national legal definition of what might constitute such a weapon. Rather than engage directly on gun violence or how to prevent it, the National Rifle Association and its proponents get a lot of mileage out of demanding that their opposition precisely define the weapons and weapon-types it wants to ban. Similarly, gun proponents are happy to invoke the spectre of gun grabbing agents seizing their arms. Who these agents are, who employs them, or, god help us, how many of them would need to be hired remains unexplored. Modern conservative interpretations of the 2nd Amendment can also be traced back to laundering alternative scholarship about the amendment's meaning through legal journals, which eventually made their way into court cases, similar to the means the tobacco and fossil fuel industries used to sow doubt in the scientific literature.

In other policy areas, conservative economists and pundits have created a small cottage industry of getting worked up about the "unintended consequences" of policy interventions. Left unsaid: everything has intended and unintended consequences including the status quo, no-policy scenarios and proposed policies. But this argument is often a rhetorical demand to prove that future unintended consequences won't happen before one adopts a policy, something that's impossible for policy proponents to do.

Agnotology can also take the form of transparency trolling: my opponents must be hiding something if they don't respond with total openness and speed to my demands. This area is particularly fraught since transparency is core value in a democracy and real transparency is quite valuable, but it's also easily exploitable and can go off the rails into endless meta-debates: for instance, audits of climate science that never produce any interesting results, the comically inept vote re-counting by Republican legislators, or tiresome arguments about the origins of COVID-19 which conflate missing information with nefarious intent.

Outside of science and policy analysis, agnotology can also apply when conservative groups refuse to give a name to their efforts to subvert the courts and elections. For instance, what's "court packing?" Conservatives will say it refers to Franklin Roosevelt attempting to add seats to the Supreme Court. But what did Mitch McConnell do in 2016 when he refused to hold a vote on an Obama Supreme Court court nominee only to fill the seat later under the Trump administration? Surely, he was trying to pack the court with his nominees, too. But Republicans won't give a name to McConnell's actions.

And for what it's worth, some academics define "court packing" as any attempt to manipulate membership on the court. Conservatives have also used the term to describe Democrats doing normal nomination and confirmation processes. And at the state level, Republicans have engaged in the type of court packing that adds seats. Interestingly, dictionary.com updated their definition of "court packing" to include all forms of court membership manipulation. Conservatives bristled at this, but once again failed to offer up a term or phrase to describe what they're doing to the courts.

Stop chasing the rabbit

Because a lot of arguments in politics are made in bad faith — or from a place of culturally-induced ignorance — they function as traps. Conservatives, in particular, are often engaging in policy fights from higher ground, attempting to maintain the status quo, while progressives have to argue about what the future, vast and unknowable, should look like.

Agnotology works for conservatives, in part, because Enlightenment values often push progressives and liberals into attempting to impose evidence-based logic on political arguments. But if your opponent doesn't play by those rules, you can't possibly have an argument with them.

The solutions to agnotology seem evident and all relate back to power. Using media platforms to clearly define what the opposition is doing and what we want instead, refusing to take the bait on endless bullshit arguments, and calling out the practices of agnotology for what they are: dangerous propaganda that materially harms our friends, neighbors and families.