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The production of ignorance
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  1. John Launer
  1. Associate Editor, Postgraduate Medical Journal, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr John Launer, London, UK; johnlauner{at}aol.com

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If you have never heard of the word agnotology, there is probably a good reason. It means the study of the deliberate manufacture of ignorance or doubt, including the spread of selective, inaccurate or misleading scientific data. Familiar examples in the scientific and medical fields include campaigns to persuade people that climate change has been exaggerated, that gun control will not reduce the number of murders, that vaccinations cause more harm than benefit, or that the link between smoking and cancer is still unproven. Such misinformation is also common in the political field, and this has probably always been the case. Anyone who is despondent about the assaults on truth in the recent parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom, or the last presidential contest in the United States, may find it salutary to read the comments of the great economist John Maynard Keynes on the British elections in 1931: “I cannot remember any election in which more outrageous lies were told by leading statesmen.”1

The word agnotology was first coined by the American historian of science Robert N Proctor, with the help of a linguist called Iain Boal. It draws on the Greek word agnosis, meaning ‘not knowing’ (as in ‘agnostic’). By definition, misinformation is designed not to be identifiable as such. As the sociologist Linsey McGoey has pointed out, “we are doomed to miss the most successful …

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