Agnotological Power

I don’t know how I missed it, but I just stumbled across a word that describes a phenomena that I find both fascinating and repugnant: agnotology, “is the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data.” It’s not just the right, as Doug Henwood has documented, it’s taken root in so-called alternative media, too.

A certain segment of the right– if that’s the word– rejects evolution, denies global warming, and believes that Obama was born and raised in Kenya. On the left– if that’s the word– we have 911 conspiracies, vaccine paranoia, and all sorts of quack medicine. Our nuts don’t seem to have the national credibility that right-wing nuts seem to have. I suppose the reasons for this difference vary.

A few racists believe almost anything about a black President. A few politicians are promoting these ideas simply because they generate headlines and endure them to their base. It’s the kind of thing that drives teachers batty, I think, simply because we hold so tightly to the old adage, “free your mind, and your ass will follow.” As it turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s not always true.

I think this phenomena has to begin to inform teaching, particularly the teaching of critical thinking. Why has conservative thinking– supposedly the realm of the middle-aged and older– grown so profoundly irrational? It’s entirely likely, as I said, that many of these people are good critical thinkers, in the sense of being able to buy a car or run a business or otherwise keep their lives in order.

It’s hard to imagine what sort of education system could possible inculcate a reasonable skepticism into American culture, one that would be cautious about political authority without falling into wild speculation, if not paranoia. The pedagogical dilemma: there’s a sucker born every minute. The real political genius of our age, apparently, is Gary Dahl, inventor of the pet rock.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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