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October 4, 2005

Conference to explore the social construction of ignorance

Philosophers think a lot about epistemology—how we know what we know. But questions about what we don't know are remarkably unstudied, said Robert N. Proctor, a professor of history in the Program in History and Philosophy of Science and Technology.

Proctor uses the term "agnotology"—a word coined from agnosis, meaning "not knowing"—to describe a new approach to looking at knowledge through the study of ignorance. A conference, "Agnotology: The Cultural Production of Ignorance," to be held Oct. 7-8 at the Humanities Center, will explore the perspective as applied to a variety of disciplines, including medicine, geography, biomedical ethics, archaeology and the history of science.

Ignorance is created or maintained—deliberately or not—in multiple ways, said Proctor, a specialist on scientific controversy who has written about topics including the tobacco industry and cancer, Nazi medicine, and the manipulation of public perception by the diamond industry. A prime example of the deliberate production of ignorance is the tobacco industry's conspiracy to manufacture doubt about the cancer risks of tobacco use. Under the banner of science, the industry produced research about everything except tobacco hazards to exploit public uncertainty, he said. (Proctor has calculated that 8 trillion cigarettes would not have been smoked in America if the industry had come clean about what it knew when it knew it.)

Agnotology also focuses on how and why diverse forms of knowledge do not "come to be," or are ignored or delayed, he said. Massive secrecy and censorship in military scientific research has resulted in a "shadow world" of secret theories and discoveries, he said. For example, knowledge about plate tectonics was delayed for at least a decade since much of the key evidence was classified military information related to underseas warfare, Proctor added.

Other examples of the cultural production of ignorance are found in the nontransfer of indigenous knowledge to Europe from the Americas. Conference co-organizer Londa Schiebinger, director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender and a professor of the history of science, has written in her 2004 book, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World, about how the knowledge of plants used by 18th-century Native American and slave women in the West Indies to induce abortions was lost when European naturalists chose not to collect specimens for transport back to Europe. At the conference, Adrienne Mayor, a visiting fellow in classics and human values at Princeton University, will present a paper that examines the suppression of Native American knowledge of paleontology and the fossil record, Proctor said.

Other conference participants will present papers on global climate change, the political history of the bicycle, race ignorance, nuclear politics, genetically engineered plants and asbestos diseases in South Africa. "There are hidden worlds of knowledge that philosophers ignore, but are a reality," he said.

Proctor and Schiebinger organized a conference by the same name at Pennsylvania State University, where both were faculty members before coming to Stanford. They are preparing a volume of collected papers, introducing agnotology as a new theoretical perspective.

The conference will begin at 9 a.m. and end at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 7 and 8. Information about conference presenters is available at or by calling Rosemary Rogers at 725-0714.



Barbara Palmer, News Service: (650) 724-6184,


Robert N. Proctor, Program in History and Philosophy of Science and Technology: (650) 323-6346,

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