Center for Interdisziplinary Research

Agnotology: Ways of Producing, Preserving, and Dealing with Ignorance

Date: May 30 - June 1, 2011

Convenors: Martin Carrier (Bielefeld), Janet Kourany (Notre Dame)

Within the last 20 years, historians of science such as Robert Proctor, Londa Schiebinger, Peter Galison, and Naomi Oreskes, have been promoting a new area of enquiry—Proctor calls it agnotology, the study of ignorance—which they suggest is of as much relevance to philosophers and social scientists as it is to historians of science. The claim is that ignorance plays as considerable role in contemporary science and society.

It goes without saying that ignorance is among the driving forces of research. Research projects attempt to identify specific lacunae of knowledge and are pursued for the sake of filling them. Ignorance of this sort is what keeps science going. Yet additional sorts of ignorance are important, too, two of which were at the center of the conference.

First, actively constructed ignorance. Knowledge is sometimes intentionally withheld or undermined. Trade secrets or military secrets are a case in point, but also long-term strategies of the tobacco industry intended to cast doubt on the health risks associated with smoking. The same ploy of creating disbelief and ambiguity was identified in the present U.S. debate about global warming. In sum, ignorance is produced and maintained in science as a result of its growing politicization and commercialization.

Second, ignorance is an unintended by-product of choosing certain pathways of research. Seeing certain questions as central makes it more difficult to ask other questions—with the result that some areas of exploration remain eclipsed. For instance, if the challenge of feeding the population of the developing countries is framed as a technological problem, the social context and the living conditions of the people are shifted out of the focus. Likewise, if the chief challenge of medical research is framed in terms of the development of new medical drugs, other, less technical ways of improving the life quality of patients remain unexplored.

The conference supported the view that agnotology offers a new approach to the study of knowledge, an approach at least as complex and important as its more established sister, epistemology.


Daniel Andler (Paris), Stefan Böschen (Augsburg), Anke Büter (Bielefeld), Kevin C. Elliott (Columbia, SC), Stuart Firestein (New York, NY), Stéphane Foucart (Paris), Isabel Gabel (New York, NY), Peter L. Galison (Cambridge, MA), Axel Gelfert (Singapore), Mathias Girel (Paris), Boris Heithecker (Ottersberg), Yogi H. Hendlin (Berlin), Nina Janich (Darmstadt), Philip Kitcher (Columbia, SC), Maria Kronfeldner (Bielefeld), Hugh Lacey (Swarthmore, PA), Bertold Lampe (Bielefeld), Fabian Lausen (Bielefeld), Johannes Lenhard (Bielefeld), Anna Leuschner (Bielefeld), Cornelis Menke (Bielefeld), Rebecca Mertens (Bielefeld), Naomi Oreskes (La Jolla, CA), Manuela Fernandez Pinto (Notre Dame, IN), Robert N. Proctor (Stanford, CA), George Rainbolt (Atlanta, GA), Anne Simmerling (Darmstadt), Adam Toon (Bielefeld), Torsten Wilholt (Bielefeld), David Willmes (Bielefeld), Norton Wise (Los Angeles, CA), Peter Weingart (Bielefeld)

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