“The other side of words”: Agnotology


Western sciences have little grasped the issue of ignorance despite the fact that, in the words of Karl Popper , “our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance is necessarily infinite”, with important consequences for our lives. .

This is observed by Robert N. Proctor in the introduction to a collective work on agnotology published in 2008. This science historian from Stanford University has worked to fill this gap. He then proposed the term “agnotology”, from the Greek agnôsis (“not knowing”), which refers to the study of ignorance and its “production”. This concept then benefits from a growing interest in the human and social sciences and some authors even evoke a true science of ignorance, making it possible to theorize the break with certainties and the production of unknown knowledge.

This ignorance can have different origins. First of all, there are factors of which the researcher is not aware , even vis-à-vis his own research topic. Then, these same factors may not have been, or may not be, exploited during the process and scientific facts may well be ignored as added after the fact. Finally, it is important to point out that all research methods have their own limitations .

As a result, the studies and even the validated productions can sometimes be the subject of subsequent reassessments and be re-examined by the specialists. Conversely, it is possible that a researcher works his entire career on the same theme only to ultimately question all of his reflections or open his work to unexplained or even inexplicable areas. Therefore, it is knowledge that “is rendered unusable and can no longer serve as a premise for decisions or other investigations”.

From the scientific point of view, for the researcher, agnotology constitutes a difficult and not very widespread exercise: it is more complex for a specialist to present and describe what he does not know than to deal with knowledge that he masters. Paradoxically, this science materializes regularly and in different forms in the field of research with new knowledge which is produced and which comes to replace the oldest or new scientific writings which come to question, to see make obsolete, their predecessors .

Thus, the incorporation of this concept in a reflection makes it possible to bring a new look at the knowledge produced or analyzed in a scientific research, similar to an “antiepistemology”. Where epistemology makes it possible to reaffirm or even construct new knowledge, anti-epistemology “asks how knowledge can be covered up and obscured” , questioning necessary in any theorization and/or production of scholarly knowledge.

But ignorance analyzes knowledge in a double dimension: what do we not know? Why don’t we have access to this knowledge? This doubt and the questioning of the knowledge generated by agnotology make it possible to (re)launch dialogues and modify behaviors. Indeed, if for the researcher to include agnotology amounts to questioning the gray areas of his work, which is therefore part of an “honest” approach with regard to his reflections and productions, this approach is also found in daily.

A telling example is that of misinformation. In addition to the possible sources of agnotology, mentioned above, it is possible that the absence of information is intentional. This retention of knowledge is also found in several areas such as, for example, the tobacco industry. Many companies have financed studies with the aim of proving the influence of factors other than cigarette smoking on the health of individuals. It is therefore not openly a lie but rather research to divert attention with the idea of ​​influencing the population: we then speak of strategic ignorance .

In addition, misinformation has changed with the development of social networks where each individual can freely share their knowledge or ideas on the themes of their choice. Mathias Girel then evokes several terms allowing to qualify the situations encountered on these platforms between “misinformation”, to evoke unintentional false information and “misinformation” for false information intended to deliberately harm others.

In all cases, agnotology reminds us of the need to maintain a critical attitude and an actor’s posture vis-à-vis the information that reaches us. The first step remains to check the sources, including the legitimacy of the author to deal with the theme addressed. Also, the ubiquitous ignorance, due to the different modalities that we have mentioned, makes it possible to keep in mind that gray areas remain in the exchanges that we have during the day as well as in the research work. which we may be interested.

Author Bios: Mary Meyer is a PhD student in Education and Training Sciences and Dominique Kern is a University Professor, PhD Education and Training Sciences both at the University of Haute-Alsace (UHA)