vol. 25 no. 2, June, 2020

Book Reviews

Kourany, Janet and Carrier, Martin (eds.). Science and the production of ignorance: when the quest for knowledge is thwarted. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020. xi, 317 p. ISBN 978-0-26253-821-3. £54.95.

Seven thousand papers. This is the number of scientific articles produced with the support of the tobacco industry from the mid 1950s until 1990. It is estimated that the Council for Tobacco Research, which was sponsored by the large cigarette manufacturers, spent 450 million dollars on research over the same period. The purpose of the research was not primarily to oppose claims that smoking was bad for your health, but to distract the public with legitimate research on other harmful and contributing factors such as occupational hazards, radon and genetic dispositions. Rather than opposing the solid and well-established connection between smoking and cancer, the tactic adopted by the industry was to destabilise this claim by stating that ‘we need more research’. As described in the book under review, such strategies are commonly adopted in other contexts as well. For example, those opposing the claims of global warming may call for further research, making use of the compelling argument of ‘more knowledge needed’, before political action can be taken. By jamming the scientific airwaves with noise (p. 31) more research may then, paradoxically, result in greater ignorance in society as a whole. Another way in which ignorance may be produced is the balanced debate argument, which today often is evoked in the mass media. The idea of upholding symmetry and balance often results in the situation when well-established scientific claims, like Darwinism or Global warming, are presented like two sides in a symmetrical debate. Here the effort to be neutral, and to present opposing views may in itself result in ignorance.

How science itself may reproduce ignorance, and the many ways in which this can happen, is the topic of this book. Most contributions (the book consists of eleven chapters) take a philosophical perspective on ignorance. Still, many authors use concrete examples and relates to current debates, like those discussed above, which make the arguments accessible to a wide-range of readers. The introductory chapters, in particular the dialogue between Peter Galison and Robert Proctor (Chapter 2), introduce the topics in an effective and engaging manner. Importantly, the dialogue distinguishes between different types of ignorance, where the cases featuring the tobacco industry and climate change, both are examples of ignorance being promoted actively and consciously. However, there are other types of ignorance, like ‘virtuous ignorance’, which Proctor (p. 47) defines as things that could be known, but which we do not want to be known. This may, for example, be knowledge on how to construct a potential lethal virus, like the Spanish Flu (p. 133-134), information that may, if treated carelessly, result in a public health catastrophe. Janet Kourany raises similar concerns in Chapter 5 when discussing research on cognitive differences between ethnic groups in relation to academic freedom. What happens when scientists’ right to freely choose their research topics inflicts on other citizens’ rights and freedoms? Her conclusion is that the freedom of research cannot infringe on peoples’ freedom to life and dignity, yet exactly how such delineations should be made is a complex matter.

Another name for the study of ignorance, proposed by historian Robert Proctor, is agnotology. Agnatology, as discussed by Martin Carrier (Chapter 3), can be seen as a type of ‘false advertising’ which can be described as the unrecognised discrepancy between conclusions buttressed by the design of a study and those actually drawn or intimated (p. 84). Hence, according to Carrier the best way to ward of agnatology, and ignorance more generally, is transparency and plurality in research. Ideas for how this can be done are discussed in Chapters 8-11, where, for example, choice of research questions and methodology are scrutinised in relation to ignorance. In Chapter 8, Torsten Wilholt, discusses the very definition of ‘ignorance’ by developing a conceptual framework of different types of ignorance. For example there is a difference between what we know that we don’t know conscious ignorance, and opaque ignorance which denotes what we don’t know we don’t know. Thus, when researchers frame research questions they usually operate within the conscious ignorance spectrum, although they may, if prepared and lucky, make discoveries or reach insights, which were not anticipated at the outset. The philosophical inquiry into deeply opaque ignorance and its relation to incommensurability is further developed in Chapter 9 by Paul Hoyning-Huene. The last chapter, written by Londa Scheibinger, discusses how methods from sex and gender analysis may be useful for reducing ignorance in research design. Using a set of concrete methods accompanied by examples she shows how research can be improved by consciously and systematically applying approaches from sex and gender research. For example, heart disease among women, and osteoporosis in men are two areas that have ignored the importance of differences between the sexes, and thus resulted in less effective treatments for these medical conditions. Scheibinger’s conclusion is that gendered innovations stimulate excellence in science and gender equality, and by doing so, make science more sustainable. (p. 297).

Generally, the volume makes a compelling argument as to why ignorance is an important topic, and it provides a productive theoretical viewpoint for scholars interested in the making and communication of science. The many examples, several of them striking, as well as the manifold perspectives, are strengths of the book. At the same time, the reader tends to get overwhelmed with different definitions and conceptualisations of ignorance, and the related concept of agnatology. By applying it to everything from choice of research topic, ways of communicating science to methodological considerations, there is a risk that the concept loses some of its potential as an analytical, and political tool. Moreover, a few chapters, for example Philip Kitchers persuasive arguments on democracy and climate change is important (Chapter 4), but does not really engage with the concept of ignorance and agnatology. Rather, in my view, the most compelling arguments for the study of ignorance are the cases where ignorance is ‘produced’ more or less consciously, for example in relation to smoking and climate change. A further discussion about the differences between deliberate and non-deliberate creation of ignorance, would thus have been beneficial for sharpening the overall argument.

A further objection, and this might be a broader issue pertaining to different ways of studying science, is that although science is very present in these accounts the institutions, infrastructures and individuals that do science are largely invisible. How research is funded, and organised, how careers and lives are lived by scientists, as well as how research is evaluated and communicated are all issues that directly may influence the production of ignorance. However, this may be the topic of another book.

The ‘production of ignorance’ could possibly be studied from a range of disciplinary positions, and for that purpose this volume can be highly recommended as an introduction to important issues and perspectives. The rich array of examples, perspectives and theories makes for a stimulating and engaging read, which inevitably makes the reader ponder about their own ignorance, both in professional and private life. Indeed the realisation of being ignorant, so called ‘conscious ignorance’, is the pre-requisite for knowledge, and the strength of this volume might not be in its ability to provide answers, but in the poignant and timely questions that it asks.

Björn Hammarfelt

University of Borås
May, 2020

How to cite this review

Hammarfelt, B. (2020). Review of: Kourany, Janet and Carrier, Martin (eds.). Science and the production of ignorance: when the quest for knowledge is thwarted. MIT Press, 2020. Information Research, 25(2), review no. R692. http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs692.html

Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.