Knowing False Things

As we wade through election season hype, it’s important to remember that in many ways, and for many reasons, it’s beneficial to someone if you don’t know the truth about something.

The word ‘agnotology’ refers to the study of the intentional sowing of doubt and misinformation. The coiner of this term cites the tobacco industry’s efforts to spread mistruths about the dangers of smoking and tobacco use as a prime example of the sorts of things an agnotologist might study.

Big Tobacco isn’t alone in fabricating of falsehoods. Politicians (and political parties), governments, press entities, academic institutions, media networks, and yes, even individuals, will often go out of their way to deceive if they believe it will benefit them in some way.

Sometimes the benefits of such fictions are obvious. Cigarette companies stay in the black if they can keep potential smokers confused about whether or not their products are harmful.

Sometimes the rationale behind mistruths are more obscure. The conspiracy theory surrounding contrails, for instance, enunciates made-up facts and evidence to outline an intricate, provably false worldview, and it’s difficult to say who benefits from this mythos, and how.

‘Agnotology,’ in a way, is the opposite of ‘epistemology,’ which is the study of knowledge.

Epistemology is important because it helps us understand what we know, and how we know what we know.

The study of fake-knowledge or anti-knowledge is vital because it helps us understand the barriers between us and understanding. It allows us to shine a light on things we know, but which are untrue. It allows us to recognize that it can take time for debunked old wive’s tales, dearly held (but ultimately misinformed) world views, and intentionally spread propaganda to dissipate from the public (and individual) consciousness.

The half-life of bad information can be, unfortunately, quite extensive. And all we can do to speed up the process — to clear away the contamination — is to consistently question our fundamental knowledge, and be open to changing even the most foundational facts that underpin our understanding of the world.

This doesn’t solve the problem of pretty much everyone trying to ply us with mistruths. But it does help inoculate us against the worst of these deceptions, and gives us a mechanism for slowly but surely extracting those we’ve been exposed to in the past from our mental immune system.

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