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The Science of Confusion

By Asher Brewster Sunday, January 8 2017

I come from a family of educators, my mother was a teacher and so was my sister. My father was a draughtsman who also taught carpentry. My great aunt and another aunt both worked at universities, and I also have a number of cousins who teach as well. So there was nothing in life I wanted to do less than teach.

Despite this somehow or another I _ nd myself teaching, either in a workshop, at a retreat, in a restaurant, in a maxi, and in print. Today Iím going to teach about ignorance. Just before the Christmas season began I wrote an impassioned article about just how inexcusable ignorance was in todayís world. I also wrote on the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year, post-truth. There is a trend of willful ignorance Iím still trying to wrap my head around and then I stumbled across it.

There is a science to the study of ignorance as well as a science behind keeping the average Kevin and Keisha in the dark and itís name is Agnotology.

Agnotology is de_ ned as the study of wilful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or win favour. Hard to believe isnít it? Iím usually dismissive of conspiracy theories but itís disconcerting to think that there are individuals and organisations that are creating ignorance for their own bene_ t. Donít get me wrong Iíve not been labouring under the assumption that the world is full of rainbows and roses. After more than a decade as a practising social worker, I can assure you I am more than aware of the grimy underbelly of our society. The only conclusion I can draw is that we send children to school and educate them, then work just as hard to ensure they become ignorant as adults.

This study of the science of ignorance started when Stanford professor, Robert Proctor, began studying documents related to the 1994 American congressional hearings on the tobacco industry. He realised ignorance is not always as simple as the absence of knowledge or something forgotten but it is also cultural and can be engineered and used as a political tool. There is power in keeping people ignorant. Radical terrorist groups are really good at making use of that power but itís not limited to universally agreed on nasties like ISIS, even regular special interest groups are guilty of same. Campaigns of manipulated information and blatant untruths are rife. It doesnít take much effort to sniff out some of the nonsense but more often than not it is insidious and not so easy to spot.

This is not about learning to read and write, literacy is a tool that we all require to be functional. Rather this is about diligence in seeking the truth and dedication to facts. One thing that most education systems fail to teach these days is critical thinking. Quite frankly it seems they stopped teaching critical thinking a while ago. Recent trends in education seem to demand rote learning leaving our youth and most adults unequipped to navigate this posttruth world being run by demagogues and organisations skilled in agnotology. Educators and parents have failed to impart the knowledge that will let youth be able to tell a snake oil salesman or a charlatan from someone telling the truth. We have dark days ahead if we canít _ x this situation. Anyone with an eye on the news can see history is repeating itself. Weíve been taught that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it and while we havenít forgotten what has happened in the past, it seems weíre powerless to stop it. These days the voices of reason and logic are very faint and are being drowned out by the sound of empty barrels.

Itís clear there is collective blame here, people are vulnerable when they donít understand something. A policy, an abstract concept, an economic principle, a philosophy that is important to know but has not been adequately explained by more traditional and objective sources, leaves people vulnerable to purveyors of misinformation. Itís the responsibility of educators, the clergy, the media (yes, even me) to share information, to put the truth in the hands of people on the street. The last party to shoulder the blame is you, ensuring you are not left ignorant falls on you. Google is a search engine, it canít tell you what is true from what is false. Donít trust everything you read online, the same applies to the printed word. Truth is found in multiple sources and double checking the facts, it is not a single click of the mouse away.

Itís not easy, itís not convenient and often the truth is the last thing we want to hear, but it is necessary. To be frank, I hate to think Iím being manipulated and misled by anyone, especially nameless, faceless people scheming in some dark room.

I know itís a new year and all and Iím not trying to be a pessimist, but with all the talk of state sponsored cyber warfare and misinformation swaying elections, Iíll be even more wary of the things I believe. The consequences of ill informed decisions made in 2016 will be experienced this year and in those to come. Letís make more of an effort to be better informed and not leave ourselves vulnerable to misinformation to the bene_ t of the unscrupulous. It will take the wisdom of sages past to rectify the problems of today, if only we can see things for what they are.

If we donít, weíll be reliving nightmares weíve only read about in history books.



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