Thursday, May 06, 2010


This follow-up piece at Crooked Timber, concerning agnotology, metastasizes in to something ungainly, approaching unreality, as the comment-thread nears 200. I do so love it when straw arguments are presented, by the way, as Quiggin's example, "GM foods are evil", is offered as a test case of left-agnotology. As far as I can recollect, this comment sums up mainstream criticism of genetically modified foods:
Among my friends, there was once a pretty wide streak of shared concern that genetically modified plants might well turn out to be toxic or contributing to long-term health problems in ways we couldn’t predict in advance. And that was a sensible concern, given the manufacturers’ demonstrated disinterest in public well-being beyond their balance sheets. These days, though, that’s very much receded in favor of the issues like property rights.

While there are those who pronounce moral approbation upon GM-foods, for the most part, this continues to be a legitimate criticism. After all, eating something that heretofore did not exist as a food source, containing certain genetic properties not found in nature, and untested because it is unethical to use human subjects in such tests, is a legitimate concern. On the whole, the notion that the whole thing can be summed up, "GM foods are evil" creates an argument that is easily refutable, therefore dismissible.

The various back-and-forths throughout the comments can be summed up as "I know you are but what am I?". This muddies the waters far too much; the potential of "agnotology" to explain certain social phenomena we are experiencing. That human beings not only do not know stuff, but that his process is an active one, with all sorts of feedback loops and reinforcing mechanisms. Whether or not this is a phenomenon limited to the right or not is immaterial. Our current public discourse is rife with right-wing ignorance parading as open-mindedness; it undermines the credibility of scientific inquiry and research; it enables charges of elitism to stand without evidence.

Rather than trade barbs over various "examples", the discussion might have been far more helpful had it concentrated not only on current examples, but considered the ways the cultivation of ignorance is as much a habit, both personal and social, as the cultivation of knowledge. I also think a consideration of traditional, Enlightenment-based notions of the social and moral benefits of an ever-increasing knowledge base is actually disproved by the reality of the active, social pursuit of ignorance.

These are important issues that confront us everyday. Delving in to the good or bad faith of commenters who address hypotheticals is fun in a graduate-seminar kind of way, but unenlightening to me. Thus, the "ugh".

Virtual Tin Cup

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