2016 as a ten-letter word

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Robert N. Proctor (Photo: Linda A. Cicero)

In the end of November, as it is the case every year since 2004, Oxford Dictionaries revealed their choice for the word of the year. For 2016, they settled on “post-truth”. This adjective, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, echoed a number of events of the past few months, including UK’s vote in favor of Brexit and, most infamously, the election of Donald J. Trump. Following the announcement, a few commenters were quick to observe that “post-truth” could be considered as an emanation of postmodernism, the brain-child of post-1968 French philosophy and critical theory. Whether you buy this or not – I don’t -, there’s no denying that “post-truth” has been everywhere in the press and on social networks. Yet, as a historian of science with little – if any – interest in questions of “truthfulness” and “falsity”, I would like to suggest another ten-letter word for describing more accurately what has been going on over the past few months – and, admittedly, over the past few decades as well, 2016 representing in my opinion some kind of turning point in its development. This word is: “agnotology”.

For those of you who are not familiar with the concept elaborated by Robert N. Proctor in books such as The Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer (1995) and Golden Holocaust – Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition (2012), suffice to say that “agnotology” is the production and dissemination of ignorance – as well as the study of this phenomenon. Proctor’s argument in a nutshell is that knowledge is not created out of a vacuum which we would call “ignorance” but, instead, that both knowledge and ignorance are social constructs, therefore contingent to many social, political and individual factors. The production and dissemination of ignorance, therefore, can be studied using the tools that are traditionally attached to the history of science, making the distinction between science and non-science not so significant in the process. When we look at the history of how the cigarette industry intentionally spread doubts about evidences that linked smoke ingestion to cancer, there were a few scientists to back this claim. At first, I was skeptical about “agnotology” because I had read Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt, which does not use the term “agnotology” but tells a relatively similar story of ignorance dissemination, and was unsatisfied with the way they tried to demarcate between the good, disinterested scientists fighting for truth and those who were paid by big corporations to spread false information – I had expressed my dissatisfaction on the INET version of this blog. However, I do not find the same problem with Proctor’s historical narrative which is not so much interested in questions of demarcation but rather in the cultural and political context in which ignorance is produced and disseminated. Accordingly, agnotology has been used in the history of economics by Phil Mirowski and Edward Nik-Khah in a way that may seem controversial at first  but which I found, after some resistance, increasingly convincing. After all, agnotology deals with producing and distributing something, so economics should not be too far away when we think about it. Two French economists have recently tried to use Proctor’s work, without using the term ‘agnotology’, in order to build a case against the critics of mainstream economics but in my opinion – which I have expressed in a forthcoming review of their book for a French STS journal -, they fell short of understanding the complexity of the concept and, quite ironically, ended up generating a lot of agnotology over the current status of their discipline.

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Donald Trump: the rise of agnotologic governmentality?

But so much for these issues of scientific demarcation – or lack therof. “Agnotology” is an enlightening word to describe 2016 because it is effectively applicable to the political issues of the day. Ignorance production and dissemination is not something which is just relevant to scientific issues. It is actually, a total social fact in the Maussian sense of the term, one that ties together cultural, psychological and political elements. With the election of Donald Trump, I even wonder if it is not possible to assert that we are entering an age of agnotologic governmentality, a way of governing that uses ignorance as a political device. In using the term governmentality, I explicitly refer to Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics. Governmentality, in Foucault’s conception, should not be confused with “government”. A regime of governmentality is enforced, not just by the State, but at many different levels where knowledge and power are connected. Suffice to replace knowledge by ignorance and then you have some idea of what a Foucaldian version of agnotology could look like. Since his election in November, Donald Trump has been a master in disseminating so much information, both in the press and on social networks, that it is almost impossible to assess what his legislature will yield. But of course, this had not begun with his election: this is the way he had behaved since the very beginning of his campaign at the Republican primaries. At the time, it had been summed up in one fantastically short tweet.

Now that “the comments section” has become the new President of the United States, we can argue that the kind of ignorance that such comments section typify will noy only lead  the most powerful nation, but as a result will preside over the way of the world at large. But ignorance is not a “top-down” phenomenon and that’s what makes it so stealth, yet powerful. Ignorance is cultivated at every level of the society and now, through more or less trustable internet news coverage, it is disseminated at a higher speed. Even academics and self-proclaimed “intelligent” people such as you and I can be subjected to it. If you have been a regular user of social networks in the course of the past few months, I defy you to tell me that you have never fallen into a clic-bait, believing for at least a few minutes a piece of information that has been revealed to be either false or (mis)guided by a non-objective source. The bombing of Aleppo, for instance, has been the subject of so much news coverage that it is impossible be sure that everything we were told was true. While there is no doubt that, on one hand, some information has been manipulated by pro-Syrian and Russian medias, we are not so naive as to believe that there is no propaganda on the other side, too. Increasingly complex conflicts and social issues such as this one are not easy to grasp and we can all be deceived. Effective propaganda knows how to exploit the capacity we all have to doubt. It is no surprise that agnotology is often related to neoliberalism. It is not so much, I think, that there is a mechanical relation between the two but, instead, that both are so squeezed in the recesses of our our everyday life that they are difficult to espace, unless we turn off our computers and start leading a more recluse life – which may not be a bad idea after all.

Anyway, I am afraid I have conveyed that 2016 has been a very bad year and this is similar to a lot of rants you have already read elsewhere. I should apologize for my lack of originality. But there is also a more positive message: as historians of science, we may  be able to apply our critical toolbox to the understanding of how we got there and, hopefully, how we will be able to get away with it.

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I was just amused with two projects by Shaun Usher: to “gather and sort fascinating letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, and memos” in his blog Letters of Note, and to present interesting letterheads in his Letterheady blog.

In the former one can see images and the transcript of a scathing letter from John Lennon to Paul and Linda McCartney in the early 1970s, and letters from other pop figures as Mark Twain, Yoko Ono, Thom Yorke (Radiohead), Edgar Allan Poe, CalTech’s chemist Eric Carreira to his post-doc student, among many others. In the latter blog, one finds letterheads of people/companies like Paul Simon, Elizabeth Taylor, Ozzy Osbourne, Marvel, Capitol Records, and many other beautiful ones.

It is interesting that Usher, despite of having “a seemingly endless supply of correspondence to plough through,” invites cyberfellows to contribute with their own images. But he warns them: “If you already know it’s fake, don’t send it.”

Just fun!

@INET-BW: Upon leaving Mount Washington

Who goes with Fergus?

Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,                    
And dance upon the level shore?                                         
Young man, lift up your russet brow,                                            
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,                      
And brood on hopes and fear no more.
 
And no more turn aside and brood,
Upon love’s bitter mystery;                                                        
for Fergus rules the brazen cars,                   
And rules the shadows of the wood,                 
And the white breast of the dim sea                         
And all the dishevelled wandering stars. 

The place invites poetry. By the way, all sessions can be viewed from the webiste – check out in particular the last session featuring Gillian Tett of the Financial Times moderating a disucssion between Paul Volcker and George Soros.

Here’s what it all looked like through an amateur lens.

Did Duke University blacklist Milton Friedman?

Great ideas are earned through hardship. It is a conviction that requires no argument, inscribed into our collective consciousness. As I have been writing/researching about Milton Friedman’s popular writings, I was surprised by the (popular) claim that Friedman was for many years an outcast in the economics profession, the proof was that such a respectable place as Duke University refused to carry his books (the specific source was a celebration of Friedman’s life by Robert Samuelson in Newsweek).

Milton and Rose Friedman write in their autobiography Two Lucky People, page 341 in the 1999 edition, of a letter sent to them by Mark Rollinson in 1989, who 30 years earlier had been a student at Duke University,

My years at Duke … were not happy ones. … To make matters worse, most of my fellow students and all of my professors held my views on several subjects in overt disdain.
One day after particularly severe ridicule in an economics class I went to the professor after the session and told him that I was quite certain that I was not stupid and I asked him if there were not at least some economists who shared my views. “Oh yes,” he said “as a matter of fact we’ve discussed you frequently here at the faculty level. You’re nearly a clone of some chap in Chicago named Milton Friedman. It’s truly amazing.”
Well, I went running over to the library with your name in hand, only to find that you were in the name catalogue. On consulting with my professor later, he explained that Duke had a system of screening new material by the appropriate department and the Economics Department did not consider your work worthy of carrying.
Whereupon I went to the Dean of Men … and made an offer: put Friedman into the library or take Marx out; otherwise I would write a letter to the editor of every newspaper I could find.
They opted to add you and keep Marx.
When you received the Nobel Prize, I was prouder probably even than you, as you might imagine.

Continue reading “Did Duke University blacklist Milton Friedman?”

Measuring the “Shock”

You can attest that a concept has become fairly popular when it is used by educated laymen/laywomen in very different circles. Obviously, Naomi Klein’s idea of a “Shock doctrine” is all over the place since we learnt about the tragic earthquake disaster – and its consequences –  in Japan. This morning, I heard on the French public radio a political analyst talking about fears that international institutions may apply to Japan the “shock doctrine”, a word, he noted, that “economists like to use frequently”. In addition, the same concerns were expressed by a Facebook friend of mine as soon as Friday morning who wondered whether the World Bank was going to impose Japanese people a “Chicago School-like Shock therapy” (emphasis added). She is not an economist or a social scientist but a film editor and a street artist. Tiago, I think it is time to revive your “the Evil that economists do” paper!

PS : I refrained from using as illustration one of these terrifying earthquake or desolate lands pictures that have circulated all over the net. I feel uneasy with the ambiguity existing in their intense dissemination, as if people were both appalled and fascinated in an unhealthy way by the Japanese drama. Anyway, you can still donate to one of the organizations that are working on relief and recovery in the region.

Black (science) Ops

Call of Duty: Black Ops is one of the top selling video games of all time, part of the Call of Duty series that has a loyal and cultic following. Black Ops “Easter Egg” (hidden feature, sub-game, plot, messages) is obtained at the starting screen where the character can release himself of the torture chair and walk to a computer console.

At the console, the player can run a command based adventure game, a zombie arcade game, and personal advice game, and it can access the CIA and Majestic-12 files of characters of the game (for more story content), plus some famous folk. I was surprised to find Vannevar Bush as one such entry, passwords: MANHATTAN and MAJESTIC1. Bush is a well known name in the history of science as the father of the post-1945 federal research system, including the National Science Foundation (NSF). He makes a cameo in the game as the Dr.-man of science in the service of the no-rules, intelligence agencies.

Black Ops’s plot line is a race against the clock to prevent a chemical Armageddon. But of course, it is not Bush that has the finger on the trigger, it is the Soviets. Damn you Soviets!

N-graming

Mid December Google gave the nerds of the World an early Xmas gift. It was N-gram viewer, a visualization tool to plot word frequency (and word strings “n-grams” up to 5 words) in its Google Books corpus. There is a Science article to go with it dawning a new field of “culturomics” (apparently a Harvard University object). Looking beyond the Steven Pinker enabled hype, better methods to probe corpora for meaningful subtexts and cultural themes exist, N-gram viewer is just fun.

There are plenty of clever queries out there, but I liked most the ones I found in Datavisualization. Closer to our interests are the queries of Economic History Blog. My contribution is a bit poor in imagination. But here goes.

Occasionally, the label of our community becomes a subject of debate. What best represents us: history of economics (blue) or history of economic thought (green)? From n-gram viewer the latter gets the most uses. At least until 2000 there is not much movement between one and the other, their frequencies move in parallel. I am sorry to report that our subject peaked in the mid-1990s (in books at least). [Update, 8th Feb. 2011: I included two graphs with caps and without, thanks Andrej!]

The triad of Masters programs in economics are: Micro/Macro/Econometrics, but how to these fare in mentions? I was surprised that econometrics was ahead for most of the period, and macro goes over the top only in the 1980s.

How about subjects in the work of economists (and everyone else)? Growth is the word that explodes into consciousness particularly post 1945, as Wealth slowly declines.

The classic: supply or demand? Demand of course!

Finally, a query that is not much history of economics but is important. How have the lay been referred to: as citizens and taxpayers (political), or as investors, consumers and producers (economic).