Commentary: Russian (science) roulette and fear


“Ignorance isn’t bliss, but an ever-expanding hole that can never be filled.”
— Mark Crislip M.D.,
Infectious disease specialist

Regular readers know I take my M&Ms seriously, and that I’ve been around for awhile. Put the two together and it’s little wonder I’m still scarred from the Red Scare of 1976.

That’s the year we panicked as ignorant consumers and fell prey to a shaky, shady study out of Russia that linked red food dye No. 2 to cancer.

Quicker than I can make a bag of M&Ms disappear, the Mars Candy Company succumbed to public outrage and yanked the red candies from its rainbow lineup.

Even though they used red dye No. 40, not No. 2.

That’s right. They didn’t even use the color additive we so hysterically claimed was going to kill us (and which was never rigorously, or scientifically linked to serious health problems, but the FDA banned its use in food products anyway).

A couple of things prompted my trip down memory lane: I learned a new word, and the increasing calls for labeling of products that contain ingredients from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

The word of the day was “agnotology,” or the cultural production, and study, of ignorance. The expert in the field is Robert Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford University (and formerly of Penn State).

Proctor writes that “Ignorance has many interesting surrogates and overlaps in myriad ways with — as it is generated by — secrecy, stupidity, apathy, censorship, disinformation, faith and forgetfulness.”

And ignorance, which we often think of as “we don’t know what we don’t know,” can also be selective. We simply can’t take everything in, so we focus on ABC, which prevents us from learning about XYZ.

But the other interesting prong to Proctor’s research is ignorance as being deliberately cultivated. Companies, or public interest groups, consciously create the manufacture of doubt, of ignorance.

Think anti-vaccine rhetoric. Think any use of rhetoric or controversy to debunk scientific evidence. Doubt mongering and distractions obscure truth.

This ignorance or uncertainty “becomes a political tactic, a way to influence policy decision,” wrote Susan Dieleman, an assistant philosophy professor, most recently at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, in a review of Proctor’s work.

(Interestingly, Proctor draws on reams of tobacco industry insider documents in his 2012 book, Golden Holocaust, which I have not read, that shows this definition of agnotology in epic proportions: The tobacco companies conspired to block public acceptance of the scientifically proven links between smoking and cancer.)

It’s like the Dr. Ozs of the world: Some of what Oz says is legit, so he dupes many into believing his every word is gospel truth, when much of his comments are pure bunk. You can’t be both entertaining and scientifically accurate these days, right?

As Proctor also writes in his 2008 book, Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance: “Ignorance can be made or unmade, and science can be complicit in either process.” Touche.

Ignorance, and misinformation, is very difficult to overcome, particularly with a general populace that is increasingly science-illiterate and a lack of public trust in research by both the government and universities.

Which brings me to the ongoing calls for labeling of products produced from GMOs. But for that, you’ll have to tune in next week.

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