Monday, February 9, 2015

Agnotology

Wherein you are the beneficiaries of my C-Pen scanner:
    In the neoliberal playbook, intellectuals are inherently shady characters precisely because they sell their pens-for-hire to private interests: that is their inescapable lot in life as participants in the marketplace of ideas. It is the market as superior information processor that ultimately sorts out what the masses should deem as truth, at least in the fullness of time. This constitutes the gist of the Robert Barro position that, as long as they keep paying us, we must be right. This stance creates a problem for the economics profession, because it drives a wedge between trusting economists to clarify issues of great public import, and trusting the market to arrive at time-tested knowledge. This epistemic tension becomes a full-blown contradiction when the issue becomes the possibility of the breakdown of the market itself. If one adopts the hard neoliberal horn of the dilemma, then the intricate operation of the market is truly inscrutable, unknowable by any individual person, and thus economists are despicable charlatans who keep pretending to know what they can never truly know. From this perspective, the market has never actually failed, even in the current crisis; all that has happened is that economists have befogged our understanding of the necessary accommodations that must occur in order for it to come to terms with current events. Clearly, in this special neoliberal frame, economists (with few exceptions) end up looking like part of the problem, not generally part of the solution. Yet, if one instead occupies the more "moderate" horn of the dilemma, then orthodox economics theory was never fundamentally falsified, because it was the markets themselves that bore inherent flaws, which only the economists can be trusted to rectify. However, this bumps up hard against the empirical phenomenon apparent for all the public to see: the orthodox profession was blindsided by the depth and pervasiveness of the crisis, and has been perplexed and befuddled as to any consensus diagnosis of the crisis, much less appropriate measures to rectify it. And worse, there is no limit to how "deep" the market failures go. Thus there is no reason not to think that "market failure" itself betokens failure of the orthodox economics profession as well.

    The most important part of the history of the crisis that has been neglected by the mass of commentary cited herein is that there have surfaced in the crisis some relatively systematic attempts to pump doubt and confusion into public discourse; in other words, some "explanations" of manifestations of the crisis and its aftermath have been launched as trial balloons not expressly for purposes of further test, judicious development, and elaboration by sanctioned professional economists or other intellectuals, but rather as calculated interventions in public discourse in order to buy time and frustrate any shared impressions of a few sharply delineated positions on a contentious issue. Think global-warming denialism, but now extended to the    question of the causes and meaning of the economic crisis. And it is not some fringe anomaly, but built into the very conceptual structure of the contemporary economics profession.

    The literature that discusses this feature of public discourse travels under the rubric of agnotology. It is not the study of ignorance and doubt under all their manifestations, as sometimes mistakenly asserted, but rather the focused study of the intentional manufacture of doubt and uncertainty in the general populace for specific political motives. This literature is very different from an older "sociology of propaganda," which was an artifact of Cold War theories of totalitarian societies.    

Agnotology instead studies a pronounced market-based set of procedures, as opposed to propaganda, which tends to emanate from a single source. It rather situates the practice of the manufacture of doubt as rooted in the professions of advertising and public relations, with close connections to the organization of think tanks and lobbying firms. Its essence is a series of techniques and technologies to both use and influence independently existing academic disciplines for the purposes of fostering impressions of implacable controversy where actual disputes are marginal, wreaking havoc with outsider perceptions of the configuration of orthodox doctrines, and creating a parallel set of spokespersons and outlets for ideas that are convenient for the behind-the-scenes funding interests, combined with the inflation of disputes in the name of "balance in order to infuse the impression in outsiders that nothing has been settled within the core research community. The ultimate purpose in erecting this Potemkin controversy is to stymie action. The earliest instances of agnotology were focused upon instances deployed in the natural sciences, most specifically, on the political controversies over the cancer consequences of tobacco smoke, Star Wars antimissile systems, the theory of evolution, the efficacy of pharmaceuticals, and the causes and consequences of global warming.

    The advance of agnotology beyond propaganda is lodged in the fact that its hallmark techniques thrive off a hermeneutics of suspicion with the result that the populace can maintain the comfortable fiction that it is not being manipulated by the obscure interests tuning the initiatives. In this, it is similar to advertizing that makes use of the general conviction of the target populace that they are immune to the blandishments of advertising.  As the famous Frank Luntz memo to the Republican Party stated:

    The scientific debate remains open. Voters beheve that there is no consensus about global warming. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debates.

    Admittedly, journalists exhibit an unfortunate tendency to treat a proposition as "true" as long as someone in a position of ostensible authority is willing to be quoted saying it, mitigated by the defensive codicil that no one seems willing to sue the journalist over it; or perhaps they confuse objectivity with presenting "two sides" to an issue, pitting jousting authorities against each other. The signal characteristic of agnotology is that it makes use of these journalistic inclinations to venture beyond simple difference of opinion in order to promulgate artificial "authorities" and calculated deception, not just to sway public opinion, but to foster the widespread attitude that there is so much unfocused controversy rattling around in the rarefied world of intellectuals that the poor average citizen might as well believe whatever he pleases. It is the predicament of the hapless consumer of modern news: one study tells me red wine is good for my health, and another insists it is unhealthy! John Cochrane says the crisis is all the fault of the government, while Joe Stiglitz blames it all on the banks! By a simple jujitsu move, the mechanical journalist's appeal to objective presentation of "both sides" is turned into an imprimatur for the public to believe whatever their guts tell them is correct, at least until the marketplace of ideas delivers its final verdict. The aim of agnotology is not so much to convince the undecided, but to fog the minds of anyone lacking the patience to delve into the arguments in detail (which is pretty much everyone).
    If we define agnotology to be the analysis of this phenomenon of the intentional production and promotion of ignorance, then it has been the Fourth Horseman of the Absolution from Apocalypse for economists. Whether it be in the context of global warming, oil depletion, "fracking" for natural gas, denial of Darwinism, disparagement of vaccination, or derangement of the conceptual content of Keynesianism, one unprecedented outcome of the Great Recession has been the redoubled efforts to pump massive amounts of noise into the mass media in order to discombobulate an already angry and restive populace. Much of this emanates from the outer think-tank shells of the neoliberal Russian doll, as I have already argued. The techniques range from alignment of artificial echo chambers and special Potemkin research units to co-opting the names of the famous for semisubmerged political agendas; from setting up astroturfed organizations to misrepresenting the shape and character of orthodox discourse within various academic disciplines.
Philip Mirowski, Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste. pp. 224-229

1 comment:

  1. The maneuvers of the character-disordered get ever more "sophisticated."

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