GOOD
Articles

The Epistemological Depression and the Rise of Agnotology: We Have No Idea What's What and Neither Do the People in Charge

Clive Thompson has a piece in the January issue of Wired about a growing trend of agnotology, "the study of culturally constructed ignorance." The term is one he borrows from the historian Robert Proctor, who "points out that when it comes to many contentious subjects, our usual relationship to information..

Clive Thompson has a piece in the January issue of Wired about a growing trend of agnotology, "the study of culturally constructed ignorance." The term is one he borrows from the historian Robert Proctor, who "points out that when it comes to many contentious subjects, our usual relationship to information is reversed: Ignorance increases." Essentially, for all the information that's readily at our disposal, there can be an equal amount of disinformation:After years of celebrating the information revolution, we need to focus on the countervailing force: The disinformation revolution. The ur-example of what Proctor calls an agnotological campaign is the funding of bogus studies by cigarette companies trying to link lung cancer to baldness, viruses-anything but their product. ... Even the financial meltdown was driven by ignorance. Credit-default swaps were designed not merely to dilute risk but to dilute knowledge; after they'd changed hands and been serially securitized, no one knew what they were worth.


Now, this is where things get really interesting (read: scary). According to Jerry Z. Muller's recent piece in The American, our current financial debacle can most accurately be referred to as "an epistemological depression." Epistemology, you'll remember, is the study of the nature of knowledge-how we know what we know, and what the limits of that knowledge are. Essentially, no one knew what they were supposed to know. While there's plenty of outcry about recent failures of regulation, what's really upsetting is that the size and diversity of our financial system (which was supposed to ensure its security) might have made regulation impossible. Muller writes:What seems most novel is the role of opacity and pseudo-objectivity ... That is, a large role was played by the failure of the private and corporate actors to understand what they were doing. Most heads of ailing or deceased financial institutions did not comprehend the degree of risk and exposure entailed by the dealings of their underlings-and many investors, including municipalities and pension funds, bought financial instruments without understanding the risks involved.Getting us out of the current mess requires calling into question several cultural patterns that have driven our corporate economy in recent decades. These are belief in the virtues of diversification and complexity, which are both supposed to reduce risk, and in the virtue of accountability, which is understood as rewarding performance based on ostensible measures of objectivity. Each of these has turned out to have unintended and unanticipated negative consequences. The purported virtues have mutated into vices.Why does all this matter? Because the government's solutions to these problems have involved massive buy-outs and mergers-which create even larger conglomerates that are destined to be plagued by this same epistemological problems.Via Atleykins.
Trending Stories