Science & Environment Language
The man who studies the spread of ignorance
How do people or companies with vested interests spread ignorance and obfuscate knowledge? Georgina Kenyon finds there is a term which defines this phenomenon.
By Georgina Kenyon
6 January 2016
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In 1979, a secret memo from the tobacco industry was revealed to the public. Called the Smoking and Health Proposal, and written a decade earlier by the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, it revealed many of the tactics employed by big tobacco to counter “anti-cigarette forces”.
In one of the paper’s most revealing sections, it looks at how to market cigarettes to the mass public: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
This revelation piqued the interest of Robert Proctor, a science historian from Stanford University, who started delving into the practices of tobacco firms and how they had spread confusion about whether smoking caused cancer.
Proctor had found that the cigarette industry did not want consumers to know the harms of its product, and it spent billions obscuring the facts of the health effects of smoking. This search led him to create a word for the study of deliberate propagation of ignorance: agnotology.
Agnotology is the study of wilful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or win favour
It comes from agnosis, the neoclassical Greek word for ignorance or ‘not knowing’, and ontology, the branch of metaphysics which deals with the nature of being. Agnotology is the study of wilful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or win favour.
“I was exploring how powerful industries could promote ignorance to sell their wares. Ignorance is power… and agnotology is about the deliberate creation of ignorance.
“In looking into agnotology, I discovered the secret world of classified science, and thought historians should be giving this more attention.”
The 1969 memo and the tactics used by the tobacco industry became the perfect example of agnotology, Proctor says. “Ignorance is not just the not-yet-known, it’s also a political ploy, a deliberate creation by powerful agents who want you ‘not to know’.”
To help him in his search, Proctor enlisted the help of UC Berkeley linguist Iain Boal, and together they came up with the term – the neologism was coined in 1995, although much of Proctor’s analysis of the phenomenon had occurred in the previous decades.
Agnotology is as important today as it was back when Proctor studied the tobacco industry’s obfuscation of facts about cancer and smoking. For example, politically motivated doubt was sown over US President Barack Obama’s nationality for many months by opponents until he revealed his birth certificate in 2011. In another case, some political commentators in Australia attempted to stoke panic by likening the country’s credit rating to that of Greece, despite readily available public information from ratings agencies showing the two economies are very different.
Proctor explains that ignorance can often be propagated under the guise of balanced debate. For example, the common idea that there will always be two opposing views does not always result in a rational conclusion. This was behind how tobacco firms used science to make their products look harmless, and is used today by climate change deniers to argue against the scientific evidence.
“This ‘balance routine’ has allowed the cigarette men, or climate deniers today, to claim that there are two sides to every story, that ‘experts disagree’ – creating a false picture of the truth, hence ignorance.”
We live in a world of radical ignorance – Robert Proctor
For example, says Proctor, many of the studies linking carcinogens in tobacco were conducted in mice initially, and the tobacco industry responded by saying that studies into mice did not mean that people were at risk, despite adverse health outcomes in many smokers.
A new era of ignorance
“We live in a world of radical ignorance, and the marvel is that any kind of truth cuts through the noise,” says Proctor. Even though knowledge is ‘accessible’, it does not mean it is accessed, he warns.
“Although for most things this is trivial – like, for example, the boiling point of mercury – but for bigger questions of political and philosophical import, the knowledge people have often comes from faith or tradition, or propaganda, more than anywhere else.”
Proctor found that ignorance spreads when firstly, many people do not understand a concept or fact and secondly, when special interest groups – like a commercial firm or a political group – then work hard to create confusion about an issue. In the case of ignorance about tobacco and climate change, a scientifically illiterate society will probably be more susceptible to the tactics used by those wishing to confuse and cloud the truth.
Consider climate change as an example. “The fight is not just over the existence of climate change, it’s over whether God has created the Earth for us to exploit, whether government has the right to regulate industry, whether environmentalists should be empowered, and so on. It’s not just about the facts, it’s about what is imagined to flow from and into such facts,” says Proctor.
Making up our own minds
Another academic studying ignorance is David Dunning, from Cornell University. Dunning warns that the internet is helping propagate ignorance – it is a place where everyone has a chance to be their own expert, he says, which makes them prey for powerful interests wishing to deliberately spread ignorance.
My worry is not that we are losing the ability to make up our own minds, but that it’s becoming too easy to do so – David Dunning
"While some smart people will profit from all the information now just a click away, many will be misled into a false sense of expertise. My worry is not that we are losing the ability to make up our own minds, but that it’s becoming too easy to do so. We should consult with others much more than we imagine. Other people may be imperfect as well, but often their opinions go a long way toward correcting our own imperfections, as our own imperfect expertise helps to correct their errors,” warns Dunning.
Dunning and Proctor also warn that the wilful spread of ignorance is rampant throughout the US presidential primaries on both sides of the political spectrum.
“Donald Trump is the obvious current example in the US, suggesting easy solutions to followers that are either unworkable or unconstitutional,” says Dunning.
So while agnotology may have had its origins in the heyday of the tobacco industry, today the need for both a word and the study of human ignorance is as strong as ever.
Gordon Weekes describes a criminal case that landed on his desk this month in Fort Lauderdale, Florida: “An old lady comes out of her house and sees three or four kids in in her yard.” She calls the police. The kids scatter, but get caught. They’d climbed a fence to snag mangos from a tree. One of the boys is charged with burglary.
“I suppose because he jumped the fence with an intent to take mangos, that it was a burglary,” muses Weekes, the chief assistant public defender in Broward County. “But the kid is 13 years old -- and he didn’t even take a mango! The state attorney’s office is supposed to decide how to charge these cases. You would think they would go with the more appropriate charge, which is trespass. No -- they’re going with the more serious charge.”
Trespass is a misdemeanor (a crime punishable by less than a year in prison). Burglary is a felony (punishable by a year or more). Because of his age, the child is unlikely to be incarcerated, but unlike the trespass, a felony record cannot be sealed or expunged. “That charge could have a far-reaching impact on the opportunities available to the child in the future,” says Weekes.
“Prosecutors have more power in this system than any judge, any supreme court, any police officer, or any attorney,” he says. They decide what charges to file -- “or more importantly, what charges not to file.”
Even as race and justice issues dominate national headlines, few media outlets have focused on the formidable power prosecutors wield. But they should. Of the 2,437 elected prosecutors in America (at both the both federal and county levels), 79 percent were white men --- even though white men made up only 31 percent of the population, according to a 2014 report by the San Francisco-based nonprofit Women Donors Network. That disparity, the report said, is a “structural flaw in the justice system” that has cascading effects -- like reducing accountability for police officers who shoot unarmed minorities.
As part of “Rigged,” our investigation into the dark side of modern-day electioneering, Fusion worked with Color of Change, another organization working on social justice issues, to collect and analyze data for every jurisdiction in America.
The results are stark: 93 percent of all prosecutors in the United States are white, though only 61 percent of the U.S. population is. At the same time, there were 1,561,500 prisoners in state and federal prisons, according to the latest (2014) data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which noted that black men “were in state or federal facilities 3.8 to 10.5 times more often than white men.” Fusion’s data supports what social justice activists have long maintained: At the local level, America’s justice system is disproportionately white-controlled, and disproportionately oriented toward punishing minorities. There are no straightforward answers for how and why the disparity persists, but the data shows the disparity is real.
DISTRICT ATTORNEYS BY RACE
DISTRICT ATTORNEYS BY GENDER
Data Source: Color of Change, Elected Prosecutor Database with additional research by Fusion on appointed officials. Estimates of the population of U.S. counties by race , U.S. Census Bureau. Data current as of September 12, 2016. See additional notes at the end of the story.
IT’S THE PROSECUTORS, STUPID
In many places in America, people of color represent a small share of the population, so it’s natural to assume that the overwhelming whiteness of US district attorneys is due to the whiteness of large swaths of the country. However, when Fusion analyzed the data, we found the imbalance persists even in communities of color:
- In counties in the U.S. where people of color represent between 50% and 60% of the population, only 19% of prosecutors are prosecutors of color.
- In counties where people of color represent between 80% and 90% percent of the population, only 53% of the prosecutors are prosecutors of color.
- Only in places where 90% of the population are people of color does the prosecutor pool reflect the diversity of the community.
- Overall, in the 276 counties in the U.S. where people of color represent the majority of the population, only 42%, or less than half, of the prosecutors in these counties are prosecutors of color.
Existing data shows black prisoners are punished more harshly than white inmates across America. In 2008 and 2009, the average length of a federal prison sentence for black males was 90 months, compared with 55 months for a white male. Many variables are at play, but according to a 2014 study in the Journal of Political Economy, “an unexplained black-white sentence disparity of approximately 9 percent remains,” even after accounting for factors such as prior convictions. (The figure jumps to 13 percent when drug crimes are included). “Estimates of the conditional effect of being black on sentences are robust,” the study concluded.
Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, said that any prosecutor can be good or bad. The problem, he said, is that to get elected, they usually position themselves as “tough on crime” and make strong alliances with police. “They’re going into the job trying to get high conviction rates,” Robinson said. “They try to rack up as many convictions as possible, even though we a have mass incarceration problem.” What we really need, he says, is progressive prosecutors of any race who realize that “the prison-industrial complex has not made us safer.”
Indeed, Color of Change is tracking prosecutor elections and gathering data such as the number of times a prosecutor is elected, what party they represent, their race, gender, and whether they were appointed or ran unopposed. Of the 2,326 prosecutors elected to office as of 2016 and tracked by Color of Change, 72 percent -- 1,691 in all -- ran unopposed in their last election.
An analysis showed:
- 97% of all prosecutors in the U.S. are elected.
- 72% of all elected prosecutors in office in 2016 ran unopposed in their last election
- 73% of white prosecutors in office in 2016 ran unopposed compared to 64% of prosecutors of color
- 32% of prosecutors who are appointed are people of color compared to just 4% of prosecutors who are elected.
Data Source: Color of Change, Elected Prosecutor Database with additional research by Fusion on appointed officials. Data current as of February 2016. See additional notes below.
Many factors could contribute to the gap in the number of prosecutors of color who run for office. In the data that Color of Change collected, only 94 prosecutors of color were elected to office as of 2016. Of these, 60 ran unopposed in their last election, or 64 percent. Of the 2223 white prosecutors currently elected to office, 1627 or 73 percent ran unopposed. Although the percent of white incumbents who ran unopposed is slightly higher, there is not enough data to draw a conclusion primarily because there are so few prosecutors of color in office. Interestingly, three states (New Jersey, Connecticut and Alaska) appoint prosecutors. In these states, 32 percent of the prosecutors are people of color compared to just 4 percent of prosecutors who are elected. Color of Change hopes to track election outcomes over time in order to better understand what might be driving these differences.
After police arrest a person, the prosecutor and his/her staff of assistant attorneys make a host of decisions that can transform the life of the accused:
They can recommend whether the defendant should be released on bail, and can recommend a bail amount.
- They can adjust the charges, making them more or less severe, felonies or misdemeanors.
- They can decide whether a child is charged as a juvenile or an adult.
- They can add or subtract counts.
- They can also convene grand juries to determine which charges to pursue.
- The prosecutor can also decide not to press charges at all.
“At any time, until a jury is sworn or a plea taken by the court, the state attorney can chose to drop the case,” said Gordon Weekes. “That is always their power, for many reasons: not enough evidence, it’s not in the interest of the public to go forward, there’s an alternative that better suited.”
Because laws outline recommended prison sentences, or even dictate mandatory minimum sentences for particular crimes, a prosecutor can have far more latitude over a defendant’s ultimate prison sentence than a judge, based solely on what charges are brought. For example, at the federal level, someone accused of a misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana could be fined $1,000 and spend a year in jail. With felony charge of selling marijuana, the fine could be $250,000 and the sentence, five years in prison.
Weekes notes that the stronger the threat of punishment, the more inclined a defendant might be to just plead guilty and end the case rather than incur lawyer fees and take up time as the case goes to trial.
HOW “TOUGH ON CRIME” BECOMES “TOUGH ON MINORITIES”
In Broward County, Florida, the site of the mango crime, the state attorney is Michael Satz, who was elected to his role in 1976 and has won every election since. He is now 73 years old. On his website, Satz makes no secret of his mission. He brags that in 1992, he “achieved the highest total conviction rate for trials and guilty pleas in the state, a high standard his office works hard to maintain.”
Satz made his reputation for being tough on crime during the drug wars of the 1980s and 90s -- and, critics, say, that reputation was built the backs of minorities. “He’s sent thousands of people to prison on very, very minor drug offenses,” Weekes said. “There’s probably more drug crime occurring on college campuses, but no one is going to any college and kicking down the dorm room door to find a bong under the bed.
“He’s a very nice guy, but he’s lost in a different age and different time,” Weekes said of Satz. “Because he doesn’t have any true connection to people who are impoverished, who have had to struggle, he can’t relate to a lot of the people entering the criminal justice system. There is a lack of empathy that comes from that office -- and countless examples in the ways they choose to prosecute cases.”
Satz also has a reputation for working hand in glove with police. Until this year, when cell phone camera evidence raised questions about the police-involved shooting of a black man, Satz had never prosecuted a police officer for fatally shooting a civilian. “He has sent a message to law enforcement,” says Weekes, “and encouraged them to be emboldened in their misbehavior.” A South Florida alliance of Black Lives Matter activists protested Satz outside the Broward County courthouse in mid-September.
In some of Broward’s easternmost black neighborhoods, where Fort Lauderdale police regularly park their armored vehicles with cameras on prominent street corners and signage that says “YOU ARE BEING WATCHED,” cops in recent years frequently cited residents for riding bikes not registered with the city (“biking while black”) and for not walking on sidewalks (“walking while black”). All told, 86 percent of the department’s bicycling tickets were given to black riders. Weekes says this was clearly racial profiling -- a pretext to search for drugs. “Truly predatory,” he called it. “Mike Satz, as the top law enforcement officer, should identify and root out any practices that are racially disparate.” He says that it would be within Satz’s power to call the police chief and advise the department to stop making arrests on charges that “sound stupid.”
Satz declined to comment for this article, but defended his decisions to the New Times Broward -Palm Beach, pointing out that police-involved shootings are referred to grand juries, and that his office has charged 79 officers with felonies since 2009.
In August, he edged out his sole opponent in the Democratic primary by only a few thousand votes. Turnout in Broward for the primary was abysmally low, hovering around 17 percent of registered voters. No one is opposing Satz in the November general election. He will hold office at least until he is 78.
A LONG PATH TO PARITY
There is a challenging but open road to getting more prosecutors of color into office. First, more minorities need to become attorneys. According to the National Association for Law Placement, more than 25 percent of law school graduates are minorities. But oftentimes, graduates saddled with law school loans choose private practice, where the average starting pay can be two to four times the $51,100 salary for an entry-level prosecutor and the $50,400 for starting public defenders. Public service is not an obvious path to personal comfort for aspiring attorneys.
This chart below shows the number of lawyers and judicial workers entering the labor market according to Census data. Currently, 15.6% of all lawyers and judicial workers are people of color. Among younger workers, those age 30 who might be potential candidates for prosecutor roles in the future, 21.9% are people of color (This compares to 43.3% in the population as a whole for that age group.) As the this more diverse pool of workers ages, the gap may lessen but the prosecutor pool still will not reflect the population as a whole.
NUMBER OF JUDICIAL WORKERS BY AGE
Black or African American
Hispanic or Latino
Asian American or Alaska Native
Unknown or Other
Two or more races
Data Source: Census Bureau ACS PUMS 2010-2014. Population estimates by age, race and Hispanic origin for lawyers, judges, magistrates and other judicial workers (SOC code 2310XX)
Melba Pearson, a past president of the National Black Prosecutors Association (NBPA), is a woman of color and an assistant state attorney in Miami. She didn’t fully realize how powerful the role of prosecutor was until she became one -- somewhat by chance.
Growing up, Pearson was pressed by her father to study the civil rights movement. He noted that heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr. were able to accomplish their work partly because “they had amazing defense attorneys to get them out of jail,” she said. “That’s something really ingrained in me since I was young.”
She always knew she wanted to be in the courtroom. “I didn’t want to do transactional work. I wanted to argue,” she chuckled. She applied to entry level jobs in both prosecutors’ and public defenders’ offices and, as it turned out, “got an offer that was amazing and changed my life.” She’s been with the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office for a decade and a half.
“The prosecutor in our criminal justice system is the one person who holds all the cards,” she said. “While the judge can adjudicate a part of the outcome, everyone in the courtroom is bound by decision of the prosecutor choosing to file.”
Now, she says, “I understand more than I did the importance of being a female prosecutor of color. I’ve embraced the role moreso. It’s not just about doing justice and seeking justice for victims,” she says, but also bringing awareness of her role to a “section of the population that has been historically underserved.”
Pearson laughed off criticisms that minority prosecutors exercising judicial empathy translates to leniency for criminals: “I specialize in robberies and homicides, so I can’t turn a blind eye. You put a gun in someone’s face -- I can’t, because of the history of slavery and Jim Crow, ignore that. No, no -- it doesn’t work that way!” Rather, she said, the reasoning is: “Can I make you a little better? You will be punished -- but what can I do to deter you?”
Pearson has no plans to run for state attorney, but the NBPA encourages members to seek higher office. Minority prosecutors have noticeable made gains in recent years -- notably, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch serving as attorneys general of the United States, Marilyn Mosby and Kym Worthy becoming top municipal prosecutors in Baltimore and in Detroit.
Color of Change’s Robinson believes more minority representation in district attorneys’ offices is coming, citing Kim Foxx’s win in Chicago and noting that even the Koch Brothers and Newt Gingrich have called for justice reform. “There are very high-level movements on both the left and right. In many ways, DAs haven’t caught up and haven’t had to catch up, because they haven’t had to run in competitive elections.”
His group is working to educate voters about the importance of electing good prosecutors. “We make communities safe and whole, not with school-to-prison pipelines, not charging felonies for schoolyard fights, not by putting people behind bars for decades of low-level crimes.”
Meanwhile, Gordon Weekes continues to see the effects of the system play out. “I walk in and see a courtroom filled with little black kids every day,” he said.
“I know the impact it has on our community when law enforcement focuses on one segment instead of another. I’m not sure the state attorney recognizes those issues,” Weekes said. “If I had a courtroom full of little red-headed girls, I would ask, ‘Why have you arrested all these little redheaded girls?’ I would address that. They’re blind to what is standing right in front of them.”