Pop quizzes are frequent for students in Robert Proctor’s history of science classes. “How old is the earth?” “How many millions in a billion?” “Are you convinced that humans share a common ancestry with apes?” Proctor’s passion is figuring out not only what his students know, but also what they don’t know. His drive is to explore aspects of science that most don’t see.
A professor of the history of science at Stanford University, Proctor has taught courses as varied as “The Changing Concept of Race,” “Tobacco and Health in World History,” and “Human Origins: Evidence, Ideology, and Controversy.” His ever-roving eye tends to focus on bad science made during good times, good science made in bad times, and the mass of ignorance lodged in our collective minds as a result of both.
Proctor is living what he calls “the ultimate dabbler’s fantasy,” taking on subjects that appeal to his questioning spirit. But the motivation behind that dabbling is often principled outrage and a drive to right wrongs. Some of those wrongs are big ones—he has been the scourge of the tobacco industry, testifying against it in many cases and writing books and articles about what those in the industry knew, when they knew it, and how they campaigned to hide certain facts. Other wrongs are seemingly small: Proctor notes that the agates he collects and polishes, although unique and rare, are considered cheap, while diamonds, plentiful and homogeneous, somehow have great value.
Last May saw the release of Proctor’s latest book, Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance, coedited with Londa Schiebinger. DISCOVER caught up with him at his Stanford office.
Just what is agnotology?
It’s the study of the politics of ignorance. I’m looking at how ignorance is actively created through things like military secrecy in science or through deliberate policies like the tobacco industry’s effort to manufacture doubt through their “doubt is our product” strategy [spelled out in a 1969 tobacco company memo [pdf]]. So it’s not that science inherently always grows. It can actually be destroyed in certain ways, or ignorance can actually be created.
How common is the active creation of ignorance?
It’s pretty common. I mean, in terms of sowing doubt, certainly global warming is a famous one. You know, the global warming denialists who for years have managed to say, “Well, the case is not proven. We need more research.” And what’s interesting is that a lot of the people working on that were also the people working for Big Tobacco.
Yeah. The techniques of manufacturing doubt were created largely within the tobacco industry, and then they were franchised out to other industries. I have a chapter in my book Cancer Wars called “Doubt Is Our Product,” which is about the hundreds and hundreds of different industries that use these techniques of sowing doubt in order to minimize hazard, as do various trade associations. One of their goals is the idea of sowing doubt or questioning statistics. And they’re very powerful. You know the old saying: For every Ph.D. there’s an equal and opposite Ph.D.
You have a unique take on the relationship between ideology and science.
Bad ideologies can produce good science, and good ideologies can produce bad science. In my book The Nazi War on Cancer, I showed that a horrific ideology can produce world-class science, and in my human origins work I showed that liberal antiracism can produce bad science.
One of the things I teach in my class is that the history of science is the history of confusion, and there are many, many confusions. In a lot of my work I look at how even crazy prejudices can sometimes create good science. For instance, we all think the Nazis were crazy, but in fact, you know, they did some amazing science—not just in spite of their ideology, but actually because of their ideology. And that’s the same with all strong ideologies. The Piltdown hoax [the 1912 discovery of a supposed skull of early man, which 40 years later was determined to be a human cranium and ape jaw fraudulently joined together] was actually perceived [as a hoax] fairly early on by creationists because they refused to believe that this could have been a real skull.
What are other examples of good science coming from bad ideologies?
We tend to forget that the first manned space flight was produced at the height of the Soviet empire. I think the example of Mayan archaeoastronomy is an interesting one. There you have very competent elites who are involved in sort of blending calendrical astronomy with human sacrifice. That gets pretty hairy.
How did you develop this line of interest?
Well, I have a lot of curiosity about the world. I’m very interested in combining science with politics and ethics. And I like to do what I call activist history of science—a history of science that is relevant to present-day policy and present-day suffering and also to historical suffering. So I like to use history to inform the present, but I also like to use the present to inform history.
It seems you have endless curiosity.
I’m amazed by people who don’t ask questions constantly. I was raised to think that the good life is asking questions and then always realizing that there are infinitely many more questions and that basically what we know is an infinitesimal part of what we might know. I’m interested in human suffering. I’m interested in the big, unanswered questions—in the massive infinity of ignorance that we swim in.