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Schubart: Agnotology

Robert Proctor, a science historian at Stanford, has coined a new word that’s getting lots of attention… agnotology.

Agnotology is the study of efforts to spread confusion and deceive people in an effort to sell them on a policy or product. Examples given are tobacco, food, and pharma efforts to sell products inimical to our wellbeing or absurd political solutions offered during campaign season that are either unworkable or unconstitutional.

In a BBC interview, Proctor warns: “We live in a world of radical ignorance, and the marvel is that any kind of truth cuts through the noise. Even though knowledge is ‘accessible’, it doesn’t mean it’s accessed.”

He cites the climate change controversy as another 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 about facts, it’s about what’s imagined to flow from and into such facts.”

The relentless “job creators” mantra so often rolled out by candidates is another example. We are to believe that a benevolent group of business executives are prevented from creating millions of well-paying jobs by hyperactive government regulators and taxing authorities they call “job-killers.” This fantasy crusade is a good example of agnotology.

Having co-founded and run a company of some 200 employees, I can tell you that the single most complex and expensive drag on profits was our people. Every chance we saw, we’d acquire technology to automate repetitive jobs in information processing, material handling, and customer transaction management. The one thing we didn’t do for good business reasons, was to seek cheaper, more compliant labor overseas, as did our competitors.

Employing more people in an age of globalization, automation and information technology is inimical to profit. People get sick, have families to care for, they’re mobile, they need training, they sue.

In my view, those selling themselves as benevolent job creators are nothing of the sort. This is simple agnotology in the service of deregulatory and tax-cutting policies, when strategic regulation and equitable taxation contribute to social and economic wellbeing.

Jobs and thriving businesses are among the keys to economic vitality and social stability. But let’s be honest with ourselves, the goal of business is to ethically generate profit, not create jobs. Labor’s just another expense to be minimized. The more honest concern is where exactly will our new jobs come from?

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