Misinformation, Agnotology, and Remedies through Media Literacy



Agnotology is the study of culturally induced ignorance. Agnotology refocuses questions about “how we know” to include questions about what we do not know, and why not.
Londa Schiebinger, in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1 Sep. 2005.

 Historians of science have tended to focus on the processes by which scientific knowledge gets accepted. In recent decades, some scholars have come to see that processes that impede or prevent acceptance of scientific findings are also important. Such processes include the very human desire to ignore unpleasant facts, media neglect of topics, corporate or government secrecy, and misrepresentation for a commercial or political end. They often generate controversy, much of it ill-informed. Examples include the health implications of tobacco and of genetically modified plants, the safety of nuclear power, the environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and the existence or extent of man-made climate change.”[i]


What responsibility do adult education teachers, and other educators, have in helping students deal with media misinformation and culturally induced ignorance? 


English language students frequently bring to their teachers deceptive letters or emails they have received that appear to be government or legal requests for information or compliance. The students may have been able to read these, but often do not understand that they are attempts to sell something or get private information from them for illegitimate purposes. The letters or email messsages are intended to deceive. Learning how to recognize these practices and avoid being deceived is part of what is often known as “media literacy.”


In a broader social context, adult learners, their teachers — all of us — are bombarded in the media with an overwhelming amount of advertising, sometimes of products whose use is unhealthy, such as high-calorie fast food, other processed foods, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).


Not long ago low-income adults and others were told in the media that, with special mortgages, they could afford to buy a house or condominium, when the truth was that while they might have been able to get one, with their income they could not afford to keep it.


We are told that natural gas is environmentally preferable to oil and coal heating when, with “fracking” techniques of mining natural gas, this may not be true.


We were told for many years that human-made climate change was imagined. Now, scientists from nearly two hundred countries have affirmed it is real and caused by humans.


And we are (mis)led to believe that there are “free” services on the Internet.


What can adult educators do to help students understand these, at best misleading, often deliberately deceptive practices?


For many years, one adult literacy publication has taken on literacy and social change, helping adult learners to read critically.  It has made it easier for teachers to help students improve their critical reading skills. The current issue of The Change Agent, published by the New England Literacy Resource Center at World Education, focuses on Technology, and its lead article, by Romenigue dos Santos, an adult English language learner, takes on culturally induced ignorance in Internet technology.


In his article, “You Are the Product!” [ii] dos Santos begins  “Google knows more about you than your own mother does….Google knows most of our likes and interests, and they sell this information to the highest bidder. What do we get in exchange? We get lots of great applications, developed by them, for free. So the question is: is it worth it?”


The Change Agent technology issue is not entirely critical of technology. It offers a balanced approach, including an article about a great free adult learning web site for teachers and learners by Lora Myers, “Education on the Go at TV411.org,”   “Using Technology to Solve Problems,” by Steve Quann, “Dragon Naturally Speaking” by Bernice Sicely, and “Technology in the Care of Others,” by Eva Ramos. Other articles, such as a review by Cynthia Peters of Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy,” Akira Kamiya’s “Internet for All. Really?” and Sterlin Reaves’ “It Hurt. I was Furious. Deceived through Social Media” help teachers and learners to read critically, and perhaps to cut through the fog of internet malpractice and technology agnotology.

You can subscribe to The Change Agent individually or in bulk online and on paper. For more information: http://www.nelrc.org/changeagent/subscribe.htm



[i]  From: World Wide Words is written, edited and published in the UK by Michael Quinion. ISSN 1470-1448. Copyediting and advice are provided by Julane Marx in the US and Robert Waterhouse in the UK. The linked website is http://www.worldwidewords.org


[ii]  I have been a fan of The Change Agent for many years. I am an article contributor, and on the Editorial Board for the Technology issue.

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