Selective ignorance in science

There is a strong tendency to consider that every scientific or technical solution to a particular problem is irrefutable. Nowadays, scientific and technological knowledge usually eludes public criticism and even we have seen how important government decision making were made by the so-called technocrats. We often forget the contingency of this knowledge, the fact that scientists make choices about what to know and what to ignore.

These research choices, intentionally or unintentionally, lead to a selective scientific knowledge and thus, to a limited understanding of complex phenomena. We might think that this is inevitable, as we cannot study just everything at once. But the problem is not only the topics that are still waiting to be studied, but also the research choices made in a particular topic: the questions we ask, the metrics and standards we use, the research strategies followed, the dissemination of results,… These choices define a selective scientific ignorance, and they give us an image of the kind of knowledge that we pursue as a society.

Kevin C. Elliot, from the Department of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina has recently published an interesting article 1 in which this selective ignorance in science is analyzed and a case study is given as a crucial example of it: the contemporary agricultural research. In this article, the author accounts for different forms of selective ignorance in science that can result in socially relevant consequences. Maybe the most obvious source of ignorance is the way in which some industries systematically hide or avoid research results that might yield negative information about their products. Or how some pressure groups influence regulatory policy based on inaccurate or misleading scientific data. These facts can be decisive, as some research topics are promoted or neglected due to the policy makers decisions.

It goes without saying that these research choices are not “neutral”, that is, they usually favor the interests of particular social groups, and some value systems rather than others. The lack of interdisciplinary approaches in science also causes loss of perspective and blind spots in specific areas of knowledge. When research is governed by disciplinary boundaries it is quite impossible to capture the complexity of a particular phenomenon. The famous story about six blind men trying to figure out what an elephant is like just by each of them touching one part of the elephant is a good metaphor of the loss caused by a narrow understanding of scientific pluralism.

The author finds a significant example of how some research choices can shape scientific knowledge in the field of contemporary agricultural research. He focuses on the report Agriculture at a Crossroads, published in 2009 by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). This report aimed to give advice to agricultural biotechnology companies on the future of genetically modified (GM) crops in developing countries. Hundreds of experts participated in its elaboration and it was sponsored by international entities such as the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) or the World Health Organization (WHO).

Regarding the current agricultural research the report concludes that some kinds of information are being pursued more aggressively than others, paying much more attention to those solutions favorable to biotechnology industry rather than those which can promote an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development. Professor Hugh Lacey has studied this phenomenon in depth2. According to Prof. Lacey, contemporary agricultural research is strongly influenced by the need of constant growth imposed by the current economic system, thus focusing on high yielding-seeds for monocultural production systems instead of designing more locally adapted strategies.

Figure 2. The dominant agricultural research strategies are damaging rural livelihood in developing countries. | Credit: Victor Ndula
The dominant agricultural research strategies are damaging rural livelihood in developing countries. | Credit: Victor Ndula

One of the main factors influencing selective ignorance is the choice of the questions that we try to answer. It seems that the appropriate question in agricultural research should be how to reduce hunger, alleviate rural poverty and promote sustainable development through locally adapted solutions. However, the current situation is that agricultural research tends to study how to maximize the production of individual agricultural products, severely damaging some forms of social organization while increasing biotech companies’ profits. Moreover, this kind of land use entails the utilization of huge amounts of fertilizers, pesticides and heavy irrigation whose negative side-effects are relatively unknown, as part of this selective ignorance.

The IAASTD report also mentions that an important form of selective ignorance occurs when society takes for granted that certain problems have to be explored primarily in a scientific mode instead of in a social or a political mode. The report accounts for some non-technical solutions to agricultural problems, such as the redistribution of land, the creation of safety nets for local farmers or the promotion of more transparent markets.

The choice of specific metrics and standards can also promote selective ignorance. The use of certain indices instead of others can hide relevant pieces of information. The best known is the use of gross domestic product (GDP) to measure the economic performance of a country. This index is highly misleading, as it doesn’t account for inequities within a population. Nevertheless, the choice of a certain metric can be advantageous if the purpose is to prevent the acquisition of socially significant information or alter the public perception of a phenomenon.

Figure 3. The current patent schemes play a major role in the research strategies. | Credit: Rainer Ehrt
Figure 3. The current patent schemes play a major role in the research strategies. | Credit: Rainer Ehrt

The author also points out that once a research project has been developed, another crucial choice is what information to disseminate and how to do so. Some socially relevant results end up as a kind of “classified knowledge”, available only to a small range of individuals. Furthermore, scientists can contribute to this ignorance since there is a tendency to publish only positive results, laying aside negative or inconclusive results. The pharmaceutical industry and its marketing practices are notorious for these strategies.

It is clear that the practice of science has no privileged pathways, so it is worth mentioning that ethical choices and value judgments are significant when deciding which kind of scientific and technological knowledge we want to develop and which we can ignore. Elliot suggests identifying socially important forms of selective ignorance in order to be able to promote those research fields that can contribute to public goods, instead of favoring those scientific approaches specifically designed to increase corporate profits.

But, how can we identify selective ignorance in science? Elliot proposes two essential pathways: political strategies and academic strategies. On one hand, social activism and formal deliberative forums are needed to fight the tendency of privilege social groups to exploit social ignorance; on the other hand, breaking down disciplinary boundaries and decreasing the scientists’ dependence on private funding seem to be adequate strategies to avoid selective ignorance in socially relevant areas of science.

References

  1. Elliott K.C. (2013). Selective Ignorance and Agricultural Research, Science, Technology & Human Values, 38 (3) 328-350. DOI:
  2. Lacey, H., Is Science Value Free?, London: Routledge, 1999

3 Comments

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Joanne Gaudet

Interesting post! Readers might be interested in contributions to the ignorance conversation from the sociology of ignorance at http://sociologyofignorance.com. When ignorance is used in the sense of ‘consciously avoiding knowledge from emerging in the first place’ as above, this can be framed as ‘strategic ignorance’ or ‘intentional ignorance’.

madusrimadusri

This is a wonderful story about ignorance .This STORY RECALLS my GRANDMA who tells this story often.

Federico EspinosaFederico Espinosa

Hello! this a great article about a lot of topics that many people (including me) forget. But in my opinion, the research on GMO must be promoted with the participation of the public sector. If we want to use this technology with sustainable and nutricional purposes, on one side we must to inform correctly to the society, but in the other side we must to keep this skepticism and criticism about the organizations that use biotechnology.

It would be a combination of techniques. Modern biotecnology plus locally and sustaible practices.

Greetings.

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