Constructing the Veil of Ignorance: A Case Study of Manufactured Ignorance and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Erin C Scussel, Georgia State University

When the COVID-19 vaccine finally received FDA approval in August of 2021, many Americans believed it was going to be the catalyst to ending the pandemic. However, reactions to the vaccine varied, and not everyone was eager to get the shot. Those who refuse to be vaccinated are often misled by conspiracy theories and misinformation. Based on CDC demographic data of vaccinated individuals from January 2022, there was a significant number of Black Americans who remain unvaccinated. At that time, approximately 63% of the vaccine eligible population was fully vaccinated, and Black Americans accounted for only 10% of the fully vaccinated population. According to a January 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 35% of Black Americans are hesitant or refuse to get the vaccine because of the history of government violence against Black bodies. The vaccine hesitancy of Black Americans is arguably far more complicated than believing social media conspiracy theories and misinformation. I use Proctor and Schiebinger’s framework of agnotology, the study of how ignorance is manufactured, to analyze the epistemology of ignorance in the context of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans. Sometimes the absence of knowledge is native, it is just simply a part of being human to be ignorant. However, sometimes, the absence of knowledge is not natural, and it may be manufactured by a strategic, possibly nefarious, ploy. Ignorance can be manufactured through deliberate actions, such as carefully crafted discourse and deceptive tactics. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study represents a timely example from history of how deliberate actions can function as a strategic ploy to manufacture ignorance.

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 Presented in Session 203. Envisioning Knowledge: Aesthetics, Science, and Publics