The Unknowers

How Strategic Ignorance Rules the World

Linsey McGoey


An intriguing investigation, shattering the hackneyed notion that knowledge is power.

Deliberate ignorance has been known as the ‘Ostrich Instruction’ in law courts since the 1860s. It illustrates a recurring pattern in history in which figureheads for major companies, political leaders and industry bigwigs plead ignorance to avoid culpability. So why do so many figures at the top still get away with it when disasters on their watch damage so many people’s lives? Does the idea that knowledge is power still apply in today’s post-truth world?

A bold, wide-ranging exploration of the relationship between ignorance and power in the modern age, from debates over colonial power and economic rent-seeking in the 18th and 19th centuries to the legal defences of today, The Unknowers shows that strategic ignorance has not only long been an inherent part of modern power and big business, but also that true power lies in the ability to convince others of where the boundary between ignorance and knowledge lies.

Author Bio

Linsey McGoey is a writer and sociologist based in the United Kingdom. She has written for the Guardian, The Times, the Spectator, Jacobin and Fortune, is author of No Such Thing as a Free Gift (2015) and co-editor of the Routledge Handbook of Ignorance Studies (2015). She is currently a Reader in Sociology at the University of Essex.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction: The Power to Ignore
  • 1. Narrow History
  • 2. Seeing Ignorance Differently
  • 3. Elite Agnotologists
  • 4. The Murdoch Strategy
  • 5. Suspicious Attention
  • 6. Know-it-all Epistocrats         
  • 7. Conflict Blindness          
  • 8. Masters of Industry, Masters of ignorance     
  • 9. The Ostrich Instruction
  • 10. Good Experts
  • 11. The Pretense of Ignorance
  • Conclusion: The Great Enlargement       


‘The Unknowers is a fascinating exploration of the many ways in which our societies are built on strategic lack of knowledge.'
Joshua Newman, Counterfire 

‘What is most compelling about this book are the ways in which McGoey builds bridges between knowledge and ignorance practices, on the one hand, and processes of political and economic domination, on the other.’
Clémence Pinel, Critical Policy Studies

'The definitive book for our times on what makes strategic ignorance so 'strategic' in the hands of the powerful. If the truth can set us free, then it is only once we have taken back ignorance.'
Steve Fuller, author of Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game

'This is McGoey at her absolute best. And what a tour de force The Unknowers  is. Each chapter weaves its way backward and forward between events and evidence, past and future making, to offer original insights into how strategic ignorance and deliberate uncertainty keep those at the top in power.'
Susan L. Robertson, University of Cambridge

'The Unknowers is a landmark study of the myriad ways in which ignorance infuses our social, political and economic lives. Linsey McGoey deftly weaves social thought and empirical analysis to rethink how the power to draw the boundaries between knowledge and ignorance can radically transform society and democracy.'
Claudia Aradau, King’s College London

'In this timely book, McGoey tells us how deliberate and willful ignorance are used in politics, law, media, health and especially economics, to get and keep power. And she tells us what we might do about it.'
Lynne Pettinger, University of Warwick

'Ours is an era where truth-telling, leadership and authority have an increasingly feeble relationship. Linsey McGoey picks apart how strategic ignorance is a dastardly ploy that enables society’s elites to avoid responsibility for their rampant pursuit of self-interest. Essential if we are to resist what is one of the most dangerous tendencies of the new normal in global politics.'
Carl Rhodes, co-author of CEO Society: The Corporate Takeover of Everyday Life


Publication Date: 15 September 2019
256 pages

Product ISBNs: Paperback: 9781780326351
Hardback: 9781780326368
eBook ePub: 9781780326382
eBook PDF: 9781780326375
eBook Kindle: 9781780326399

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