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Friday, 12 February 2010

Book Review: "Counterknowledge"

"Counterknowledge" is a portmanteau created by Damian Thompson to describe the mass of misinformation and disinformation being propagated by quack doctors, conspiracy theorists, pseudoscientists and pseudohistorians in the modern age. As the name suggests counterknowledge is the enemy of knowledge; whereas as one is drawn from research, experience and logic, the other comes from the imagination, superstition and irrational thinking. Thompson's book reveals how the blatant disregard for empirical facts and lack of rational thought seems to becoming ever more fashionable. Once the stuff of fringe "thinkers", urban mythmakers, New Age adherents, self-styled mystics and the paranoid, now counterknowledge is seeping into the mainstream and gaining ill-deserved respectability.

Pseudoscience has skipped the robust peer reviews and clinical testing that science has to endure. Now completely unscientific methods like homeopathy have found their way onto the NHS and being paid for by taxpayer's money. Aromatherapy has no basis whatsoever in modern science and its benefits have never been properly measured under controlled scientific conditions, and yet it has found its way into nearly every health spa, beauty treatment clinic or mainstream bubble bath company in the developed world. On the other side of the coin we have similar irrational thinking supporting conspiracy theories that scare people into staying away from modern medical procedures. Despite the huge weight of evidence of tremendous benefits incurred by vaccinations over the past two centuries, a wave of counterknowledge has prompted a reasonable percentage of parents from not allowing their children to take the MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) jab.

The subject of conspiracy theories haunts "Counterknowledge" as it rightfully argues that they are the most popular form of pseudohistory being propagated. The book appropriately begins at a dinner party where a politician begins discussing his view that the 9/11 attacks were all part of a US government conspiracy. For a brief moment it seems that the politician's audience have become captivated by this theory. However, and to the author's relief, a rational thinker is present who is able to argue the ridiculous implausibility of a scheme. Science doesn't support any of the theories put forward for the destruction of the towers by conspiracy theories, especially not the controlled demolition one supported by the so-called "Truth" movement. As Thompson points out the Bush Administration certainly had its critics and enemies at the dinner, but few of them could shift their thinking from the president being incompetent or just plain wrong to being something resembled a James Bond villain!

Conspiracy theories are rife in our society and the flames of this weird way of looking at the world were appropriately fanned by a historically inaccurate work of fiction in 2003. Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" takes the thoroughly debunked research of pseudohistory, "The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail", and creates a thriller comprising of secret societies, hidden messages in works of art and a hidden truth that the heart of Christianity. Thompson rightfully puts the real history of HBHG and subsequently "The Da Vinci Code", which has its fictional story prefaced with a "fact" about "The Priory of Sion". He leads us, as Tony Robinson did in his documentary "The Real Da Vinci Code" and David Aaronovitch did in "Voodoo Histories", back to a work of alternative history created by Gérard de Sède, with the collaboration of the draughtsman Pierre Plantard in the 1940s to '60s. "The Priory of Sion" has been proven and even admitted by its creators to be a hoax created in around 1956, not the "real organization" of 1099 that Dan Brown claims in his novel's "factual" preface.

Thompson links in another important principle found in Dan Brown's book to the thinking behind counterknowledge. He demonstrates this in Brown's hero, the renegade professor Robert Langdon whose method for studying history involves making giant leaps to connect various events even when there is no sufficient date to support these claims. Such an approach is, of course, very much in line with the conspiracy theorist, but it is also in line with the methods of the hyperdiffusionist. And it is the area of hyperdiffusionism that Thompson should be most applauded in drawing attention to. This is the belief that a superior civilization is really responsible for the creation of the architecture and society of other previously thought to be indigenous civilizations across the globe. One example of hyperdiffusionism is the theory that the Chinese discovered the Americas and brought civilisation to them. This, Thompson argues is another growing form of pseudohistory and it is becoming more and more prevalent in the mainstream.

Thompson argues that there are a lot of reasons for the emergence of counterknowledge, but sees a lot of it stemming from the rise of postmodernism. It's something I had never considered before, but having now read Richard J. Evans's excellent 1997 book "In Defence of History" I can see where he is coming from. Much of the propagation of counterknowledge comes from celebrities and postmodernists. However, it has also become the unforeseen by-product of political correctness. Thompson rightfully points out how religious freedom and tolerance has allowed the teaching of creationism in some schools and the right for students not to attend classes that teach evolutionary theory on the basis of their religious beliefs. Thompson himself is a Catholic, the editor of a Catholic newspaper for that matter, but this is never something that he puts into his arguments. However, he does feel that whilst many sceptics spend most of their time combating fundamentalist Christians on Creationist theory, confronting Muslims on the issue is almost a taboo subject. This is in spite of the huge number of Muslims who do not accept evolutionary theory.

As can be imagined, "Counterknowledge" is a controversial book, even though if you break down its areas of study shouldn't really be controversial. After all, he is not the one arguing against mainstream science, history and logic as we know it. However, his critics range from obvious opponents who support the areas he attacks to even those who should be in his field. Many of the obvious opponents, particularly the conspiracy theorists who are still convinced by HBHG, often hit the author with the ad hominen argument of his Catholic faith. As previously stated, this doesn't even come into the book, although Thompson is quite vocal about his criticism of stances taken by the Vatican on creationism. Those on his side too, who have large numbers of atheists and agnostics, can also feel uncomfortable about this fact. I see it as rather refreshing. In this time where creationism has become such a loud talking point, it is worth remembering that not only did a large number of Anglicans support Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, but that the Catholic Church's current stance acknowledges it as do most rational Christians, including the Church of England.

Another common criticism from fellow sceptics comes the fact that book is quite brief, despite covering quite a variety of topics. In this respect they are annoyed it doesn't delve deep enough. I don't see this as a handicap. There are plenty of weighty books written by the likes of Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, Richard Wiseman, Ben Goldacre, Christopher Hitchens and so on discussing pseudoscience and mysticism, often more in the form of collected essays rather than chaptered books. If you want to go down the historical avenues you can look do no better than David Aaronovitch's book on conspiracy theories, "Voodoo Histories", or Kathryn Olmsted's "Real Enemies" or if you want to go deeper still into the roots of the postmodern problem, Richard J Evans's "In Defence of History" is a fantastic if fairly academic read. So, there is room for a lighter introductory book. What I like about it is that unlike most of the rational sceptical books I enjoy, is it leans more towards history than science and helps to give a broader view of what is happening in our society today. Its delivery makes for a very readable insight into the nonsense thinking that is creeping into our education systems, local bookstores and even at government level.

Damian Thompson's work is the perfect bait to hook the person in the street who might have half believed conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. "Counterknowledge" gives readers some straightforward and effective tools to help them lean towards rational critical thinking, science, historical theory, reason and logic.

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