Knowing Counterknowlege

Damian Thompson. Counterknowledge: How We Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and Fake History. Atlantic Books, 2008.

I have a paradoxical reaction to this book, with its denunciation of pseudoscience, in that I agree with just about everyone of its specific complaints, yet find myself in serious disagreement with the whole. It boils down to those motes in the eye and bricks in glass houses. Thompson bemoans the rise of pseudoscience, and its growing endorsement by publishers, bookshops, universities and the like. This is a problem of Mr T, for of course, he has to concede that in capitalist society the main job of publishers and bookselling chains is to make money for their shareholders and not to educate the public. 

He is less ready to concede that increasingly universities are also money making businesses, or that their role is increasingly not one of promoting critical thinking or high quality 'education' but providing vocational courses aimed at making its graduates useful tools for the boss class. It makes little difference whether these bosses are the proprietors of hotel chains, used car salesmen, hamburger makers or the promoters of various health fads. If said bosses provide generous enough funds or freebies to the universities they will find their backsides most assiduously licked.

This is problem for Thompson because he is a writer on the Tory Party's chief cheerleader The Daily Telegraph. He is much happier attacking the usual suspects and folk devils such as politically correct academics, social workers, postmodernists, Muslims etc. Perhaps that is why nowhere in this book is it mentioned that the chief promoter of every new age nonsense and alternative health seam going is the right wing Tory newspaper, the Daily Mail, or that by far and away the biggest promoter of nutty Diana was murdered' conspiracies is the right wing Tory newspaper the Daily Express.

His attacks on Muslims, Mormons and the like may be somewhat related to the fact that these belief systems are competitors to his own, Roman Catholicism. The unkind might be tempted to hint that it is rather likely that all the new age medical fads and traditional wisdoms going have not has as deleterious effect on world health as the Roman Catholic church's opposition to condoms, contraception, abortion, stem cell research, IVF etc.

There are attacks on pseudo-history, many well aimed, but again, one of the skeptics major mantras is "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". Now I don't know whether Jesus of Nazareth was married to Mary Magdalene or anyone else, and I imagine no one ever will. However I, for example, find that a rather less extraordinary claim, than say the claim by the Roman Catholic Church that his mother was bodily transported up to heaven.

Of course some people such as Tories and Roman Catholics would, correctly, deduce that I have biases of my own. Of course I do, so does everyone. Our prior beliefs inform what we consider to be extraordinary claims. The idea that Jesus was married is an extraordinary claim to Thompson because of specific aspects of Christian theology and attitudes to sexuality. The 'scientific' way to test such a hypothesis would be to select say a hundred radical Jewish preachers from BCE100 to CE100, and find how many were married. Perhaps easier said than done.

It is not at all clear what Thompson proposes should be done to curb the sins of the publishing industry, (the obvious answer is don't buy crap and it will go away if left unsold). One suspects that deep in his soul there are longings for the good old days of the Index Librorum, or for some secular equivalent by which "the gatekeepers of knowledge" could keep out all sorts of heresies.

Again one can sense here how the modern scientific Puritanism has developed from a background of Christian theology and its sharp distinctions between "truth" and "error", and that in some ways it has inherited Christianity'S opposition to folk religion and syncretisation.

The reality is that mountains of nonsense are the price we pay for living in a free society, and that the best defence against it is free speech. The one thing which would probably clear out a lot of the nonsense and pseudoscience would be the complete abolition of the libel laws behind which con artists of various descriptions can hide.

Of course there may be limits to the usefulness of such an approach, especially when dealing with radical kinds of fundamentalist kinds of Christianity or Islam (or perhaps in some cases one should say pseudo Christianity or Pseudo Islam). Of particular concern is the importation of a whole raft of Euro-American radical right rhetoric from creation ism to holocaust denial into 'fundamentalist' 'Islam'. The last thing we need is legislation which would privilege say Scientology and the Moonies above fascism and communism in the freedom of public speech. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 99, April 2009

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