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Counter-knowledge (2)


The only reason for the picture (one of Cristobal Gabarron’s Los Silencios de Colon sculptures, being exhibited in the Piaza Nueva in Seville from 10 September 2008 until 9 November 2008) is that I finally finished Damian Thompson’s book whilst in Seville.

Several of his examples are interesting, albeit not for quite the reasons he thinks, and deserve further comment. If I have enough energy, I may get around to commenting separately on “The Secret”, HIV/Aids, alternative medicine/the placebo effect, and global warming. For the moment I will just make a few general comments.

I am not sure that “Counter-Knowledge” is anything new. Ideas which are wrong, even silly, have often been widely accepted. In the last chapter, he tries to make some rather more general comments. He clearly finds it distressing that “Western civilization has developed the intellectual tools to dismantle pseudohistory and pseudoscience”, yet they still flourish. Some of his explanations obviously contain some truth. The psychology is important, thinking is hard work, so most of us prefer to avoid it when we can, and much counter-knowledge has comforting elements. Equally, the “fragmentation of traditional authority structures – churches, political parties and the two-parent family” may have some role. I say “may” because the snag is that those in authority can be just as susceptible to nonsense as the rest of us, so they can help to promulgate and prop-up daft ideas as well as help to stamp them out. Much of the nonsense preached under global warming is a particularly clear-cut example of that.

Part of Damian’s agenda is evidently to try to shame some traditional “gatekeepers”, such as academics and publishers into behaving better. I certainly agree with him that political correctness has had an inhibiting effect. Academics have been reluctant to lay into obvious nonsense when it is part of “black studies” or “femininist studies”. Indeed universities have sometimes set up whole departments of bogus knowledge to pander to particular fashions.

But to me that is the difficulty. Political correctness is just another intellectual fashion, and fashion is a hugely powerful force, even in academia. It is often extremely hard to see that one is a slave to fashion. Equally, we are often even more attached to our mental possessions – our ideas – than we are to our physical possessions, and most people, even those supposedly dedicated to discovering the truth, find it extremely hard to jettison ideas which were disproved after they had absorbed them.

Certainly the internet allows daft ideas to acquire a global audience with unprecedented speed, but on the other hand it also allows them to be attacked with unprecedented speed (as Damian points out), so I am not sure that anything has fundamentally changed.

The general point he fails to make is that usually, but not always, daft ideas make most headway against weak knowledge. There is no serious “counter-knowledge” opposed to well-established parts of science like Newtonian dynamics, but there is a vast amount opposed to Western medicine which is a relatively rudimentary field of knowledge, full of unknowns, hopelessly incomplete theories and a fair smattering of nonsense.

Similarly, the detail of how large buildings respond to large aircraft hitting them is not particularly well-understood, because there are so few examples to study. Moreover the early accounts of 9/11 were frequently muddled and confused, with much inaccurate eye-witness reporting, so it is not surprising that conspiracy theorists have been able to find contradictions in official accounts.

Of course, it is extremely surprising that so many Americans apparently think their government capable of orchestrating the 3,000 civilian deaths in New York. But then the conspiracy theories only really took hold after it became clear how badly their government behaved over Iraq.

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