Counter-Knowledge: How we surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and Fake History (Book Review)

Damian Thompson, pp x + 196, Atlantic Books (London), 2008

This review article first appeared in The Skeptic (UK) 21:4 (2009), 25

Reproduced with permission

This book is an impressive new addition to the now well-established genre of skeptical works critiquing ‘fringe’, largely irrational theories relating to matters of science and history, especially those which (although often absurd) manifest a degree of superficial plausibility for the non-specialist reader and have thus had unwarranted influence on public thinking and policy.

This pattern is salient in countries such as Islamic theocracies where the local culture encourages non-scientific world-views; and one feature of Thompson’s book is a greater emphasis upon Islamic fundamentalism than is usual (some critics plainly fear the consequences of criticising such positions). But such ideas are also very widespread indeed in ‘the West’, where ‘alternative spirituality’ (often set up as a rival to the scientific world-view) is now strong and where Christian fundamentalism and associated creationist theories have not been decisively weakened by the vast evidence supporting evolutionary theory.

Thompson rightly objects to the influence of religion (and sheer irrationality) in support of quasi-factual statements which run contrary to accumulated empirical evidence. He urges lay readers to accept genuine huge-majority consensuses in mainstream academic thought as provisionally valid. And he also analyses the origins of ‘counter-knowledge’ of the various kinds which he surveys, and the factors which promote its acceptance. These latter include the popularity of postmodernism and relativism in intellectual circles, the apparent complicity of universities in the ‘dumbing-down’ of their offerings and in dubious links with commercial organisations, and the recent technology-driven explosion of largely uncontrolled sources of misinformation.

Thompson’s range is obviously wide, but I instantiate from his chapter on ’pseudohistory’. Here he discusses Menzies’ popular and adroitly promoted theories about early modern Chinese influence around the world, the huge literature surrounding the Templars and their alleged legacy, various hyper-diffusionist claims about the early Americas, ‘ancient astronaut’ and ‘lost civilisation’ theories such as those of von Daniken and Hancock, and Afrocentrism. Thompson focuses very usefully on early modern non-standard thought and critiques by well-informed fore-runners of the modern skeptical movement, as well as more recent skeptical sources.

There are only occasional points of concern, eg on p 79, where Thompson arguably treats Rudgley’s ideas as better-founded than they are. But the length of the book precludes full assessment of all cases discussed by way of exemplification. And in general Thompson’s book can be very highly recommended as an initial source for argumentation, and if necessary as an antidote to the kind of thinking which he critiques.

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