“Counterknowledge,” I would have thought, includes things like how a particular customer likes her eggs, or if another customer gets antsy if he does not get his refill right way. You know, like in a diner. Counter knowledge. But it turns out that Counterknowledge is stuff like creationism, creation science, Scientology, alternative medicine, and so on.

The Telegraph has a review of a book by Damian Thompson with the title “Counterknowledge.”

A synopsis from the publisher:

We are being swamped by dangerous nonsense. From 9/11 conspiracy theories to Holocaust denial, creationism to alternative medicine, we are all experiencing an epidemic of demonstrably untrue descriptions of the world. For Damian Thompson, these unproven theories and spurious claims are forms of ‘counterknowledge’, and, helped by the internet, they are creating a global generation of misguided adherents who repeat these untruths and lend them credence. ‘The sleep of reason brings forth monsters’, warns the title of Francisco Goya’s famous etching of 1799. As Damian Thompson demonstrates, unless the defenders of enlightenment values fight back soon, the counterknowledge industry has the potential to create new political, social and economic disasters.

I find it interesting that the reviewer in the Telegraph (Idiots are people, too, by Michael Bywater) actually defends the counterknowledgable (is that what the irrational believers in dumb shit would be called?)…

Yes, they are wrong, often laughably so. But, I found myself wondering, what harm is there in in their wonky, ghost-haunted, conspiracy-muttering, knuckle-headed refusal to play the post-Enlightenment rational game?

… Believe in a great Watcher in the Sky and life may seem hopeful enough to bear or beget another child. Believe Nngh when he says there’s a woolly mammoth on the other side of the ravine and you might join in the hunt. Credulity can jolly us along when rational nihilism says there’s no point in getting out of bed.

… on a personal level, to argue that they are simply wrong is not quite enough. …

If I set myself up as a historian, a pharmacologist or an aircraft designer, my belief that we are being carried through space in the jaws of The Giant Snake-Monkey Bl’ttharg won’t affect anything, because these things are subjected to external tests. My airplanes will fly or not fly; my drugs will work or not work; and, as far as history goes, what happened, happened.

All that my touching faith in Bl’ttharg offers is just what enlightened rationalism offers its adherents: the reward of believing that we’ve got one over on the other guy. And the other guy’s pleasure in believing that he’s got one over on me does not affect my own. Hoping to persuade Everyman that rationalism is its own reward is flogging the self-same dead horse that Everyman is happily (and profitably) riding.

The reviewer, Bywater, does not get it. There are at least two broad categories of reasons to not appease or ignore culturally facilitated ignorance. (Which is what I call “counterknowledge”, at least for today.)

The first is that the airplane engineer actually does have to be rational. It is not OK for the airplane engineer to believe that we are being carried along in the jaws of some monkey. The airplane engineer might, at some point in time, be required to think in a rational manner. Sorry, Mr. Bywater, but the “external test” in this case is your ass going down in flames because the airplane engineer was not a rational person and made some sort of leap of faith while designing the airliner you are traveling in. Not OK. (Well, I don’t care if you go down, but I’m not going down, you hear??)

The second reason is that this sort of pandering to the ignorant is not being nice, not to them or to anyone, but rather, it is letting your guard down. The counterknowledgable, many of them anyway, are not simply people walking around who’ve got it wrong. They are often people walking around pretending that they’ve got it right, or perhaps acknowledging that they’ve got it wrong (in a rational perspective) but promising not to impose this counterknowedge on others. I’m thinking, for instance, of high school life science teachers who are creationists. Mr. Bywater wants nasty brutes like Mr. Thompson to be nice to them. I say kick their asses.

OK, let me tell you: Actually, Michael Bywater’s review is not so hopeless as I make it seem here. It is notable that he found Damian Thompson’s handling of the counterknowldegable a bit to rough and is not happy about that. I will assume that this is because Bywater is not experienced. He has not yet suffered at the hands of the counterknowledgable. He sees them as merely annoying, and does not want to see others treat the annoying with their own form of being annoying. As the young fogey Mr. Bywater ages, he will learn.

Comments

  1. #1 R N B
    January 27, 2008

    I appreciate the sentiment of Thompson, the synopsis makes it clear what he thinks of those views. And I can understand the need to come up with an “original” name for it – particularly as the title for a new book.

    But “counterknowledge” is perhaps not the best word to choose. Not just for allowing you to drop in the diner joke. Because it implies a sort of knowledge that is counter to common knowledge. That might imply a valid skeptical scientific view.

    But what he really means is bulls…

  2. #2 Peter McGrath
    January 27, 2008

    I like Counterknowledge, too. Damian Thompson, however writes the Holy Smoke blog for the UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph (a journal of a Conservative bent, although possibly not by US standards):

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/ukcorrespondents/holysmoke/

    He also edits a Catholic newspaper (I worked on one, in a previous life) and as a Roman Catholic, presumably believes in and propagates a fair amount of quackery and counterknowledgeable stuff himself.

    Holy Smoke is a good read, though.

  3. #3 John McKay
    January 27, 2008

    I find it stunning that he uses a pharmacologist as an example of harmlessness with the simple dismissal, “my drugs will work or not work.” Or they might poison people. And even if his drugs are harmlessly inert, how much damage is caused by his patients allowing their condition to worsen as they forgo better care because of their faith in his snake oil? How much financial harm is inflicted on the patient’s family while they buy you snake oil? The credulous are far more likely to be poor and unable to afford whimsical expenditures for non-functional medicine. When Bywater mentions “recent polemical anti-irrationalism” he implies that he is familiar with this literature, but if he was, he would know that bad medicine is a standard example of how unconventional beliefs can hurt so common that it borders on cliche.

  4. #4 Mike O'Risal
    January 28, 2008

    Sounds like one I’d like to read. Like RNB, thuogh, I’m not so sure about this term “counterknowledge.” It makes it sounds like there is something that counters knowledge itself. Bullshit’s a good term for it; I also adopted “disenlightenment” some time ago (e.g., the abandoning of reason in favor of superstition). I forget who coined the term.

    I don’t like the reviewers “rational nihilism” bit at all; nihilism isn’t any more rational than superstitiously assigning meaning to every coincidence. If anything, reason is a tool by which we are more likely to properly ascribe significance and so take charge of our own existence instead of abandoning the responsibility we have to ourselves to do so. “Rational nihilism” smacks of the whiny rhetorical question that anti-reason religious types like to ask: “If you don’t believe in Jehovah, how can life be meaningful to you?”

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    January 28, 2008

    I think what you’all are touching on, very wisely and clearly with more than a little experience thinking about this, is the fact that ignorance, bullshit, irrationality, etc. etc. is pretty complex. Interestingly, it may be more complex than truth by an order of magnitude.

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