“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.