This caught my eye at the library yesterday, because it looked like a compact survey of kookery, and I wasn’t disappointed. Indeed, it’s probably the most blog-like book I’ve read in quite some time– bits of the chapters could easily be posted at Orac’s place, and nobody would think it odd. The endnotes are even full of URL’s, and there is the inevitable blog.

Thompson defines “counterknowledge” on the first page, after listing off a bunch of popular kook theories:

This is counterknowledge: misinformation packaged to look like fact– packaged so effectively, indeed, that the twenty-first century is facing a pandemic of credulous thinking. Ideas that, in their original, raw form, flourished only on the fringes of society are now being taken seriously by educated people in the West, and are circulating with bewildreing speed in the developing world.

We are lucky to live in an age in which the techniques available for evaluating the truth or falsehood of claims about science and history are more reliable than ever before. Yet, disturbingly, we are witnessing a huge surge in the popularity of propositions that fail basic empirical tests. The essence of counterknowledge is that it purports to be knowledge but is not knowledge. Its claims can be shown to be untrue, either because there are facts that contradict them or because there is no evidence to support them. It misrepresents reality (deliberately or otherwise) by presenting non-facts as facts.

Thompson goes on to give brief summaries of three classes of kookery: creationism, pseudohistory, and quackery, with multiple examples of each. He then closes with a few cases studies of counterknowledge in action, looking at how three specific counterknowledge products (The Secret, Patrick Holford, and Gavin Menzies’s 1421: The Year China Discovered the World) came to dominate their respective fields.

There’s really very little here that you won’t find in the work of other dedicated kook-fighters– Orac, Randi, Shermer, and so on. Thompson pulls a wider than usual range of things together, though, and presents them in a brisk and compact style. The entire book (not including endnotes and recommended reading) is barely 140 pages. If you’re looking for a compact and readable survey of the field, this is a good option; if you’re looking for in-depth exploration of one of the areas he talks about, check the handy list of recommended titles in the back.

Really, the most interesting things about this book are that the author is 1) British and 2) what passes for a right-winger on that side of the Atlantic. The topics discussed thus have a somewhat different slant than I’m used to seeing in American sources– he complains bitterly about the relative lack of attention to Islamic variants of creationism, and devotes significant space to criticizing various forms of “political correctness” and associated kookery (“Afrocentric” history and the Sokal hoax are prominently featured). Also, I’ve never heard of some of the specific people he calls out, presumably because they’re much more prominent in the UK than here.

Kookery and counterknowledge have come to be so strongly associated with the nuttier parts of the American right that it’s refreshing to see a little attention directed the other way. This might work well paired with The Republican War on Science, if you wanted to teach a class on the various ways the public is led to believe untrue things.

I can’t say I’m going to run out and buy this, but it was an enjoyable read. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, check it out.

Comments

  1. #1 cisko
    December 2, 2008

    This is counterknowledge: misinformation packaged to look like fact– packaged so effectively, indeed, that the twenty-first century is facing a pandemic of credulous thinking.

    Is this a throwaway line, or a strongly developed claim? I’d be a bit skeptical that counterknowledge is more prevalent now than at various points in history. I don’t have any real preconceptions here, more of an inherent skepticism of claims that we’re uniquely challenged.

    I’m mildly interested in the taxonomic work of describing the various types of conspiracy theories and nuttery that abound. But I’d be more interested in a look at the various vectors that transmit it, and a look at how it’s changed over time. If Thompson goes to some effort to back up claims like the above, that would make the book much more interesting to me.

  2. #2 Eric Lund
    December 2, 2008

    Cisko, have you not noticed the phenomenon of propaganda? It’s not just the Iraqi Information Minister claiming that the Americans were nowhere near Baghdad [pay no attention to the American tank rolling by in the background]. Advertising is as slick as it has ever been, political types (mainly on the right in this country) routinely proclaim that up is down and black is white, and there are many quasi-scientific organizations dedicated to sowing doubt (without actual evidence) about the scientific facts underlying such varied ideas as evolution, anthropogenic climate change, and the fact that autism does not result from heavy metal poisoning. Yes, counterknowledge has always been around, but there wasn’t as much of it for the simple reason that there wasn’t as much knowledge.

  3. #3 Michael I
    December 2, 2008

    Three specific counterknowledge products?

    What’s the third one?

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    December 2, 2008

    Is this a throwaway line, or a strongly developed claim? I’d be a bit skeptical that counterknowledge is more prevalent now than at various points in history. I don’t have any real preconceptions here, more of an inherent skepticism of claims that we’re uniquely challenged.

    There’s not a great deal of documentation to back this up. There’s some counting of books and websites, and anecdotal remarks about the contents of bookstore shelves, but not much solid evidence of an increasing problem.

    Three specific counterknowledge products?

    What’s the third one?

    I listed three: The book The Secret, the various activities of British nutrition crank Patrick Holford, and the book 1421.

  5. #5 Olorin
    December 2, 2008

    Two other books to consider along with this one.

    Robert Parks was Washington liaison from the American Physical Society when he wrote “Voodoo Science.” As such, he was personally involved in a number of the incidents he reports, such as cold fusion and Joe Newman’s perpetual-motion motor. The book is short, entertaining, and insightful as to the motives of the people involved. (Surprisingly, creationism is not mentioned at all.)

    The title of “Doubt Is Their Product” was taken from a tobacco company memo proposing strategies to minimize the impact of studies linking smoking to cancer. The author, David Michaels, was an scientist at FDA, and documents his cases well. The theme concerns efforts by chemical, drug, and other industries to obfuscate and minimize the impact of science negative to their products.

  6. #6 Michael I
    December 2, 2008

    Chad@4

    Got it now.

    Somehow I was interpreting Patrick Holford as being the author of “The Secret”.

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