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.