Sunday, 21 December 2008

Review of 'Counterknowledge' by Damian Thompson

Review of 'Counterknowledge' by Damian Thompson - Word version

Full text:

Book Review: Damian Thompson, Counterknowledge: How We Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and Fake History

London: Atlantic Books.

Hardcover: 1 Jan 2008, ISBN 978-1843546757;

Paperback: 1 Jul 2008, ISBN 978-1843546764.


Young-earth creationists in the US have built a museum containing mechanised tableaux showing dinosaurs and humans in Flintstone-style coexistence. ‘Alternative’ therapies of no more medical value than sugar pills are available on the British National Health Service, with homoeopathic hospitals well-established and degree courses available in one of the new universities. In US academia, some ‘Afro-centric’ historians play fast and loose with facts in their attempt to construct a distinctively ‘black’ history which, according to at least one proponent, is teachable only by black people. Meanwhile, postmodernist literary and cultural theorists take it upon themselves to develop ill-conceived philosophical doctrines about the nature of truth and reality - and even in some cases to offer criticisms of such specialised fields as quantum physics.

Damian Thompson criticises all these trends, with copious footnotes and some theoretical discussion. He alerts the reader to many other putative instances of "counterknowledge" - glossed: "misinformation packaged as fact" (p1) - and decries the "casual approach to the truth"(pp12, 44) that underlies and sustains them. This seems a worthwhile project, and in reviews it attracts descriptions such as ‘timely’ and ‘much-needed’. These epithets are somewhat hyperbolic: this is only the latest addition to a substantial body of debunking literature, which goes back at least to Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, first published in 1841.

To adapt a remark of Dr Johnson, while one expects to see it done, one is surprised that it is not done better. While many of Thompson’s points are correct as far as they go, the book’s defects are so numerous and glaring and themselves betray such a ‘casual approach to the truth’ that the reader could be forgiven for thinking that the word ‘Counterknowledge’ embossed across the front categorises its contents rather than defining its subject matter.