Monday, February 27, 2017


CounterknowledgeCounterknowledge: How We Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science, and Fake History by Damian Thompson, 139 pages

"Counterknowledge" is journalist Damian Thompson's term for the opposite of knowledge - not ignorance, not mistakes, but claims made in direct contradiction of the facts.  It is, he demonstrates, a booming industry.  Old standards have fallen as mainstream television programs have endorsed 9/11 conspiracy theories and The Secret, while books purporting to give the "real story" behind The Da Vinci Code have found their way into the history sections of bookstores and libraries, and major universities have dabbled in alternative medicine.  Most dramatically, of course, the Internet has proven to be a uniquely successful vector for counterknowledge, not only disseminating untruths more broadly, but allowing the cross-fertilization of ideas between groups that would not normally interact, such as Christian and Muslim creationists or white and black racists.

Thompson is not primarily interested in either cataloging or systematically debunking different forms of counterknowledge, rather, the book is an analysis of what makes counterknowledge so widespread in such an allegedly rational, skeptical age.  According to the author, a decline in standards, increased specialization, and a general failure of education all play important parts.  More significantly, the dual triumphs of postmodernism and identity politics have established a relativist ideology which refuses to judge between competing truth claims and which is particularly strong among the very elites who might otherwise act as responsible gatekeepers.  Meanwhile, consumerism promotes the attitude that objective truth matters less than how a "truth" makes the consumer feel while simultaneously encouraging a profits-first mentality among producers.  Most important, however, has been the dissolution of public trust - in a culture that habitually confuses consensus with conspiracy, fact and fantasy are indistinguishable.  Unfortunately, Thompson's preferred tactic against counterknowledge - merciless mockery - will not solve that problem.

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