‘Counterknowledge’: when fiction masquerades as fact

From 9/11 to homeopathy, ‘counterknowledge’ thrives thanks to a mad mixture of postmodern political correctness and capitalist greed.

Damian Thompson

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This review is republished from the January 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

For anyone who still believes in the methodology of the Enlightenment, sitting around the table at a twenty-first century dinner party can be intellectual torture.

Your fellow guests tuck hungrily into a menu of conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, junk history and (above all) quack medicine. Yet they will also have the nerve to insist that they reject the ‘medieval superstition’ of religion.

We are facing an epidemic of gullibility caused by what I describe in my new book as ‘counterknowledge’ – fiction masquerading as fact. The chief medium of dodgy empirical claims is, unsurprisingly, the internet, which enables people to construct do-it-yourself conspiracy theories and turn them into cyberspace cosmologies within the space of 24 hours.

There is no point pretending that we can (or should) police the internet. What we must do, however, is relentlessly attack trusted institutions that are allowing the pollution of the public domain by counterknowledge.

The real villains of my book are not the snake oil merchants themselves: they are the governments, universities, medical professionals, major publishing houses and newspapers that circulate patently false empirical claims. Let me give you some examples.

Constable Robinson publishes a book called 9/11 Revealed, by Ian Henshall and Rowland Morgan, that recycles every brain-dead ‘alternative explanation’ for the terrorist attacks, including the Pentagon being hit by a missile and the Twin Towers being demolished by pre-rigged explosives. I bought my copy in WH Smith at Paddington Station in London.

Six British universities offer degree courses in homeopathy, a form of 200-year-old quackery whose claims are so risible that the press was mocking them even in the early nineteenth century. The Prince of Wales regularly abuses his constitutional position to lobby on behalf of this witchcraft. Boots the Chemist sells shedloads of homeopathic ‘medicine’ every day.

Patrick Holford, Britain’s leading ‘nutritionist’, claims that Vitamin C is proving more effective than AZT against HIV in laboratory tests. He holds no degree higher than a 1970s BSc in psychology, but has been made a visiting professor at the University of Teesside.

British and American universities regularly teach ‘Afrocentric history’, built around a series of claims – for example, that the Greeks stole their philosophy from the Egyptians – which are designed to raise the self-esteem of black students. These claims are fantasies. But then all claims are fantasies, according to the dreary postmodernists who hold sway in the cultural studies faculties of these universities.

How have respected institutions allowed themselves to be drawn into pushing counterknowledge? The answer lies in a mixture of postmodern political correctness and capitalist greed – and the two mix very well together.

I am a capitalist and a conservative. But I also believe in a public domain in which facts must be demonstrated to be true. Many of my allies in this battle are Marxists who believe the same thing. The crucial conflicts of the future may not be between ideologies, but between fact and fantasy.

The enemy consists of ‘9/11 Truthers’, Afrocentric historians, homeopaths and ‘scientific creationists’. An ill-assorted bunch, certainly – but, unfortunately, their stuff sells.

Damian Thompson is a leader writer for the Daily Telegraph and editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald. His book Counterknowledge: How We Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and Fake History is published by Atlantic Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This review is republished from the January 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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