Damian Thompson: Counterknowledge

<p><i><img width="240" vspace="10" hspace="10" height="240" align="left" src="/documents/UserContributed/image/31ixfVUMMgL__AA240_.jpg" alt="" />Philip Stone writes:</i><br />
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Waterstone's, Borders, HarperCollins, Penguin, the University of Bedfordshire, the University of Westminster, the <i>Daily Mail,</i> and the Prince of Wales, amongst others, should all be ashamed of themselves - according to the opinion of <i>Daily Telegraph</i> leader writer and editor-in-chief of the <i>Catholic Herald</i>, Damian Thompson, whose angry polemic against &quot;conspiracy theories, quack medicine, bogus science and fake history&quot; in Counterknowledge is out from Atlantic in February. In his opinion, all of the above are guilty, to varying degrees, of peddling bogus theory from the likes of Patrick Holford, &quot;Dr&quot; Gillian McKeith, Gavin Menzies, Rhonda Byrne and Graham Hancock to name but a few.<br />
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Thompson sets out in six concise chapters to highlight the dangers and possible consequences for society in its disturbing thirst for &ldquo;counterknowledge&rdquo; &ndash; which is basically an alternative word for &ldquo;mumbo-jumbo&rdquo; that earned Francis Wheen a bestseller in 2004. Although comparisons will inevitably be made between <i>Counterknowledge</i> and <i>How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World</i>, this is no bad thing.<br />
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Thompson&rsquo;s style is addictive. His abhorrence for the subjects he is scrutinising oozes from the page and one can easily imagine many pencils were snapped in rage during its production. His case studies of Patrick Holford&rsquo;s optimum nutrition empire (&ldquo;He certainly seems to believe his own bullshit. The problem is that so do countless thousands of other people&rdquo;) and complementary/alternative medicine (&ldquo;The barrier for becoming an 'expert' is set so low that the only real requirement is a talent for self promotion&rdquo;) are particular highlights, and he draws on a wide range of research in his analysis as over 200 footnote references can testify. This makes it a somewhat irritating read if you&rsquo;re not immediately adjacent to a web browser as at less than 150 pages long, one craves for some extrapolation of evidence in many cases. That aside, Thompson&rsquo;s case studies are darkly humorous and when he&rsquo;s on a roll he&rsquo;s undoubtedly at his best.<br />
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When he is not, however, Counterknowledge struggles under its own weight. The first 25 pages is for the most part given over to a fairly messy explanation of what does and does not constitute &ldquo;counterknowledge&rdquo;, which is defined as any idea/theory that fails &ldquo;basic empirical tests&rdquo; and can therefore be labelled &ldquo;factually incorrect&rdquo;. Religion, we are told, does not fit neatly under the &ldquo;counterknowledge&rdquo; umbrella because many of its claims are untestable. But &ldquo;Creationism&rdquo;, &ldquo;Intelligent Design&rdquo; and &ldquo;Bible Prophecy&rdquo; all fit underneath the umbrella because they all make claims that fail &quot;basic empirical tests&quot;. But Thompson points out later on that &ldquo;Intelligent Design&rdquo; is &ldquo;untestable&rdquo; as a science. Confused? I was.<br />
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I can easily believe that many &ldquo;middle-class hypochondriacs&rdquo; will take offence to being labelled &ldquo;deluded&rdquo; by someone who believes in the Holy Trinity. And I believe in it myself. There are many things that I don't understand within the pages of the Bible for example, but I put my faith in it nonetheless. Am I to assume that the editor-in-chief of the <i>Catholic Herald</i> is accusing the majority of society of being deluded in the counterknowledge that God does NOT exist? Or that such a question does not fit within a counterknowledge debate?<br />
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Belief and choice are two of the most important human characteristics, no matter how crazy we might think of the beliefs and choices of others are. It is all well and good to name and shame publishers for publishing pseudoscience and pseudohistory but what is the alternative? Should the decision rest with the publishing houses in a refusal to print contentious material, thereby infringing upon freedom of speech and expression as well as the freedom of the public's choice? Should the national press stop printing features on new-age fads? Or should they print what the public want &ndash; features on new age fads. Suppression is a dangerous thing and I for one wouldn't welcome it.<br />
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