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Counterknowledge Hardcover – September 17, 2008

2.9 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

According to Thompson, we are experiencing a pandemic of counterknowledge: misinformation packaged to look like fact, but that is demonstrably false. In rapid-fire prose, Thompson, editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald, examines several cases of counterknowledge, arguing that creationism, conspiracy theories regarding 9/11 and claims linking autism to childhood vaccines have been promoted as factual by respected journalists and publishers. In one example of the power and danger of pseudohistory, Thompson devotes a great deal of effort to take down already much-debunked notions of creationism and Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and the ridicule he heaps on Mormonism explains little about why it is such a rapidly growing religion. He is scandalized that Gavin Menzies's 1421 is heavily promoted by all of Britain's leading chains of bookshops, though Menzies's notion that the Chinese discovered America has been widely derided by historians. Seeing the source of the spread of counterknowledge in the decreasing role of institutions like church and family, and the rise of postmodernism, Thompson sheds much heat but little light on the age-old phenomenon of human gullibility and its exploitation. (Sept.)
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From Booklist

In the genre of skeptical literature, there are books like Richard Roeper’s recent Debunked! (2008), or the writings of James Randi: books that debunk pseudoscience, bogus history, charlatans, and the like. There are also books like Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things (1997), and this one, which explore why so many seemingly bright individuals buy into so much rank idiocy. Thompson tackles such notorious foolishness as 9/11 conspiracy theories, satanic ritual abuse, the bafflingly widespread belief that the Chinese discovered America, and other abundantly debunked nonsense, but he tackles it from the point of view of a sociologist. Why do people persist in believing outrageous things when the evidence of their invalidity is so easy to find? Why do people so readily fall for counterknowledge—defined as misinformation packaged to look as fact—when the actual facts are readily available? And why do people who should know better (in particular, book publishers) treat this garbage as though it didn’t stink to high heaven? An important, impassioned addition to the skeptical literature, and a book that makes a significant contribution to the art of critical thinking. --David Pitt

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (September 17, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393067696
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393067699
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,085,276 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By David M. Giltinan on January 22, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I wanted to like this book more than I did. But Damian Thompson was not a particularly appealing advocate for the forces of reason. His tone throughout is one of self-righteous superiority, with the result that after a couple of chapters, it's like being trapped at a dinner party with a know-it-all guest - you don't care how right he is - you just wish he'd shut up already.

Not that his targets aren't worthy. They fall into three main categories: pseudoscience, pseudohistory, and what might be thought of as examples of "popular delusions and the madness of crowds". Thompson gives particular scrutiny to:

# Creation "science" , "intelligent design" and the assorted shenanigans of evolution-bashers.
# The prevalence of untested, unproven "alternative therapies" (which he refers to as "Quack remedies"), from homeopathy to reflexology to aromatherapy.
# Assorted conspiracy theories (primarily related to 9/11)
# Examples of "pseudohistory": Jesus's lovechild survives, but the Catholic Church maintains a conspiracy of silence. The Phoenicians/Israelites/Celts/Greeks/Vikings/Chinese discovered America in (choose your pre-Columbus date). Aliens (or technologically super-savvy ancient civilizations) roamed the earth, building the pyramids and Mayan temples until perishing in the lost city of Atlantis!
# Marketing phenomena such as "The Secret", dubious dietary supplements, QLink bracelets with crystal-based 'healing powers'.

All of this makes Thompson righteously indignant. And I'm certainly not going to defend any of them here - indeed, all this bogus 'knowledge', shoddy scholarship, and fuzzy thinking does deserve our skepticism, at times our condemnation.
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Format: Hardcover
In Counterknowledge, Damian Thompson takes on Holocaust deniers, homeopathic medicine, alternate historians, and creationists and shows how they use books, the media, and the internet to disseminate disinformation. The author is from the UK, so most of the examples he gives come from Britain or the US. His book reveals that there are many people to be critical of, but he does seem to harp on some more than others: for example, he repeatedly chastises Dan Brown of Davinci Code fame for contributing to the proliferation of inaccurate revisionist history - Davinci Code is FICTION!

Thompson makes little more than a token effort at making suggestions to fight the proliferation of counterknowledge. He suggests exposing frauds through internet blogs, but this strikes me as preaching to the choir - a person reading a blog for skeptics is unlikely to believe the counterknowledge anyway.

Though portions of the book are interesting (particularly the section on alternative medicine), the writing style is very, very dry. As a result, the people who most need to hear what he has to say never will because they will never make it through this book. Although short, it is plodding.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a book about pseudoscience, pseudohistory, health quackery, fear mongering and false knowledge. Thompson cites instances of shallow inquiries, collateral and advantageous spread of low caliber information, unsubstantiated assertions and pseudoauthority. He writes about holocaust denial, pre-Columbian discovery of America by the Chinese, Da Vinci code, evolution vs. creation controversy, and ostensible MMR-autism link. He details the existence of proponents with academic sounding qualifications and even universities with dubious standards. He laments the general gullibility of the public. This is a well-referenced small fonted 162 page book. Alas, there is no index!

I tend to be not so harsh about the lacunae in this book. Of course, Thompson has not produced an encyclopedic work on anti- knowledge; there are gaps, indeed. For example his chapter on "Desperate Remedies" discusses alternative medicine, homeopathy, chiropractic and nutritional therapies in a negative vein. His stand is not only supportable but also not inaccurate in general. He leaves traditional allopathic medicine broadly unassailed. This position, however, is not entirely neutral in my opinion.

We, physicians who practice traditional, not alternative, medicine, were eager to use hormone therapy. We created diseases based on trivial or incidental imaging data or social inconveniences. The harms brought about by hormone therapy, by unnecessary surgeries based on incidental MRI findings or filthy profits gained by overtreatment without strong evidence are well-known by now.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"First you decide what you believe, then you find the evidence, brushing aside anything that doesn't fit," writes Thompson in explaining how irrational beliefs develop.

Logic is the ideal way to unmask the bunco artists of the modern world. So, how does a modern Don Quixote challenge the windmills of superstition, nonsense and lies of zealots, crackpots, frauds and government bureaucrats?

This book is a great answer. It is a marvelous collection of fads, fallacies, farces and frauds in the name of science, religion, medicine and every other modern topic. Thompson does a masterful job in exposing the myriad phantasies of the modern world; however, even the best of logic cannot overcome the delusions of true believers.

Folly is usually the result of stupidity or cupidity.

For example: Tobacco is harmful to one's health. The British health ministry knew this by 1956; but any warning was vetoed by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan "because the Treasury believed the revenue from cigarette taxation was too important to be put at risk." (This direct quote is from John Kay, the Financial Times, June 4, 2008)

Government officials took the attitude, "We lied to you for our own good. Now trust us." President George W. Bush used a similar rationale of "lying to Americans for our own good" to generate fear about Weapons of Mass Destruction and thus justify his war on Iraq.

Since governments lie, why should people trust official government statements? Likewise, why trust an expert doctor who diagnoses cancer? This legacy of distrust by official sources is why some people trust quacks and charlatans more than experts for simple answers to complex issues.
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