- Hardcover: 176 pages
- Publisher: Atlantic Books; Main edition (January 1, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1843546752
- ISBN-13: 978-1843546757
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 20 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #7,259,111 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Counterknowledge: How we Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and Fake History Hardcover – January 1, 2008
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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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
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 --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
Top customer reviews
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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.
Actually, the desire for simple solutions goes back at least to the legend of Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot - - the ultimate simple but irrelevant solution to a complex problem. In today's world, Creationism is the simple answer vs. the complexities of the math and physics of Quarks and/or Superstring theories.
The practical person, more so in modern American than in Alexander's time, is admired. Instead of untying the long complex knowledge-knot of cancer, it's easier to trust the counterknowledge of a quack-with-a-pill than a doctor with a complicated diagnosis. Since government officials tell lies or deliberately bury the truth, it's hardly surprising that some suspect the World Trade Center attacks are an American government plot?
Some people want quick and easy answers. As Thompson clearly shows, there's always someone who "knows about a secret little shortcut". This book is a first-class debunking of today's popular bunk and bunco artists.
It's a marvelous roadmap of modern gullibility. It is concise, readable, straightforward and packed with logic. For that reason, it should be read by everyone; for that reason, sadly, only the intelligent will find it interesting. It's simply too logical, too rational, too good, to become a best seller.
As such, it's a pity. The book is excellent; being so, it will only appeal to readers who don't believe in fads, fallacies, cults and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night. It's truly an example of offering gems to the literate audience . . . Let's hope there's enough rational people left to make it a best seller.
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. But from a purely pragmatic point of view, Thompson would be more persuasive if he didn't wax quite so white-hot indignant about each and every example he cites. After all, not every example of 'counterknowledge' has equally serious consequences - some are considerably more damaging than others. Bogus science which denies the link between HIV and AIDS, or which makes unwarranted claims about a putative link between MMR vaccination and autism is clearly actively dangerous, as it can cause people to avoid therapies proven to be beneficial. Those who promulgate this kind of misinformation, in the service of their own political or profit-driven agenda, deserve to be challenged and possibly earn our moral censure. But no matter how much the success of Rhonda Byrne's "The Secret" or Gavin Menzies's "1421: The Year China Discovered America" might irritate Thompson (and clearly, it does!), it is hard to see these books as being quite as dangerous or reprehensible as,say, holocaust denial used to foment anti-Semitism or the South African government's distortion of information related to the cause of AIDS.
Thompson's uncalibrated indignation has the unfortunate side-effect of suggesting that every instance of 'counterknowledge' deserves equal condemnation, which ultimately hurts his argument, though not fatally. A far more serious flaw throughout the book is what I can only term a persistent anti-Islamic strain, which is hard to ignore, and seems particularly unfortunate given the author's position as editor-in-chief of The Catholic Herald .
For instance, Thompson claims that "Islamic Creationism is turning into a serious problem for British sixth-form colleges and universities", but fails to substantiate this claim with anything but the flimsiest of anecdotal evidence. He goes on to assert that the damage of Creation Science is limited within the United States because it is still "essentially located within the American cultic milieu", while "Islamic creationism" by contrast is a unified and increasingly influential component of a wider Islamic worldview". Which might be OK if he didn't then go on to establish that almost all of the anti-Darwinist propaganda promulgated in the name of Islam is the product of a single individual. In these sections Thompson appears clearly guilty of applying differential standards of evidence to support his claims.
In the end, the most useful part of this book was the "Further Reading" section that concludes it.
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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