Wednesday, May 14, 2008


I have just finished reading Counterknowledge by Damian Thompson, a leading British Catholic journalist and author of the Holy Smoke blog at the Daily Telegraph. The muddling of fact with fiction and the sloppy confusion of science and philosophy bug me, so I enjoyed the book. He examines why and how ideas that would once have been the province of cultists and fringe eccentrics have become mainstream, and debunks various aspects of pseudohistory (the "marriage" of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, China's "discovery" of America, the origins of western civilisation in "black Egypt", conspiracy theories), and pseudoscience ("creation science", alternative medicine, nutritionism). His debunking of individual topics is sketchy as it is a short book and his aim is an overview of the whole "counterknowledge" phenomenon, but I have seen enough of pseudohistory up close to need very little convincing. As a medieval historian I have no doubt whatsoever that the "Holy Blood and Holy Grail" genre is utter tosh, and any "science" that fails to back its claims with solid evidence raises instant red flags for me.

Thompson ends by making the point that while we generally do ourselves little or no damage by believing counterknowledge, there are areas in it can be very dangerous - for example Islamic "creationism" is making scientific discovery and progress virtually impossible in the Muslim world, and "nutritionism" has encouraged AIDS denial and the refusal of the South African government to use antiretroviral drugs, for example.

If you want a thorough debunking of The Da Vinci Code, or a reasoned discussion of the arguments for theistic evolution (to give just two examples), this is not the place to look, but as an overview of the rise of subjective opinion at the expense of objective fact it is an interesting read.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

Wonderful. I know a few people who buy into all that stuff instantly. Is it out of boredom, I wonder?