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Damian Thompson, Counterknowledge: How We Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and Fake History (London: Atlantic Books) Hardcover: 1 Jan 2008, ISBN 978-1843546757; Paperback: 1 Jul 2008, ISBN 978-1843546764.

Reviewed by Tim Wilkinson


Young-earth creationists in the US have built a museum containing mechanised tableaux showing dinosaurs and humans in Flintstone-style coexistence. ‘Alternative’ therapies of no more medical value than sugar pills are available on the British National Health Service, with homœopathic hospitals well-established and degree courses available in one of the new universities. In US academia, some ‘Afro-centric’ historians play fast and loose with facts in their attempt to construct a distinctively ‘black’ history which, according to at least one proponent, is teachable only by black people. Meanwhile, postmodernist literary and cultural theorists take it upon themselves to develop ill-conceived philosophical doctrines about the nature of truth and reality - and even in some cases to offer criticisms of such specialised fields as quantum physics.

Damian Thompson criticises all these trends, with copious footnotes and some theoretical discussion. He alerts the reader to many other putative instances of “counterknowledge” - glossed: “misinformation packaged as fact” (p1) - and decries the “casual approach to the truth”(pp12, 44) that underlies and sustains them. This seems a worthwhile project, and in reviews it attracts descriptions such as ‘timely’ and ‘much-needed’. These epithets are somewhat hyperbolic: this is only the latest addition to a substantial body of debunking literature, which goes back at least to Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, first published in 1841.

To adapt a remark of Dr Johnson, while one expects to see it done, one is surprised that it is not done better. While many of Thompson’s points are correct as far as they go, the book’s defects are so numerous and glaring and themselves betray such a ‘casual approach to the truth’ that the reader could be forgiven for thinking that the word ‘Counterknowledge’ embossed across the front categorises its contents rather than defining its subject matter.

One cannot avoid the suspicion that Thompson chose his title first and only then attempted to construct an entity corresponding to the catchy ‘counterknowledge’ label. Many of the book’s failings can be traced back to the assumption of a simplistic, polarised view of the intellectual landscape. Insiders, those engaged in a scarcely-examined ‘enlightenment project’, have knowledge: a steady accretion of certainties, irrevocably established by academic consensus. Outside lies knowledge’s evil twin, counterknowledge: not only untrue, but to Thompson, obviously so. The interesting - but potentially controversial - middle ground is simply ignored.

In delimiting the contours of his invented category, Thompson sides with orthodoxy and with the powerful, granting a latitude to supposed political and technical authorities which he denies to those on the intellectual or social fringes. Such facile deference betrays the enlightenment ideals he professes. Knowingly or not, he also includes among the enemies of reason a number of views which don’t belong there. These views are caricatured or exaggerated, either by Thompson himself or by others whose reports he casually adopts. Section II covers some of Thompson’s unjustified exemptions for the powerful, and his unwarranted smears of disfavoured views.

The book is not aimed at changing minds: few of its significant targets will come as news to its self-selecting audience. There is nothing wrong with that in itself, but Thompson affects a gravitas which leads one to expect something a little more edifying than the opportunity to bay and jeer, as an assortment of intellectual freaks and outcasts is paraded by. Still, Thompson does his best to foster a certain siege mentality. His readers may be assured of the triumph of reason and the rightness of their opinions, but, crucially, they are offered a frisson of danger and flattered with the role of tough-minded hero standing, with Thompson, against the forces of chaos.

In the first three pages, Thompson’s vocabulary sets the tone: “pandemic” (p1); “disturbingly”, “alarming” (p2); “threatened”, “vulnerable”, “[not] immune”, “converts”, and more subtly, “outlandish”(p3). According to the synopsis on the inside cover, Thompson demonstrates that “unless the defenders of enlightenment values fight back soon, the counterknowledge industry has the potential to create new political, social and economic disasters”. On the back cover, reviewer Nick Cohen joins the fray, projecting his own preoccupations onto Thompson’s sketchily apocalyptic canvas: “Thompson shows how apparently harmless pseudo-science breeds nationalism, race hatred and disease”. Section III looks in more detail at the way Thompson justifies the idea of counterknowledge as a coherent threat to the ‘enlightenment project’.

Finally and perhaps most perniciously, Thompson swaddles his banalities, biases and non-sequiturs in an impenetrable tangle of junk philosophy and sociological verbiage. Even those astute enough to detect that something is wrong in Thompson’s approach may well be baffled, browbeaten or bored into conceding that Thompson has a point - whatever exactly it is. Section IV summarises some of the philosophical and other solecisms Thompson perpetrates in his eagerness to dress his polemic in theoretical clothing.   

II. Bias

The book’s authoritarian streak is manifested largely in ignoring or downplaying some of the most powerful - and most daunting - examples of manifest falsehood. This aspect of the book is thrown into relief when Thompson criticises Francis Wheen's wittier and less pretentious bunkum-buster How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World.

According to Thompson, Wheen’s book “comes perilously close to being a list of things he doesn't like.” (p157) In fact Wheen provides cogent arguments (for those who need them) in support of his fairly uncontroversial criticism of some aspects of Reaganomics, and of the mongering of wars and scares by the United States government. But for Thompson, these topics - which he broadens to “free-market economics” and “US foreign policy” (p157) - are too hot to handle. Though he wears the mantle of a fearless guardian of truth, in fact Thompson picks only on the weakest targets - those that are either genuinely indefensible or simply unpopular and marginalised.


II.1 Politicians


Perhaps the most startling example of Thompson's unwillingness to rock the boat is a passage in which he seems to exclude political lies and propaganda from the category of counterknowledge:

[Counterknowledge's] intellectual sloppiness is more scandalous than the lies and half-truths that politicians tell the public... We elect politicians to improve our lot, not to educate us. If we catch them lying about something important, then the punishment is often merciless; but as a general rule we do not take their representations at face value. (pp126-7)

So while we need to be kept alert to the dangers of quack remedies and the blathering of certain academics, in our elected representatives we must expect and accept habitual dishonesty. Contrary to Thompson's airy dismissal of this abuse of authority, however, many people do routinely accept politicians’ statements and official announcements.

Thompson confidently claims that important lies by politicians are 'punished mercilessly'. Does he think that being temporarily relegated to the back benches is a merciless punishment? What about those politicians whose unsupported protestations of ignorance, confusion or 'misspeaking' are unquestioningly accepted? It doesn't really matter, because according to Thompson, it is not politicians’ job to educate us, so their lies aren’t scandalous enough, or of the right type, to count as counterknowledge. One need only consider the Butler inquiry into pre-Iraq-war intelligence to see that Thompson’s approach cannot stand.

That inquiry was necessitated by, among other things, the publication of the second Iraq dossier, which was produced by government and largely controlled by a politician, Tony Blair, via his employee Alistair Campbell. It is hard to imagine a better example of ‘misinformation packaged as fact’ or of a ‘casual disregard for the truth’ than that fantastical document. It is impossible to reconcile the known facts of this episode with Thompson’s blithe assurance that politicians don’t lie about important things - or are not believed if they do.

And it is not politicians alone who are involved in peddling official counterknowledge: the inquiry’s findings added a second layer of distortion. According to the Daily Telegraph[1], an insider reported that Blair had Butler alter the report before publication - removing the central finding that the Prime Minister had personally supervised the misleading impression left by the dossier.

Furthermore, these events confirm (if we needed confirmation) that Thompson is wrong to claim that important lies by politicians are punished mercilessly. According to the Telegraph source, Butler prepared an evasive response to expected (but in the event unforthcoming!) press questioning as to whether Blair should resign. The need for evasion shows that Butler found - rightly - that Blair’s position was untenable. The source described Butler's approach, mirroring Thompson’s claim that politicians are not elected to ‘educate’ us: “it was not his job to bring the government down”[2].

Only in the most literal sense was that true. The inquiry’s terms of reference did not require Butler to recommend resignations. But any such inquiry must surely explicitly identify persons who have behaved culpably (e.g. ordering the fabrication of intelligence) and whose position is therefore untenable. If the facts were such that reporting them would bring the government down, then so be it. If bringing about some outcome isn't part of one’s job that doesn't mean that anything - like reporting the facts - that would lead to that outcome is also not part of one’s job. It is not a policeman’s job to ruin anyone’s reputation, nor a chef’s job to make anyone fat, even though they are required to do things which are likely to have just those effects.

Butler seemed to acknowledge this implicit part of his remit when he recommended that the pliant John Scarlet, nominal producer of the dossier, should stay in post. Having taken on the task of addressing issues of culpability he should have done so impartially and completely. In the same way, by providing an unsolicited dossier representing facts about current events - which is to say contemporary history - the government purported to educate the public, and having taken on that task, also took on the duty of performing it properly.

If a politician or an official disseminates misinformation, he is at least as guilty of peddling counterknowledge as any of Thompson's targets. To get history wrong is one thing: to routinely distort the official documentary sources on which the public - and future historians - rely is positively Orwellian. But we should go further than this: government and politicians in general do have a positive duty to ‘educate us’, or - to resist Thompson’s tactic of weakening the case by overstating it - to keep us informed. How else are we supposed to make decisions at the ballot box?


II.2 Big Pharma


Another area which Thompson skirts around - the pharmaceutical industry - is surely guilty of disseminating counterknowledge. Big Pharma displays all the characteristics of the more obvious charlatans to whom Thompson is content to restrict his attention. Drug trials are designed and conducted by or on behalf of the drug companies themselves, who stand to make huge profits from selling newly patented drugs. This conflict of interest leads, predictably, to biased and downright fraudulent studies. Test results that show drugs to be harmful or ineffective are routinely suppressed, while researchers are paid to submit favourable articles - often ghost-written by the drug company - to professional journals. For these reasons, the methods by which the safety and efficacy of new drugs are often tested can without exaggeration be described as pseudo-science - counterknowledge on an industrial scale[3].

But Thompson’s  comments on the matter are restricted to noting that

Pharmaceutical companies invest millions of pounds in drugs that have only marginal effect on our health; according to GlaxoSmithKline, 90 per cent of drugs work in only 30 to 50 per cent of patients. (p75)

This rare unguarded admission by the company - directed at promoting the advantages of genetic research - was widely regarded at the time as a gaffe, and was even compared to Gerald Ratner’s description of his jewellery as ‘total crap[4]. Thompson mentions it only to provide a benchmark to contrast with the fantastical claims he attributes to purveyors of quack ‘alternative’ medicines - though such claims tend on the contrary to be rather vague and evasive. Thompson does not comment on the fact that 30 per cent, the low end of the quoted range of success rates, is - according to his own figure (p74) - no better a than that of a placebo. It apparently does not occur to him that the inefficacy of some licensed drugs may well result from an unscrupulous determination on the part of drug firms to turn a profit on the ‘millions of pounds’ invested. If 30 per cent is good enough for them, it’s good enough for Thompson. After all, Big Pharma is respectable. It does not fit the stereotype of the shady peddlers of counterknowledge.


II.3 Major Religions


If anything is, in Thompson’s terms, counterknowledge, then surely some beliefs about the supernatural are. One might think it odd, then, that for all his talk of a ‘cultic milieu’ Thompson does not touch on any such beliefs as they are manifested in cults and fringe religious sects. An explanation for this is readily available. Thompson is editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald, and having adopted an uncompromisingly empiricist ‘Enlightenment’ approach to knowledge, he must tread very carefully in dealing with beliefs and claims concerning the supernatural. To attack fringe religions and superstitions might lead him into territory where he is forced to cast into doubt his own religious views.

Thompson does at least acknowledge that there is a need to address the question of religious belief and its relation to counterknowledge. He has this to say:

One of the greatest legacies of the European Enlightenment is a scientific methodology…based on the assumption that all we need in order to comprehend nature is a solid understanding of the laws and processes that we can observe and test in the natural world. The supernatural…does not provide us with any explanations that can be tested empirically. (p2)

Thompson hopes that the final sentence will allow his favoured religious beliefs to escape the stigma of being labelled ‘counterknowledge’. “Many religious doctrines,” he claims, “by their nature, cannot be tested by the evidence of our senses and therefore do not fit neatly into the category of counterknowledge”(p2).

Thompson’s language here is ambiguous. For example, the expression ‘cannot be tested by the evidence of our senses’ might be taken to mean (1) ‘could not be tested by the evidence of the human senses’, or alternatively as (2)‘cannot as a matter of fact be tested by the evidence of anyone’s senses’. The ambiguity masks an important distinction between two ways in which a claim can be empirically untestable (for convenience, I will just say ‘untestable’.)

On interpretation (1), Thompson is referring to assertions that are untestable in principle - ‘by their nature’, as Thompson puts it: for example, the thesis that the universe was created by some non-interventionist entity. However such an essentially untestable view is arrived at, it cannot contradict natural science.

On interpretation (2) the claims in question are only untestable as a matter of fact: we just happen not to have a means of testing them empirically. In principle, they could be tested by sensory observation, and new documentary or physical evidence could conceivably be discovered which could count  for or against them (as the Turin Shroud has been presented as evidence suggesting the truth of the resurrection). This second category of testable-in-principle claims which are only accidentally untestable includes the thesis that the Chinese circumnavigated the globe before Magellan (a claim Thompson targets) and the central Christian doctrine that Christ rose from the dead (which for obvious reasons he does not).

Thompson’s argument that assertions about the supernatural are exempt from being branded counterknowledge applies only to essentially untestable claims[5]. If we drop the cumbersomely explicit empiricist terminology, we can say straightforwardly that these are claims which are not about ‘nature’, as Thompson puts it, or as we can just as accurately put it, not about events in the (physico-energetic) world - for all actual events in this world are part of nature, and so according to Thompson’s version of the Enlightenment approach, could in principle be tested empirically.

Thompson, however, accepts that “All major religions make claims about the material world, either now or in the past”, which, he coyly adds, “non-members believe are patently false” (p22). The reason they believe them patently false is generally because they have a supernatural element. So when he limits the scope of his Enlightenment reliance on observable processes and testable laws to the comprehension of ‘nature’, he can’t claim that all supernatural claims are automatically exempt from being called counterknowledge. Some supernatural claims have both a supernatural (unworldly, essentially untestable) and a natural (worldly, testable-in-principle) element. Thompson’s insistence that ‘The supernatural…does not provide us with any explanations that can be tested empirically’ is accurate, but it does not provide the escape route he seeks. The fact that supernatural explanations are essentially untestable is worse than useless to him if they are supposed to explain natural, worldly facts.

To return to specifics: the resurrection cannot, if any well-defined (partly) natural event cannot, be understood by appeal to laws of nature. Once this is accepted, it is too late to introduce essentially untestable claims about the supernatural to explain and justify the belief. To do so is, according to Thompson’s methodology, to provide no admissible explanation at all. What could be a better example of counterknowledge as Thompson conceives it?

Thompson seems aware, however dimly, that there is a problem here, and takes refuge in an appeal to intuition:  

Common sense tells us that there is a practical difference between declaring one's belief in isolated supernatural events such as the resurrection, which is what ordinary churchgoers do, and making falsifiable statements about the world around us, which is what faith healers do. (p22)

Thompson seems to have abandoned his uncompromisingly theoretical approach here, and appeals to a ‘practical’ difference of the kind he seems unwilling to accept in other cases, such as the Chinese circumnavigation thesis.

But even if the reader accepts this attempt to fudge the issue, the matter is unresolved: for the Catholic Church continues to certify certain events as miracles - a clear example of contemporary claims of supernatural intervention in the natural world. Miracles are conceived as embodied in observable events, which is what enables them to be certified. While their certification depends on ruling out any explanation in terms of normal natural processes - requiring ‘a solid understanding of the laws and processes that we can observe and test in the natural world’, miracles cannot be ‘comprehended’ solely on that basis, since they are conceived as acts of God, rather than any other kind of anomaly. Even if an event is shown to be scientifically inexplicable, the conclusion that it is a case of divine intervention requires further premises which could only be derived from metaphysics, theology, revelation or some other non-scientific source. In any case, the occurrence of miracles is far from being accepted by prevailing scientific orthodoxy, on which Thompson relies in so many other cases.

It is also worth mentioning the doctrine of transubstantiation. In this unique case, the equivalence between supernaturalness and essential untestability breaks down: the occurrence of transubstantiation is explained as both essentially untestable, and at the same time as concerned with natural substances: bread and wine becoming flesh and blood, daily and worldwide. This most un-empirical result arises from the doctrine that blood and flesh then exhibit all the empirical qualities of wine and bread - that is, while the bread and wine do quite literally become flesh and blood, this change is essentially indetectable by any empirical means.

To emphasise Thompson’s position, let us consider the position of hostile critics of the transubstantiation doctrine, who might characterise it as a false (not necessarily dishonest) claim to spiritual healing which induces millions of people to attend - and contribute money - on the basis of claims about natural substances which are explicable only in terms of a process untestable by empirical means. Given Thompson’s commitment to observable processes and testable laws, it would appear that he has no resources with which to refute this characterisation.

Thompson could avoid conflict between beliefs about the supernatural on the one hand, and on the other his empiricist principles. But he could do so only on the assumption that the supernatural lies entirely outside the temporal, causal order. That does not seem to be what ‘ordinary churchgoers’ do, and as one of them, Thompson has some soul-searching to do.


II.4 Conspiracy theories


Thompson’s authoritarian exclusion of officialdom from the realm of counterknowledge is brought into sharp focus when we consider conspiracy theories. Unlike the previous examples in this section, in which legitimate targets are ignored or excused, this is one in which an undeserving but easy target has been wrongly included in the counterknowledge category.

 Conspiracy theories are possibly the easiest target of all. A blanket condemnation of this category of belief is implied by, and implies, Thompson’s faith in government, but it also shows Thompson’s readiness for indiscriminate attacks on unorthodox positions. The section on conspiracy theories begins:

Some bogus material is easily spotted: its theories are clearly outlandish and the individuals who champion them are dishonest or gullible. (p3)

Nevertheless, the following five and a half pages are dedicated to attacking 9/11 ‘truthers’, on the grounds that we are more “vulnerable” to conspiracy theories than at any time for decades (p3). Why this should be so is not made clear. One explanation - which Thompson would no doubt reject - is that there is currently more reason (which is not to say sufficient reason) to believe in concerted treachery in high places than there has been since the spate of political assassinations that occurred in 1960s America.

Indeed, so conscious is Thompson that there is something a little different about this particular breed of counterknowledge that conspiracy theories are the only type of belief against which the reader is explicitly warned. The warning is illustrated by an anecdote told with comical earnestness. Reading Thompson’s cautionary tale, one would think that conspiracy theories were as deadly and as contagious as pneumonic plague.

Thompson begins in a paranoid style, suggesting that his opponent misrepresents conviction as ‘doubt’ and follows a rhetorical strategy.

I was at a dinner party recently where a Liberal Democrat-voting schoolteacher voiced his ‘doubts’ about 9/11. First he grabbed our attention with a plausible-sounding observation. (p3)

It is not clear whether Thompson was wired for sound or has a photographic memory, but he is able to supply a verbatim transcript:

‘Look at the way the towers collapsed vertically, rather than toppling over. Jet fuel wouldn’t melt steel. Only controlled explosions could do that.’ The other guests, not being professional structural engineers (for whom there is nothing mysterious about the collapse of the towers) pricked up their ears…(p3)

The argument presented here is not compelling - but Thompson’s attempt at a quick refutation is at least as clumsy. Members of the organisation Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth[6] certainly found the collapses mysterious. The only official report then produced on the collapse of the third tower states that

…the best hypothesis has only a low probability of occurrence. Further research, investigation, and analyses are needed to resolve this issue…Suggested mechanisms for a progressive collapse should be studied and confirmed. How the collapse of an unknown number of gravity columns brought down the whole building must be explained.[7] (emphasis mine)

If Thompson had bothered to check his assertion, he could not have missed these facts. Thompson continues, with exaggerated dismay:

For an awful moment, it looked as if the teacher had won some converts. But then fortunately, one or two guests thought more carefully what they were being asked to believe. If there was a controlled explosion, then the American authorities helped murder thousands of US citizens. Why? The people at the dinner party disliked George Bush, but they didn’t think he was a James Bond villain. (p4)

That's right - no fluffy white cat, no obvious scars or deformities. Thompson has changed the subject from the relatively tractable matter of engineering and physics to the matter of George Bush’s character. No chain of reasoning that leads from the presence of explosives to Bush’s personal involvement is elaborated. This is a mere place-holder for an argument, because no argument is needed. We all know what happened on that day - we have official reports, political speeches - they even made a movie about it!

In fact not only is no argument needed, but none is wanted. To argue against something involves taking it seriously to some degree. Instead, attention is switched to the person propounding the view in question: holders of a whole range of more or less plausible views are stigmatised as ‘conspiracy theorists’. The meaning of this once perfectly good descriptive phrase has been so eroded by selective application, and so contaminated by innuendo and opprobrium that it has become little more than a term of abuse. On the basis of one or two - not necessarily dearly-held - beliefs, a 'conspiracy theorist' attracts a label suggestive of  the consuming obsession, the all-encompassing doctrine, the distorting lens trained on the world at large.

Once the label has been applied, it's open season. ‘Conspiracy theorists’ are paranoid loners (or attention seekers), driven by a need for comfort (or for excitement) and for simplicity (or complexity). Perhaps they have a 'problem with authority' or a need to find meaning in things. They are, if not actually psychotic, then neurotic; if not neurotic, then psychologically flawed.

To be fair, Thompson admits, after repeating one of these cod-psychological arguments, that it is difficult to provide evidence for them, and hard to measure the concepts involved (p118). He restricts himself to accusing conspiracy theorists of being observably gullible (p3), fantasists (p4) and airheads (p5), slyly adding that “while most 9/11 conspiracy theorists are not anti-Semites, there is an overlap between the two constituencies”(p). Of course the same can be said for butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.

However, on his spin-off website (advertised twice on the dust-cover and again in the acknowledgements) he approvingly quotes this comment about his book:

the conspiracy minded are people in need of reassurance. They can’t handle the random, the chaos of life, the disasters that can come out of a clear blue sky. It is more comforting to believe that George Bush destroyed the Twin Towers than Osama bin Laden. It’s more comforting because we can vote Bush out, and put him in jail. At the heart of conspiracism is a message of subliminal succour: don’t worry, your government is in control. Go to sleep. Sssshhh[8]

This is a particularly inept attempt to coerce readers with heavily loaded psychobabble. But it illustrates the kind of abuse that is levelled at people who express views about domestic covert operations. In this climate only the impassioned, the naive, the highly unconventional and possibly the downright stupid are likely to speak up - all likely to make easy targets for allegations of some psychological flaw. A psychological explanation for a belief - however unfounded  - depersonalises the believer, denying them the courtesies normally extended to those with whom we disagree. When the conspiracy theorist's mouth opens, out come not sentences but symptoms.

'Sometimes,' Freud is supposed to have said, 'a cigar is just a cigar'. And sometimes a conspiracy theory is just a theory about a conspiracy. Human history is crammed with murderous conspiracies by those attracted to, or corrupted by, power. Some conspiracies have been discovered before execution, some planned in secret but carried out openly, others discovered only after some time. It is hard - even irrational - to resist the conclusion that some conspiracies might so far have been successfully kept secret - especially with the likes of Thompson performing such a valuable service in closing down debate.


II.5 Muslims, Holocaust denial and ‘political correctness’


Another example of Thompson's casual approach is his reporting of a story in the populist Daily Mail headlined: “Teachers drop the Holocaust to avoid offending Muslims.” This is a claim which many will readily accept at face value. It appears that Thompson is one of them.

I do not claim that Thompson is wrong to object to pupils' prejudices being allowed to dictate the curriculum, only that his approach to the story manifests a lack of critical thinking and basic research. It seems that this titbit fits Thompson's tastes so perfectly that he sees no need to check its ingredients. The fact that this is an anecdote selected by one of the more sensationalist British newspapers does not discourage Thompson from repeating it. Indeed, the newspaper story is the only source cited: Thompson seems unconcerned with the distinction between primary and secondary sources, or with the need to examine context. After all, there's a lot of this sort of thing about. You only need to read the Mail to know that.

In fact the Mail report is seriously misleading in a way which might be dismissed as inconsequential but which Thompson ought to have spotted and corrected. As well as subtly misrepresenting this unique event as a wider trend and accepting the Mail headline by interpreting the anecdote as about ”the left…insisting on the rights of ethnic, sexual and religious minorities to believe falsehoods that make them feel better about themselves” (p19), he repeats the claim that the Holocaust was ‘dropped’ from history lessons. In fact, according to the report, it was an optional coursework topic which was simply not chosen. Such apparently insignificant distortions and exaggerations, applied consistently in one direction, add up to a seriously distorted overall picture. Perhaps this kind of  bias is too subtle for Thompson, who prefers to pillory opinions which are already - in many cases correctly - considered barmy.

This distortion seems to have arisen in part through the ‘Chinese whispers’ effect which any researcher knows is the likely consequence of  relying on secondary - or tertiary - sources. The report states:

a history department in a northern city recently avoided selecting the Holocaust as a topic for GCSE coursework for fear of confronting anti-Semitic sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils.[9]

By the time the Mail reports it, this has become:

some teachers are dropping courses covering the Holocaust at the earliest opportunity over fears Muslim pupils might express anti-Semitic and anti-Israel reactions in class[10]

And Thompson completes the process with his own gloss, which suggests that a standard history curriculum is being altered, as well as that the ‘Holocaust-denial’ views are actual and not only ‘feared’:

Some British schoolteachers are dropping the Nazi Holocaust from lessons rather than confront the Holocaust-denial views of Muslim pupils, (p19)

The report, entitled 'Teaching Emotive and Controversial History', is bound to select problematic cases. The Mail is likely to select those concerning Muslims - especially those which can be assimilated to the increasingly vague category 'political correctness'. Thompson should therefore have been alert to the problem of selection bias - after all, whatever problem you want to portray can probably be located in some school somewhere, if you look hard enough.

An example of the kind of story which will never find its way into the Mail can be found in the very same report from which the Muslim story was lifted: a predominantly white working-class school which is teaching a course on the so-called War on Terror. The teachers and indeed the researchers appear to have accepted this misleading propaganda term uncritically.

When interviewed, the head of department said that ‘7/7 happened and I can’t not do this. I feel I have a responsibility’...There is a clear sense that the topic is relevant, and particularly as the school serves a predominantly white intake that the students need to understand the multicultural world in which they live...according to the head of department, ‘history is about now and the future and the scariness that we are part of a chain of events.’[11]

This teacher-on-a-mission seems to have an eccentric view of the topic of history. Moreover, helping students to understand the multicultural world may be a legitimate aim for a history teacher, but it seems unlikely that a study of the 'War on Terror' is the best vehicle for achieving such an objective.

In addition, the focus on the events of '7/7' is asking for trouble. There are no reliable sources of information about the events of that day. There has been no public inquiry. The police inquiry has resulted in no publicised information. The only official account - described as a 'narrative' - was a highly speculative affair which contained inconsistencies. Newspaper stories are riddled with supposition and tend uncritically to reproduce official statements of dubious provenance. The topic would challenge the most seasoned investigative reporter. So how did the teachers get on?

the problem of resources was largely solved by devising materials drawn from the Internet and media current affairs coverage....The teachers writing the coursework materials had to commit themselves to extensive research in an area where they lacked subject knowledge with no subject specific in-service training or time given.[12]

The story Thompson chose to run was one in which teachers suspected that a certain optional topic would be unsuitable for their pupils - admittedly because they anticipated very regrettable, even shocking, opinions among some pupils. Perhaps they should have selected the topic to challenge their pupils’ imputed views: perhaps that was not their job.

On the other hand the tale of the crusading teacher seems to be one in which false certainties will inevitably be involved, and in which inadequate resources are being used in the attempt to teach a historical topic of which not even the first draft has been written. Leaving aside the evocative appeal of the ‘Holocaust denial’ trope, there can be little doubt which of these two is better categorised as counterknowledge.

III. Exaggerating the threat

In his apparent wish to avoid the most difficult targets, Thompson has adopted a highly restricted understanding of knowledge. In a parody of the enlightenment notion of progress, he seems to suggest that knowledge consists of an accumulation of permanently academically-certified facts and theories.  Counterknowledge then can be defined as any - and only - false statements which masquerade as, or could be confused with, ‘knowledge’ in that sense. As a result, ordinary lies and falsifications - and distortions of living, contemporary history as opposed to the comfortably distant and academically ossified variety - are disregarded. On the other hand, anything which contradicts the - real or imagined - orthodoxy of the academy must be strenuously repelled. If counterknowledge really is just misinformation packaged as fact, this approach is quite arbitrary.

Perhaps counterknowledge is supposed to cover only claims and beliefs that conflict with science and certain other areas of academic research such as history, which supposedly share a common or analogous methodology. Much of what Thompson says suggests that something like this may be his intended point, and that his concern is a creeping irrationalism in society generally, and particularly in the academy, threatening the ‘enlightenment project’. In that case, some of his targets seem ill-chosen. Aromatherapy, pop-dietetics and self-help books (p100) come under attack, as does the MMR scare which saw a new combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine refused by parents worried about a possible link to autism. However, on reflection we may be much less panicked by these examples than Thompson appears to be.


III.1 Belief


My reasons for thinking these examples rather inconsequential concern the nature of belief, which is a somewhat more subtle business than Thompson’s approach admits. It is not entirely clear that those who consume the pop-dietician’s television programmes, the aromatherapist’s fragrant oils or the books churned out in the name of self-help have anything like a full-blooded belief in their efficacy or scientific credentials. Instead, there is often something of the hobbyist about a preoccupation with such things, whose appeal, like that of newspaper horoscopes or palmistry, may derive more from a frivolously complicit indulgence in make-believe.

Even the grandiose claims of some self-help books are in the nature of ‘trade puffs’ - and are accepted as such by many readers. The kind of ‘belief’ that is involved in these cases may be more playful, and even ironic, than Thompson is willing to admit. Those who market these products are undoubtedly aware of the ambiguities and subtleties in the attitudes held by their consumers. Thompson, it would appear, is not.

Of course some people are genuinely fooled by quack remedies, which while rarely dangerous may lead them to forego more effective treatments. Others may turn to such remedies out of desperation rather than any real expectation of a cure. Certainly those who pay for remedies which are ineffective - even as placebos - will be left out of pocket. The point is not that ‘complementary and alternative therapies’ are harmless, but that their popularity cannot automatically be assumed an indication of pandemic irrationality.

Likewise, the reaction to MMR was not a case of mass panic due to ‘distrust of orthodox medicine’(p20). The decision of parents faced with uncertainty about the triple vaccine’s safety was rational enough, even for those who were unable to obtain alternative vaccines. They were faced on the one hand with an almost negligible risk of serious harm from delaying their child’s vaccination, especially given that vaccine take-up was not so low and long-standing as to compromise herd immunity. On the other hand there was an unknown risk of autism. This situation is not a question of pure abstract belief - nor necessarily with any belief in the usual sense. Instead the parents concerned were faced with a practical decision in conditions of uncertainty. It is hard to argue that under those circumstances it was irrational to at least delay administering the vaccine to their children.

Thompson does not mention that the government’s hasty denials were motivated by an obvious interest in retaining the already-mass-purchased drug, nor the fact that a form of MMR had been introduced in the late 80s, despite health concerns, before being  withdrawn a few years later.[13] Whether or not these facts were known to parents at the time, they certainly show a precautionary approach to be justifiable under the circumstances.

Admittedly, it is with the producers rather than the consumers of counterknowledge that Thompson is primarily concerned, and it appears that the research on which the initial suspicions about MMR were based was seriously faulty in a number of ways. However, it emanated from an (apparently) orthodox medical source, passing the Lancet’s peer review process. The ‘fingerprints of the alternative medicine lobby’ were certainly not ‘all over’ it, as Thompson casually asserts (p20). Indeed, at the end of the book, in a brief aside (p126), Thompson accepts that medical professionals and journalists were at fault for failing to expose the shortcomings of the research - a failure to protect against this incursion by the “virus”-like (p117) counterknowledge.


III.2 The Cultic Milieu


Thompson may wish to avoid the smug tone which he says accompanies a choice of easy targets in Voodoo Science[14], another contribution to the debunking genre. Instead he goes to the opposite extreme, building up his own easy targets into a sinister-sounding confederation of outsiders - a counterculture, or ‘cultic milieu’, the breeding ground for counterknowledge, from which it infects the mainstream, threatening the enlightenment project.

The evocatively-termed cultic milieu is presented as a real entity - one capable of playing an explanatory or causal role. But it is far from clear that the term is anything more than a label - and a somewhat sensational one at that. Originally applied - in the early seventies - to a putative underworld of cult-members, heretics and other adherents of sociologically deviant supernatural or mystical beliefs, the term is now applied to those taking fringe political, ethical or historical stances. 

As Colin Campbell, to whom Thompson credits the phrase, puts it:

cults must exist within a milieu which, if not conducive to the maintenance of individual cults, is clearly highly supportive of cults in general. Such a generally supportive cultic milieu is continually giving birth to new cults, absorbing the debris of the dead ones and creating new generations of cult-prone individuals to maintain the high level of membership turnover. Thus, whereas cults are by definition a transitory phenomenon, the cultic milieu is, by contrast, a permanent feature of society.[15]

If there are cults, Campbell seems to say, there must be a mysterious supportive ‘milieu’, ‘giving birth’ to new cults, ‘absorbing’ their ex-members and ‘creating new generations’ of cult members. Even allowing for florid language, these supposed activities are fairly baffling. In particular, if new members need to be ‘generated’ to maintain a ‘high turnover’, then people must be leaving the milieu, and new ‘generations’ entering it - presumably not at birth or any other particular time of life. The cultic milieu does not, in other words, consist of a stable population of so-called ‘cult-prone’ people - and indeed the word ‘cult-prone’ is not shown to signify anything more than that a person will turn out later to join some cult. In fact, no clear indication is given what the cultic milieu consists of, what it does, or what it explains. We are left with the milieu as a causally and theoretically inert sum of its parts, a mere name for the generality of cults or their members from time to time.

Things are no better when, commenting on this passage, Kaplan and Lööw extend 'cultic milieu' to cover non-cultic groups and even individual beliefs. In a hilarious passage, they marvel at the lack of interconnections or collaboration between disparate members of the invented ‘milieu’:

The sole thread that unites the denizens of the cultic milieu - true seekers all - is a shared rejection of the paradigms, the orthodoxies, of their societies. Beyond this element of seekership, the cultic milieu is a strikingly diverse and remarkably tolerant ethos. Ideas unacceptable to the social, cultural and political mainstream flourish. This is not to say that they find acceptance. Most, indeed, are heard and rejected, many are criticized, most are ignored. But they are heard and exchanged and passed on from belief system to belief system, from leader to leader, and from seeker to seeker. [16]

The final sentence seems almost an afterthought, as though Kaplan and Lööw had suddenly realised that they were describing nothing more than that discontinuous section of the population who are inquisitive and open-minded and hold, or are receptive to, ‘non-mainstream’ beliefs or ideas - though not necessarily the same, or even overlapping, ideas. So the authors add a rider: ideas do pass between these ‘seekers’ - or less tendentiously, inquisitive people - and (reverting to the older, literal sense of ‘cultic’) between their ‘leaders’.

With this hasty addendum, which seems opposed to the description they have just given of a disconnected collection of people, they reassert their almost superstitious (cultic?) belief in the milieu as a real phenomenon worthy of study! Unfortunately, it is not a real phenomenon: it is little more than a catchy umbrella term within which to bracket a number of largely unrelated opinions, people and groups, and to mock them in unscientifically lurid terms. In this it resembles Thompson’s ‘counterknowledge’.

IV. Philosophical and theoretical errors

Finally, it is time to address Thompson’s more philosophical reflections. His book is laden with plausible-sounding claims about the nature of evidence, belief, truth and probability, which lend an air of rigour and method to what might otherwise appear little more than an intellectual freak-show. In fact many of these claims are demonstrably wrong, betraying a casual disregard for accuracy and analytical rigour. What follows is a representative list of Thompson’s philosophical howlers.


IV.1 Conspiracy theories


In section II, Thompson’s attitude to conspiracy theories, that most vilified category of belief, was examined. In the hunt for a general a priori refutation of all conspiracy theories - or to be slightly more precise, all historical hypotheses positing secret and concerted wrongdoing by state or other widely trusted powerful actors - many people seem to take leave of their critical faculties. Thompson is no exception, though perhaps with less to lose than some.

In any case, many technical errors arise during his contribution to this quest for an alchemy of argumentation. For example, he states in this context that some claims are identifiable as counterknowledge since they “can be shown to be untrue...because there is no evidence to support them”. (p2)

Thompson seems to ignore  the truism that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. A lack of evidence for a claim may well entail that one is not justified in positively asserting it, but it does not amount to a demonstration that the claim is untrue, especially when evidence is likely to have been concealed or destroyed, as with accusations of official wrongdoing. This is not to say that absence of evidence is necessarily evidence of concealment either, a view often attributed, often wrongly, to ‘conspiracy theorists’.

Next, a searching question:

…do you at least half-believe one [conspiracy theory] yourself? (p3)

This is the only mention in the book of ‘half-belief’. As I suggest in section III, addressing matters of uncertainty, partial credence and suspension of judgement - let alone ironic or self-consciously flippant attitudes to certain claims - would blunt the impact of Thompson’s message. Entertaining the possible truth of maverick histories, adopting a cautious approach to MMR or dabbling in fanciful New Age theories might seem less dangerous in the light of a more nuanced assessment of the attitudes one may have towards a given claim.

Thompson’s misconstrual of ‘half-belief’ is particularly glaring, occuring as it does in  the context of inherently difficult-to-assess theories about conspiratorial politics and covert action by government agencies or factions. To Thompson, ‘half-belief’ in a so-called conspiracy theory is not much different from a wholehearted and committed belief. He will not recognise that a half-belief is also a half-disbelief, or that it might as well be described as a suspension of judgement. Thompson’s inquisition will be satisfied with nothing less than unequivocal denial of the forbidden doctrines. Such polarisation is symptomatic of his approach in general.

In the airy style of those who believe that all conspiracy theories are not only mistaken but obviously so, Thompson refers to “the false logic of the conspiracy theory”(p3)

Whatever might be wrong with conspiracy theories in general, it is not some shared ‘false logic’. The only indication I can find of what this false logic might consist in occurs later in the book, where Thompson quotes Michael Shermer:

The mistaken belief that a handful of unexplained anomalies can undermine a well-established theory lies at the heart of all conspiratorial thinking (as well as Creationism, Holocaust denial and the various crank theories of physics). All the evidence for a 9/11 conspiracy falls under this rubric. (p8)

I will reply here, not to Shermer (I am unaware of the context of his original statement) but to Thompson himself. First, a handful of anomalies can indeed undermine a ‘well-established theory’; indeed a single ‘anomaly’ - literally, something not conforming to law - can do so. The observation of a black swan undermined - or better, disproved - the well-established theory that all swans are white. This is surely the clearest and least contestable kind of scientific inference, and forms the basis of Karl Popper’s classical falsificationist methodology of science, which Thompson himself cites: “We cannot infer the truth of a theory by observation,…but we can demolish it by observing facts that run counter to it…” (p14)[17]

Of course there may be some debate about whether a given experience is actually an observation of certain facts - for example whether the black animal observed is in fact a swan, or whether its apparent colour is caused by a trick of the light. The reference to ‘unexplained’ anomalies might be intended to suggest this kind of  explaining away of an apparent anomaly[18]. Even if so, cases in which this can be done - in which the observations are false, misleading or misinterpreted - have nothing to do with the kind of general methodological error of which Thompson accuses ‘conspiracy theorists’.

Not only can a single observation (if unambiguous and reliable) falsify a well-established scientific theory, it can even more obviously disprove a hypothesis about particular facts. The existence of the term ‘alibi’ in English shows how commonly this happens. What is more, it is unclear whether any theories about specific concrete facts such as exactly what happened to JFK or to the three WTC towers are ‘well-established’ in any sense other than being accepted by many people or the right people, or officially endorsed, or unquestioned in the mainstream media.

We may contrast this with another remark Thompson makes about conspiracy theories:

The argument that 'No one has been able to come up with a better explanation' betrays muddled thinking. The fact that a subject is genuinely puzzling, that there are vast gaps in our understanding of it, does not lower the standard of evidence we require to fill in the gaps. (pp14-15)

Yet Thompson’s adopted view that a ‘well-established’ theory is not overturned by an observed counter-instance gains whatever force it has largely from the very fact that a better explanation is not forthcoming. What is more, the ‘no better explanation’ argument is generally offered as a challenge rather than a conclusive proof. While a silly theory is a silly theory, there need be no ‘muddle’ in laying down such a challenge: ‘You haven’t refuted my theory, and neither you nor anyone else has a better one’ is a legitimate move in the dialectic of disputed fact.

As an amateur in the philosophy of knowledge, Thompson has probably not studied Gilbert Harman’s influential theory of ‘inference to the best explanation’. But some thought on his part might have led him to reflect that in cases where there is something to explain, gaps can be filled in by some means other than gathering more evidence. Indeed, filling in gaps in the evidence is often just what we mean by explanation. According to Popper, Thompson’s chosen philosopher of science, explanatory ‘gaps’ in scientific theories are justifiably ‘filled in’ by bold conjectures. On the level of ordinary matters of fact, gaps are filled in by inference and by the assessment of the plausibility of one or more possible explanations.

Of course, where there really is an insurmountable evidence gap we should draw only tentative conclusions or suspend judgement altogether. As we have seen, though, these are not options Thompson considers in any detail, and in the cases he discusses such options do not seem to interest him. He discusses two cases; from neither does he actually cite an instance of the ‘no better explanation’ argument. One of these is a claim that Mayan cosmologists predicted the 1994 Pacific Tsunami (p15). Presumably, Thompson is making the rather banal point that ‘we’ do not need to provide an alternative explanation of the proffered evidence (whatever that may be) in order to know that the claim is mistaken. That may be so, but it is quite a different point from the initial criticism of the ‘no better explanation’ gambit as ‘muddled’. On the contrary, it is a coherent and legitimate argumentative move. In this case such a move would presumably be legitimately countered by denying that there is anything to explain or, equivalently, giving an explanation in terms of mere coincidence.


IV.2 Probability


Thompson makes numerous references to probability, most of them defective in one way or another. The substantive issues relating to probability in the context of philosophy of science and knowledge are complex and disputed: that fact alone makes Thompson’s categorical use of such terminology misleading. It also means that a lot of very dry and technical exposition is needed even to describe all the possible misconceptions involved in some of his statements, let alone to explain why they are wrong. For this reason, I list only the two most tractable of Thompson’s errors in this area.



The difference between a false and a true theory is one of probability. (p13)

This appears flatly untrue. There is no widely accepted theory of probability or of truth which holds that anything like this is the case. Thompson seems unaware that there are a number of quite distinct concepts which can be viewed as ‘interpretations’ or conceptions of probability, as distinct from the various sets of purely mathematical axioms which go by that name. He is dealing in subjective or ‘epistemic’ probability. This is concerned at most with what we are in a position to know or to be sure of rather than what is true or false.



We...have a methodology for evaluating the probability of claims relating exclusively to the material, measurable world. And the essence of this methodology is our ability to show that a particular proposition is false - that is, that there are no data making it probable. (p14)

First, we have not in fact worked out such a general methodology: only in the case of processes, for example atomic decay, commonly thought to be stochastic or irreducibly probabilistic, or for processes which are deliberately contrived so as to be measurably ‘chancy’, such as card games and lotteries, can we directly apply the probability calculus. The closest thing to such a methodology is statistical analysis. But this is a method geared towards practical decision-making with imperfect knowledge and can be applied only to members of large homogeneous sets of data. Probability theory cannot be directly applied in any useful and widely-accepted way to claims about ordinary single-case facts

Thompson also rehearses another variant of his misunderstanding of evidence and truth, asserting an equivalence between falsehood and lack of evidence. But perhaps most glaringly, he claims that the ‘ability to show that a particular proposition is false’ is essential to a methodology for assessing ‘probability’ of claims. With misunderstanding piled upon misconception, it is hard to formulate a simple explanation of what is wrong with this. Suffice it to say that  in assessing ‘probability’, one is hardy ever concerned to show that particular propositions are false. One may accept evidence - whose factual implications will incidentally rule out other propositions as false. But it is no more essential to assessment of probability that any propositions be proved false than it is essential to assessment of weight that any objects be proved to have zero mass.


IV.3 Miscellaneous misconceptions


A few other errors are notable but do not fall into any useful general category.



Among all the tangled layers of non sequitur, misconception and outright nonsense, it is a relief to encounter a pair of errors which are quite simple to describe:

Creationism in all its forms does incalculable damage...If you refuse to acknowledge the awesome explanatory power of the theory of evolution, you can never properly understand astronomy... geology... physics (p46, my italics)

First, only some forms of creationism deny the theory of evolution. More refined or subtle creationist theses may posit a non-interventionist first cause, or one whose interventions are compatible with the occurrence of evolution. Second, an understanding of the topics of astronomy, geology and physics do not depend on acceptance of the theory of evolution, though a proper understanding of geology, astronomy and arguably physics does preclude a belief in ‘young earth’ creationism. Despite these obvious points, the thrill of denunciation combines with woolly thinking or linguistic carelessness to allow Thompson explicitly to level his attack at creationism ‘in all its forms’.



Somewhat more involved is this excursion into the realm of historical method:

Works can be labelled as pseudohistory for one or more of the following reasons:...that the work has a political or religious agenda;... that the work relies on conspiracy theories, when the principle of Occam's razor would recommend a simpler, more prosaic explanation…William of Occam argued that when there are competing explanations of a phenomenon, the one that involves the fewest assumptions and hypotheses is most likely to be true. (pp52-53 - no reference supplied.)

First, the political or religious agenda of an author or even of his work does not disqualify the work from being good history. Most - probably all - authors have a political ‘agenda’, which is to say certain political views and preconceptions - though these are often ‘centrist’ and therefore unremarkable. How is one to tell whether an author’s agenda has influenced a particular work? By spotting errors, prejudices, distortions. There is no shortcut. A work of history is to be judged on its historical merit, commonly on the basis of peer review. To disqualify a work from consideration purely on the grounds of some supposed motivation of the author is contrary to the ideal of pursuit of truth which underlies the ‘enlightenment’ principles to which Thompson alludes.

Second, Thompson misrepresents Ockham’s dictum, commonly rendered as: ‘do not multiply entities beyond necessity’. This was specifically and solely intended as a guide in the field of ontology, which is concerned with theories about the fundamental constituents of reality. Even in that context its status is disputed. When applied in the realm of science, it perhaps best viewed as a tie-breaker between theories which are otherwise equally attractive, having, in particular, equivalent explanatory and predictive consequences.

In any case, appeal to the principle in support of just any appeal to simplicity is not only incorrect, but very often misleading. So it is when Thompson refers to ‘a simpler, more prosaic explanation’ (p53) than that offered by some conspiracy theory. I am not aware that anyone has yet found a workable method for assessing the relative simplicity (let alone prosaicity!) of two alternative accounts of concrete events, or of counting the number of ‘assumptions and hypotheses’ each involves. Even if this can be done - or more realistically, if some purported way of doing this is more or less arbitrarily chosen - there is no compelling reason to think that a ‘simpler’ explanation is more likely to be true than a more ‘complex’ one.

Thompson might just as easily, and no less authoritatively, appeal to the saying ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ and come to the opposite conclusion. Whatever may be wrong with a given conspiracy theory, it will not be violation of Ockham’s razor. Indeed, conspiracy theories are as commonly criticised for oversimplifying as for overcomplicating reality. In the context of factual hypotheses, this kind of casual appeal to Ockham’s razor is generally no more than an attempt to lend an air of methodological rigour to one’s vague appeal to plausibility, or worse still, to orthodoxy or official endorsement.



Finally, one of the oddest remarks of all:

Western society still has such a thing as the public domain. Broadly speaking, this is a place where ideas no longer carry the copyright of their inventors but are part of our shared culture. The consequences of counterknowledge finding its way into this arena can be very serious. (p126)

This statement is riddled with misunderstandings. Specific technological inventions are protected, if at all, by patents, not copyright, while copyright in the context of written matter covers the actual forms of words used, not ideas. Ideas per se are not capable of forming any kind of intellectual property.

However, these are mere quibbles. The passage as a whole is simply mystifying. Is he suggesting that the producers of counterknowledge should somehow (impossibly) arrange for access to their ideas to be restricted under the laws of intellectual property? Does he think that their books are not covered by copyright?

The issue of intellectual property simply has nothing to do with the influence or dominance of an idea. Thompson seems to have confused the ‘public domain’ - in the sense of those things which have been published or made public - with the legal ‘public domain’ which consists of writings and other copyright-apt artefacts which for one reason or another are not or cannot be subject to copyright. It is very difficult to imagine what Thompson could have been thinking.

There is currently an important issue relating to the legal public domain, but that concerns things which are excluded from it. These include patents for new drugs which for commercial reasons are taken out but never made use of by drug companies and the outrageous patenting of naturally-occurring genetic sequences by private organisations. Thompson, having adopted his ‘counterknowledge’ catchword, ignores such restrictions on knowledge, except in a few cases: a school’s choice of history options and the use of racism slurs to ‘suppress’ criticism.

V. Conclusion

Thompson portrays the current climate as one in which a new surge of irrationality threatens progress, but his evidence for this is scant. He does address some explanations for why one might think “credulous thinking is spreading through society as fast and silently as a virus” (p117-124), but his methodology is to presuppose the thesis and cast around for possible causes, rather than gathering evidence before deriving his apocalyptic thesis.

Like many print journalists, Thompson is eager to alert us to the dangers of the internet (p128), which has brought a million bar-room conversations to public attention. Among them are many opinions he doesn't like, some of which are obviously silly. He suggests that the internet’s “flattening of truth” is “destroying the critical faculties of young people” (p128). In fact there is every reason to think the opposite as they grow up having to winnow their sources of information. In contrast, the increasing tendency of news media and other non-‘cultic’ organisations to alter history by silently amending web pages[19] is a real and Orwellian worry - but one missed by Thompson.

To his credit, Thompson identifies untrammelled profit-seeking (‘free markets’ - p123) as a cause and enabler of misinformation - even fleetingly mentioning the role of circulation-hungry newspapers (p124) - but he does so only in passing and offers no solution to what is in any case a long-standing and all-pervasive trend which seems for the moment to be embedded in the political culture.

The excesses of another putative cause of counterknowledge, postmodernism (p121-123), are evident - but   while it is irritating to hear the kind of drivel that is sometimes spoken in the name of ‘cultural relativism’ or ‘counter-hegemonic narratives’, the prominence of this sore thumb of an academic fad should not be confused with influence. The middle-class adolescents who are attracted, in their intellectually playful years, to the nonsensical extremes of cultural theory are unlikely to do much harm with it once they leave the student bar behind. Wacky academic theories have always been around. Some have turned out to have a kernel of truth, others have died out. Of far more real concern is upsurge in narrowly vocational courses which threatens to turn much of academia into a provider to business of free employee training while depriving society of independent-minded thinkers, artists and others whose aspirations and concerns extend beyond the mere performance of technical tasks.

The conclusion of all this must be that Thompson has not established that there is a major new upsurge in irrational adherence to untruth, still less that it emanates from outside the main stream of intellectual orthodoxy. There is nothing new in fad diets, quack remedies, eccentric academic movements or most of the other phenomena he bemoans. It is worth noting that Thompson cautions against applying the term ‘counterknowledge’ to anything more than 100 years old, on the grounds that people in those benighted times could not be expected to know any better (p13). It is not clear when the latest groundswell of irrationality is supposed to have started, but since Thompson defines out of existence older forms of counterknowledge, the phenomenon is bound to appear somewhat new.

The idea of counterknowledge as a unified category depends on the Manichæan contrast, sketched in section III, between the noble certainties of orthodoxy and the scurrilous lies of the cultic fringe. What else, after all, does homeopathy have in common with the pointed questions of the '9/11 truth movement'? And in what way are these usefully regarded as part of a single phenomenon alongside religious creation myths and health scares arising from flawed medical research? Appealing to a ‘casual approach to the truth, or ‘misinformation packaged as fact’ doesn’t get us very far: these are ubiquitous, extending far beyond Thompson’s narrow choice of concerns. The fact is, these things are largely unrelated and a book covering them all is a mere compilation, not a monograph.

Thompson's claim that these disparate phenomena are unified by their common rejection of enlightenment methodology is one which, as I suggest in section IV, he is ill-qualified to make. Nor has intuition or beginner's luck enabled him to stumble on some profound truth. The fact is that the basis and content of ‘scientific method’ is as hotly disputed now as it has been for centuries. While there are broadly accepted methods in particular technical areas, such as randomised double-blind medical trials and, in the realm of insurance, actuarial calculations over large homogeneous datasets, there is certainly no well-established consensus on a methodology even for the experimental sciences, let alone one that applies also to, say, history or sociology.

The natural sciences are a very successful but unfinished project, and not all questions can be reduced to them. While I agree with many of Thompson's assessments of the untenability of specific positions he examines, the invented category 'counterknowledge', like the 'cultic milieu' and the 'conspiracy theory', is not only lacking in useful application but harmful in the polarised, combative approach it fosters.  It is particularly pernicious when it is drafted into the wider project of political and cultural opposition which is manifested in the Orwellian 'War on Terror'.

If Thompson really espouses the best of enlightenment values, he should heed the words of Immanual Kant:

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! "Have courage to use your own understanding!" - that is the motto of enlightenment.[20]

Thompson would do well to engage in a calm and rational way with those whose ‘courage to use their own understanding’ lead them to views he disagrees with (often, indeed, because they are plain wrong), rather than waging a phoney intellectual war in which positions harden and dialogue becomes impossible.

A certain humility and a willingness to listen - even to ‘obviously’ wrong opinions - does not amount to regarding truth or knowledge as merely subjective. It does amount to regarding those things that are subjective as subjective: expertise, areas of concern,  available evidence. There is a tension - even a puzzle - in the idea of open-mindedness[21], but neither the dogmatist who will hear no dissent nor the agnostic whose doubts are all-consuming has the answer. If Thompson is so sure of his knowledge, we may ask, what has he to fear in joining the great party of human inquiry, listening and arguing, sometimes helping someone else to change their mind, and sometimes, just maybe, allowing someone else to change his? If - contrary to appearances - he is not so sure, all the more reason to enter into debate, and learn more.

Suppression of opinion can be achieved by a culture of abuse and ridicule as well as by more obvious methods, as Thompson accepts in his discussion of  racism accusations. The tone of his website[22] and the tribal attitude of its embattled stalwarts exemplifies this hostile attitude, so foreign to the open debate that the enlightenment thinkers at their best hoped for, and so redolent of the forced camaraderie of fear and hatred that Orwell and Leo Strauss each in their own way acknowledged.

Quite apart from being an offence against freedom of thought and speech and, reducing, pace Mill, humanity’s supply of new ideas, such suppression of opinion can have more concrete and immediate ill-effects. To take one example, when almost any critical examination of the detail of Holocaust history is met with undifferentiated accusations of anti-semitism and Holocaust-denial from organisations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the subject area is left largely to hardened fanatics like the Hitler-admiring David Irving. When, inevitably, Irving turns up the odd real, though minor - and vehemently denied - error in the standard account, a propaganda victory is obtained for the outright Holocaust-deniers and racists who inhabit the same intellectual ghetto. The ignorant and the ingenuous, seeing the attempt to suppress such details, may be led to wonder what else is being suppressed. In such a way can the cultic milieu become a self-fulfilling prophecy, conjured up by a combative and intolerant approach like Thompson’s.


VI. Postscript on Goya


It is predictable that the book should end with the words “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters,”[23] originally one of Francisco Goya’s satirical series of etchings depicting Caprichos[24] (or whims, follies). Goya’s irreverently innovative proto-modernism marks him as a true heir of the enlightenment, making the unacknowledged quotation particularly apposite to Thompson’s flawed project.

The style and scale that of a political cartoon, the monsters in question rather unthreatening (though symbolically loaded) owls, bats and lynxes, the ‘Sleep of Reason’ has none of the visceral impact of the tortured ‘Saturn Devouring his Son’[25]. Thompson could learn from the subtlety and light touch of Goya’s etching, as well as his breadth of subject (the Caprichos comprehend not just the ignorant masses but doctors and politicians, the aristocracy and the clergy) and long view of the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society,…the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual.[26]

As Goya’s manuscript caption has it,

Imagination [La fantasía] abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of their wonders.[27]

Imagination or creativity must be united with reason, not merely suppressed by it. What is more, this balanced unity is to be achieved within the individual (depicted in the etching by Goya himself[28]). What Goya emphatically did not intend was that some external force, the “gatekeepers”(p120) of reason, must beat back a horde of fantasistas emerging from a ‘cultic milieu’. If reason is to be awakened and kept in balance with the imaginative impulse, each person must be treated with respect, not pilloried with hostile abuse or figuratively consigned to a ‘cultic’ netherworld.

A little more faith in human nature might allow Thompson to treat his opponents as reasoning human beings and to accept some latitude in what it is acceptable to believe. If he were to use argument and not vilification as the way to address these issues, perhaps he could lay some claim to real enlightenment.

Brighton, UK, 5 October 2008.

Tim Wilkinson is an occasional writer and philosopher. He hopes never to read or type the word “counterknowledge” again. His blog is

An abridged version of this review was published in the December 2008 issue of Culture Wars.

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[2] Daily Telegraph, ibid. See also and,-says-Butler.html

[3] See, for example, House of Commons Health Committee, The Influence of the Pharmaceutical Industry volumes I and (especially) II, London: The Stationery Office Ltd, 26 April 2005. Thai et al., The Handbook of International Health Care Systems, New York: Informa Health Care, 2001, chapter 9, contains a damning and well-sourced assessment of the evidence base for medical interventions in the UK. Corruption of the kind indicated in the text appears to be even more rampant in the USA where free-market rhetoric has long provided a fig leaf for corrupt cooperation between large corporations and government.


[5] And not, arguably, even to all such claims - see the subsequent discussion of transubstantiation.

[6] . See also ‘Engineers Suspect Diesel Fuel in Collapse of 7 World Trade Center’, New York Times, 29 November 2001, via:

[7]  Federal Emergency Management Agency, World Trade Center Building Performance Study (, Chapter 5, pp 31, 32. Since the drafting of this section, another inquiry has reported in the matter. Responses to the report have not yet been published, but in any case its description as the solution of a mystery (see for example, confirms that at the time Thompson wrote, the issue was indeed considered mysterious.


[9] The Historical Association, A Report from The Historical Association on the Challenges and Opportunities for Teaching Emotive and Controversial History 3-19. London: DfES, 29 March 2007: ( p15.


[11] The Historical Association, op. cit., p34.

[12] Ibid.


[14] By Robert Parks. The accusations both of smugness in tone and (seeming) easiness of targets are Thompson’s (p.160).

[15] Colin Campbell, ‘The Cult, the Cultic Milieu, and Secularisation’, in Jeffrey Kaplan and Heléne Lööw (eds), The Cultic Milieu: Oppositional Subcultures in an Age of Globalisation, Rowman Altamira, 2002, pp12-24.

[16] Jeffrey Kaplan and Heléne Lööw, The Cultic Milieu: Oppositional Subcultures in an Age of Globalisation, Rowman Altamira, 2002: Introduction, pp1-11.

[17]Thompson cites Popper, Conjectures and Refutations. In fact he seems to have gleaned this formulation from page 103 of a basic introductory textbook by Hospers, discussed below.

[18] The kernel of truth in Shermer’s claim is a matter of the sociology of science rather than any principled methodology. The better ‘established’ - or entrenched - a scientific theory is, the more resistance there is to new observations which appear to refute it - at least until some improved theory becomes available which can accommodate the new observation. Insofar as philosophers of science such as Kuhn and Lakatos have tended to treat this tendency as a legitimate element of scientific method, they gloss over the distinction between normative and descriptive theory.

[19] This phenomenon is of its nature difficult to illustrate, though the author has encountered numerous cases. One documented example, though by no means the most serious, is at

[20] Immanuel Kant, ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’, Berlinische Monatsschrift, December 1784. (trans. unknown):

[21] For a fairly technical philosophical treatment, see my





[26] Robert Hughes, Goya, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, p.181.

[27] Siri Hustvedt, Mysteries of the Rectangle: Essays on Painting, Princeton Architectural Press, 2005, p.68.

[28] Sadly, it is thought that Goya was at this time struggling with paranoid mental illness.


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