My last Top Read of 2008: Damian Thompson, “Counterknowledge” (Atlantic Books 2008)

12 Dec

0801-Grayling My reading these days comes from two main sources: Surry Hills Library or the bargain basement bookshops. I am after all a pensioner. Naturally, this does impact on my “Top Read” choices, but has not prevented my finding quite a few in the past twelve months. I will be listing them in another post later on, but you can also check the tag.

So the latest came via the bargain bookshop, $12.95 instead of $35 for the hardback.

I recommend Counterknowledge with two reservations.

The first is encapsulated in this otherwise very favourable review by British philosopher A C Grayling (no relation to a blogger some of us know) in New Humanist.

…The sentences that need to be added to this otherwise superb crusade against despoliation of truth and reason concern what harsh critics would, I am sure wrongly and unfairly, call a sleight-of-hand by Thomson, given that when he is not debunking counterknowledge he is none-too-indirectly associated with one of its most egregious forms by being the editor of the Catholic Herald. Early in his book he says that religion “does not fit neatly into the category of counterknowledge” because its claims are not about the material world and cannot be tested empirically. And he leaves it there; protected, you might say, behind the wholly admirable pyrotechnics of his assault on “misinformation masquerading as fact” to be found elsewhere.

This, I am afraid, will not do. As already suggested, the most persistent and influential forms of counterknowledge, including many false claims about the origin and nature of the universe, what it contains and what it is influenced by, which heavenly bodies go round which, what can be effected by prayer or the laying on of hands, and so vastly on, are the religions. Thomson rightly criticises the fact that the British state supports five homeopathic hospitals and pays for six degree courses in homeopathy, but says nothing about tax-funding of faith-based schools – not a few teaching creationism. He quotes Popper on falsifiability as the test of a genuine knowledge claim, but does not mention Popper’s correlative stricture, that “a theory which explains everything explains nothing”, as a direct refutation of the meaningfulness of religious claims.

He grants that religion becomes counterknowledge when it is controverted by the evidence of our senses, but does not admit that all religion is therefore so. He does not address the point that when factual information is lacking with respect to some claim – as is standardly the case with the major tenets of religion – constraints of rationality come into play…

Even so, Grayling says: “This excellent little book, if supplemented by a single brief sentence – a draft of which I offer below – should be put in the satchel of every secondary school child, in the departmental pigeonhole of every undergraduate…”

The second reservation I have is that there are times Thompson seems to me to be too Eurocentric, or a little too quick to label something as “counterknowledge” simply because it does not quite fit with his version of Enlightenment philosophy. I am sure you will see something paradoxical there in my two reservations!

I would go further than Thompson by quite happily regarding the Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke as pseudohistory, in which I am no different from many mainstream theologians. (You may get a post on that before Yuletide!) On the other hand, I would not be quite as dismissive as he is about Chinese Traditional Medicine.

I would also express some reservation about the use to which his generally perfectly correct criticisms of much thought in the Muslim world might be put by the likes of Daniel Pipes or Melanie Phillips, but then I am rather more of a cultural relativist than Thompson is.

That aside, the book is very stimulating and very useful. The chapter on Intelligent Design/Creationism is quite brilliant.

You don’t even need the book, really, though I do recommend it, partly out of a continuing belief that the reading of actual words on paper does have some advantages over absorbing matter from a screen – some of the disadvantages of which are actually made clear in the book! Nonetheless, the book was simultaneously published with its website, which is very comprehensive and also stimulating. Most of the people it will infuriate are people you really wouldn’t want to know anyway!


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Posted by on December 12, 2008 in Best read of 2008, book reviews, challenge, culture wars, faith and philosophy, fundamentalism and extremism, historiography, History, Top read


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