Thursday, October 02, 2008


Under the Counterknowledge

Louis Bayard has a review in Salon of a new book by Damian Thompson, who is described as a "British polemicist," a lead writer the Daily Telegraph and editor-in-chief of a major Catholic newspaper, the Catholic Herald. Entitled Counterknowledge, Thompson's book describes the seemingly endless incoming tide of woo. As Bayard puts it:

Millions of unwary souls from every quadrant of Earth are swallowing a daily diet of quackery, conspiracy theory, bogus history and faux science. We haven't just turned off our bullshit detectors, we've permanently disabled them.

The litany is familiar:

The U.S. government blew up the twin towers. The AIDS virus was engineered by scientists to kill African-Americans. Chinese explorers landed on American shores in 1421. Crystals will heal you. Aliens landed at Roswell. The Priory of Sion is protecting the secrets of the Messianic bloodline. Barack Obama is a Muslim. ...

... "Atlantis is buried underneath the Antarctic, the Ark of the Covenant is hidden in Ethiopia, aliens have manipulated our DNA, and there was once a civilization on Mars." ...

UFOs, miracle diets, astrology, Bible prophesy. Satanic ritual abuse, recovered memory. Aromatherapy, reflexology, craniosacral therapy.

Creationism is, of course, a fertile field of counterknowledge and not just in the United States:

A 2006 poll of higher-education students in the United Kingdom found that fewer than 10 percent of Muslims accept evolution. Among the populaces of Indonesia, Pakistan and Egypt, that percentage drops to 2, 5 and 3 percent, respectively. Turkey is now overtaking the United States as the wellspring of creationist agitprop.

And the lines begin to blur. As Thompson says: "If you believe one wrong or strange thing you are more likely to believe another." Nor does it matter if what you believe is shared by people who have dramatically opposing belief systems. The woo link can overcome that, as in the case of Christians sharing intelligent design curricula with Muslims.

One source of the urge to accept counterknowledge is described by Bayard. It is especially attractive:

... if you're seething with hostility toward political, intellectual and scientific elites. Counterknowledge, for all its transience, gives its owners an enduring feeling: They have been entrusted with the very secret they weren't supposed to know.

Thompson points the finger of blame for this rise in woo at the internet, with its ability to spread nonsense across once impenetrable cultural barriers, at post-modernist left-wing multiculturalists who claim science is merely "a language game played by a white elite," at craven academic institutions that accept woo as a marketing and fund raising tool, and at publishers more interested in profit than fact-checking.

Bayard faults Thompson for failing (perhaps understandably, given his editorship of a religious newspaper) to allot blame to, and for even excusing, traditional religion in the woo epidemic. Bayard argues that "orthodox religion functions as a training ground for counterknowledge."

I think that is wrong, though perhaps in a subtle way. I think John Wilkins is right that religion's major function, and the major explanation of the phenomena associated with religion, is that it originally served as the "social glue" needed to form the non-kinship social groups necessary to conduct agriculture:

The crucial role of religion proper, I think, is to mark out those who one can expect aid from, because they have demonstrated the "costly signaling" religion requires (a view of Richard Sosis and colleagues), from those who are more likely to cheat. Agriculture makes possible a society not based on close kinship, which makes religion the solution to that dilemma only after societies of that kind arise.

The more establishment religions, such as the Church of England, in service of governments that needed a highly educated and scientifically oriented citizenry, muted the more wooish aspects of their theology but, perhaps, weakened the emotional bonds between its members at the same time, since they became less intellectually costly. The increase in counterknowledge may, in fact, be a "squeezing the balloon" effect, where the social need for a kinship substitute, no longer satisfied by orthodox religion, is being pushed out into various alternatives. And, much like what has happened to network television, the greater movement of people and knowledge across national and cultural borders is fracturing the audience for religious-like community into smaller and smaller splinter groups that people can mix and match at will.

Thus, religion is not so much the training ground for woo, it is a competitor in the same market ... but one that may be losing out to the new-fangled kids on the block.

P.S. If you don't think non-relgious woo can take on aspects of moralizing religions, I reccomend Dr. Steven Novella's post on some of the antivaccinationists.

huh, agitprop. That's interesting.

""Thus, religion is not so much the training ground for woo, it is a competitor in the same market ... ""

Hence, "I'm spiritual but not religious"?
Hence, "I'm spiritual but not religious"?

I'd guess so. Maybe you could call the whole spectrum, from antivaccinationists through Wiccans, "designer religions" ... even if the participants deny the label.
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