Counterknowledge and the Web

January 11, 2008 | By | 11 Replies More

I stumbled onto this excellent column by Damian Thompson about the modern proliferation of pseudo-information. That is, the way various formerly obscure conspiracy cults (UFO’s, moon landing hoaxers, second-shooters, 9/11 Truthers, Flat Earthers, Young Earthers, Inflating Earthers, etc) manage to disseminate their beliefs convincingly to wide and gullible audiences.

Before Gutenberg, only reliable, church-approved texts could be widely read in western culture. Then a new technology came along, and suddenly heretics like Martin Luther or Galileo could publish widely before the church could disappear them and their ideas. It took a few generations to settle down to the publishing and  editorial ethic that made it clear which information was reliable and accepted, and which was fringe. It helped that there was still some economic hurdle to wide publication, and publishers needed to maintain their reputations. This lasted until almost the end of the 20th century.

Now, we have the web. Any misinformed but layout-talented individual can produce publications (pages) that look as wise, vetted, and reliable as Britannica. But without the necessity of prissy little details like fact checking or actual expertise in the subjects being purveyed. Must it be another couple of generations before the average browser can tell fact from fancy?

Damien Thompson has written the book Counterknowledge: How We Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and Fake History and started the website ( that strives to find sources of fiction portrayed as fact and pull back the curtain. Or at least to tilt at those windmills.As is discussed elsewhere on this forum, the root problem is the lack of solid education. F’rinstance, every argument from the 9/11 Truthers shows innumeracy and/or historical illiteracy. Many are obviously fraudulent, too. But polls show that a surprising percentage of Americans think they might have a point. Almost as many as those who doubt the basis of modern biology: Evolution. Look those numbers up for yourself; then you’ll trust them. But always consider the source.


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Category: American Culture, Communication, Current Events, Education, Fraud, History, Recommended Reading/Films/Sites, Religion, Science, Web Site

About the Author ()

A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

Comments (11)

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  1. Kevin Morgan says:

    Great post. Thanks for the link to his site.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    I really once believed that the internet would serve to eradicate SO many sources of false information. But it's a double-edged sword, as you indicate. It seems that many of us first decide what we want to believe, then we seek out facts to substantiate those claims. If you want some great-looking arguments on homeopathic medicine or the efficacy of ESP, just click around on the Internet.

    I agree whole-heartedly that the cure for this non-stop torrent of misinformation is a rigorous early education that teaches children that knowledge is not a treasure hunt. Finding one old book of questionable authorship and supernatural claims is not valid or reliable knowledge. Education is a task that never stops and it often requires Herculean discipline. Most important, we need to teach our young that skepticism is our friend and that many people who claim to be our friends are enemies of skepticism. Sometimes, then, we have to give up a "friend" to follow the truth, a point underlying my post here.

    BTW, It is my gut instinct that people who are more "social" are more likely to fall prey to the charlatans who preach unsubstantiated and oftentimes dangerous myths.

    It is my gut feeling that those who are scientifically inclined tend to be more isolated from social pressures and thus more likely to let objectively-testable facts overrule those who make false facts a condition for the sort of "friendships" they offer. Beware the friendly psuedo-scientists, politicians and preachers, then. Develop a strong sense of discipline and skepticism, choose your friends wisely and only then venture out into the Internet! If you fail to do this, the Internet, for you, will become a barren desert where you might wander for the rest of your life.

  3. Alison says:

    What I see more commonly is the proliferation and dissemination of false information. Between my father and one other person, I receive more mass e-mailings with anything from misinformation to outright lies than I ever thought existed. For people who are looking for good information, and who also have the education and critical thinking skills to spot the potential for falsehood on the web, the internet is an incredibly wonderful invention. However, it doesn't take a good education OR critical thinking skills to dredge up information that "proves" what you want it to, or create a new lie of your own and spread it worldwide in an instant.

    IMHO, the amount of information and of misinformation probably remains at the same proportions, we just have access to more of both.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    The internet allows equal access for disinformation and information, unlike any previous medium. Earlier media had a bias toward socially positive information, mostly controlled by the publishers or broadcasters. This was because libraries, schools, reviewers and consumers (and their parents) controlled the purse strings of the publishing houses or media outlets.

    Now the cost to publish is essentially null.

    Knowledge can be spread more easily,

    But Counterknowledge can be spread orders of magnitude more readily.

  5. "Most important, we need to teach our young that skepticism is our friend and that many people who claim to be our friends are enemies of skepticism."

    Don't assume that believers are not skeptical. It is important to test the spirits, because there are many false prophets gone out into the world. I see much truth in Sheldrake's view:

    "Skepticism has even deeper roots in religion than in science. The Old Testament prophets were withering in their scorn for the rival religions of the Holy Land. Psalm 115 mocks those who make idols of silver and gold: "They have mouths, and speak not: eyes have they, and see not." At the Reformation, the Protestants deployed the full force of biblical scholarship and critical thinking against the veneration of relics, cults of saints and other "superstitions" of the Catholic Church. Atheists take religious skepticism to its ultimate limits; but they are defending another faith, a faith in science.

    In practice, the goal of skepticism is not the discovery of truth, but the exposure of other people's errors. It plays a useful role in science, religion, scholarship, and common sense. But we need to remember that it is a weapon serving belief or self-interest; we need to be skeptical of skeptics. The more militant the skeptic, the stronger the belief."

  6. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Researching info on the internet is somewhat like researching in modern periodicals. You must consider the source. For example, My oldest son is autistic. every few years, the pancreatic hormone secretin, is touted as a cure for autism in the media, and is followed up by a mob of internet charlatans offering to cure autism with overpriced variations of this dangerous treatment, all claiming miraculous results. Since one popular theory of the cause of autism is due to a dysfunctional digestive system, many parents buy into this hype. When firends and relatives suggested that I look into this possible treatment for little Nikky, I did some research, and found the following.

    Almost all the claims of miraculous results were by people selling secretin. There was no way to know if the product was actually secretin.

    In the cases where the treatment was administered in a clinical setting with secretin from a known trusted source, a few showed slight temporary improvement in symptoms, most were unaffected and a larger number than those that showed improvement, had serious and sometimes life threatening reactions, often resulting in worsening symptoms.

    The few that benefitted all received a brand of secretin manufactured by a Japanese pharma company that used cysteine (a known immuno-suppressant) as a stabilizing agent.

    Using publicly available information, I identified and contacted the family of one of the patients of a Mexican clinic claiming fantastic results, and talked to the boy's father on the phone. He told me he had not seen any improvement.

    Using this info, I decided that I would not, could not subject my son to this treatment.

    There is a flip side.

    The fact that an immunosuppressant caused an improvement should be a reason to investigate the auto-immune theories of autism. Research done at the Max Planck institute and at the Pastuer Institute have suggested this connection, but such research is actively discourage by the Pharma companies who sponsor much of this research, as there is a chance that is might implicate vaccines as a mediating factor.

  7. Dan Klarmann says:

    LJC: Good point. Skepticism is a tool that can be abused.

    In the service of rationalism, it helps to advance our understanding of everything.

    In the service of fundamentalism or counterknowledge it keeps things stagnant, at best.

    Skepticism and doubt can be reasonable, or otherwise. Science (recursive testing and careful documentation) is the tool we've discovered to accurately determine what is reasonable.

  8. DanK: There are some things that science cannot measure, therefore I don't consider it an abuse of skepticism to point out that a twelve inch ruler is inadequate to measure something much larger than twelve inches.

    Being skeptical of man-made "laws" which in practice cause much harm, {for example our economic "laws" that are currently coming to fruition}, is a healthy practice. Usury and theft have consequences even if everyone believes in them.

  9. Dan Klarmann says:

    Those things that science cannot yet measure are each documented as they are discovered. As the perimeter of what science is able to observe grows, more and more of the things that were previously considered immeasurable and beyond science got explained. Science is necessarily a narrow and naturalistic discipline that does not accept as real anything that is still beyond its purview.

    Skepticism is only useful (socially positive) when the skeptic has enough knowledge and wisdom to understand the reply.

    Counterknowledge is presented to audiences who lack the understanding to see the glaring logical or technical fallacies.

    If the Counterknowledge idea is then integrated into their psyches, then it is that much harder to educate people about how things really work. That is because the proven laws of nature violate the Counterknowledge which they have internalized.

    Therefore, the laws of nature are wrong, however testable and proven they may be.

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