[back] Damian Thompson
Lies, damn lies and 'counterknowledge' By Damian Thompson 12/01/2008
George Bush planned the September 11 attacks. The MMR injection triggers autism in children. The ancient Greeks stole their ideas from Africa. "Creation science" disproves evolution. Homeopathy can defeat the Aids virus.
Do any of these theories sound familiar? Has someone bored you rigid at a dinner party by unveiling one of these "secrets"? If so, it is hardly surprising. In recent years, thousands of bizarre conjectures have been endorsed by leading publishers, taught in universities, plugged in newspapers, quoted by politicians and circulated in cyberspace.
This is counterknowledge: misinformation packaged to look like fact. We are facing a pandemic of credulous thinking. Ideas that once flourished only on the fringes are now taken seriously by educated people in the West, and are wreaking havoc in the developing world.
We live in an age in which the techniques for evaluating the truth of claims about science and history are more reliable than ever before. One of the legacies of the Enlightenment is a methodology based on painstaking measurement of the material world.
That legacy is now threatened. And one of the reasons for this, paradoxically, is that science has given us almost unlimited access to fake information.
Most of us have friends who are susceptible to conspiracy theories. You may know someone who thinks the Churches are suppressing the truth that Jesus and Mary Magdalene sired a dynasty of Merovingian kings; someone else who thinks Aids was cooked up in a CIA laboratory; someone else again who thinks MI5 killed Diana, Princess of Wales. Perhaps you know one person who believes all three.
Or do you half-believe one of these ideas yourself? We may assume that we are immune to conspiracy theories. In reality, we are more vulnerable than at any time for decades.
I recently met a Lib Dem-voting schoolteacher who voiced his "doubts" about September 11. First, he grabbed our attention with a plausible-sounding observation: "Look at the way the towers collapsed vertically. Jet fuel wouldn't generate enough to heat to melt steel. Only controlled explosions can do that." The rest of the party, not being structural engineers (for whom there is nothing mysterious about the collapse of the towers) pricked up their ears. "You're right," they said. "It did seem strange…"
Admittedly, no major newspaper or TV station has endorsed a September 11 conspiracy theory. But more than 100 million people have watched a 90-minute documentary, Loose Change, directed by three young New Yorkers who assembled the first cut on a laptop. The result is super-slick: computer-generated planes glide menacingly towards their targets, to the accompaniment of a funky soundtrack; buildings collapse in a comic theatrical sequence. This is one cool movie – and a masterpiece of counterknowledge.
The makers suggest that a missile, not an airliner, hit the Pentagon; that the occupants of Flight 93 were safely evacuated at Cleveland Hopkins airport; that the panicked calls made by the passengers were faked using voice-morphing technology.
The directors make basic errors and play outrageous tricks: quotes from experts and official documents are cherry-picked and truncated. Airline parts are misidentified and pictures cropped in a way that leaves out inconvenient rubble and wreckage. "Expert testimony" is lifted from the American Free Press, a hysterical news service with strong links to the far Right.
Yet the makers of Loose Change are pushing at an open door. More than a third of Americans suspect that federal officials assisted in the September 11 attacks or took no action to stop them. September 11 conspiracy theories have gained such a following in France that even a member of President Sarkozy's government has suggested that President Bush might have planned the attacks. Christine Boutin, the housing minister, when asked in an interview whether she thought Bush might have been behind the attacks, said: "I think it is possible."
Another who believes this is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, who reckons that September 11 could not have been executed "without co-ordination with [US] intelligence and security services". Ahmadinejad is also a well-known Holocaust denier, having referred publicly to "the myth of the Jews' massacre".
In the world of counterknowledge, wild theories are constantly mating and mutating. As the editor of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer, puts it: "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."
We do not normally think of creationism and maverick physics as conspiracy theories; but what they have in common with Loose Change is a methodology that marks them as counterknowledge. People who share a muddled, careless or deceitful attitude towards gathering evidence often find themselves drawn to each other's fantasies. If you believe one wrong or strange thing, you are more likely to believe another. Although this has been true for centuries, the invention of the internet has had a galvanising effect. A rumour about the Antichrist can leap from Goths in Sweden to Australian fascists in seconds. Minority groups are becoming more tolerant of each other's eccentric doctrines. Contacts between white and black racists are now flourishing; in particular, the growing anti-Semitism of black American Muslims has been a great ice-breaker on the neo-Nazi circuit.
In June 2007, the home page of The Truth Seeker, a conspiracy website, included claims that Aids is a "man-made Pentagon genocide", that Pope Paul VI "was impersonated by an actor from 1975 to 1978", that new evidence about the Loch Ness monster had emerged – plus a link to Loose Change.
Yet, as we saw earlier, more than 100 million people have seen that film. In the 21st century, bogus knowledge is no longer confined to self-selecting minority groups. It is seeping into the mainstream, cleverly repackaged for a mass market. This crisis goes beyond traditional political ideology. Yes, the Left has helped to spread counterknowledge by insisting on the rights of minorities to believe falsehoods that make them feel better about themselves. Afro-centric history aims to raise the self-esteem of black youngsters by feeding them the fantasy that the origins of Western civilisation lie in black Africa. Last year, a British government report revealed that some teachers are dropping the Holocaust from lessons rather than confront the Holocaust-denial of Muslim pupils.
But Left-wing multiculturalists are not the only guilty ones: entrepreneurs are turning counterknowledge into an industry. Publishing houses pay self-taught archaeologists and pseudo-historians large amounts to turn fragments of fact into saleable stories. Titles are placed in the history sections of bookshops whose claims have been thoroughly demolished – yet the publishers carry on bringing out new editions.
The dividing line between fiction and non-fiction is becoming increasingly hard to draw. These days, public opinion is so malleable that a product does not even have to pretend to be fact in order to affect perceptions of truth: the success of The Da Vinci Code has persuaded 40 per cent of Americans that the Churches are concealing information about Jesus.
Meanwhile, publishers, television channels and newspapers are making huge profits from another branch of counterknowledge: alternative medicine. Unqualified nutritionists make claims for vitamin supplements and "superfoods" that are unsupported by scientific literature; conveniently, these people often have a commercial interest in selling the supplements in question.
Fashionable advocates of alternative medicine, and the executives who profit from them, are as reliant on counterknowledge as any bedsit conspiracy theorist. Their miracle diets and health scares undermine science by distorting the public understanding of cause and effect, and therefore of risk.
The fingerprints of the alternative medicine lobby are all over the worst British health scare of recent years, in which thousands of parents denied their children the MMR triple vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella following the dissemination of flawed data linking it to autism. In that case, distrust of orthodox medicine increased the danger of a measles epidemic.
But that is nothing compared to the impact of medical counterknowledge in underdeveloped countries. In northern Nigeria, Islamic leaders have issued a fatwa declaring the polio vaccine to be a US conspiracy to sterilise Muslims: polio has returned to the area, and pilgrims have carried it to Mecca and Yemen. In January 2007, the parents of 24,000 children in Pakistan refused to let health workers vaccinate their children because radical mullahs had told them the same idiotic story.
These incidents cannot be dismissed as examples of medieval superstition: these people are not rejecting life-saving vaccines because they reject modern medicine, but because their leaders are spouting Islamic takes on Western conspiracy theories. Counterknowledge, with its ingrained hostility towards a political, intellectual and scientific elite, appeals to anti-American, anti-Western sentiment in the developing world.
Islamic countries, in particular, have embraced counterknowledge to a remarkable degree. In 2006, the Pew Research Centre asked Muslims in Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Pakistan whether Arabs carried out the September 11 attacks. The majority of respondents in each country said no. Indeed, most British Muslims – 56 per cent – also thought that Arabs were innocent. A quarter of British Muslims believe that "the British Government was involved in some way" with the London terrorist bombings of July 7, 2005.
The battle between knowledge and counterknowledge is not just a struggle to protect the public domain from bogus facts. It has profound implications for the safety of the West. And, make no mistake about it: this is a battle we are losing.
Summarised from:'Counterknowledge: How We Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and False History' by Damian Thompson (Atlantic)