The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
March 27, 2008

After reading Damian Thompson's Counterknowledge, Christie Davies is confirmed in his belief that the great struggle of the twenty-first century will be between truth and equality: Counterknowledge - Damian Thompson

Posted by Christie Davies

Counterknowledge: How We Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and Fake History
by Damian Thompson
Pp. 182. London: Atlantic, 2008
Hardback, £12.99

Damian Thompson has written a splendid denunciation of the weird, irrational, ideas that flourish in our supposedly modern and scientific twenty-first century. The list in his title tells it all. They are indeed Counterknowledge for they are both the contrary of real knowledge and are sold across the counter.

My favourite of Thompson's chapters is "Desperate Remedies", a tale of everyday contemporary quacks, of the so-called "alternative" medicines that can't beat the placebo effect of the benefit you get from a fake pill containing nothing but inert filling or of a Chinese medical student, disguised as an acupuncturist, sticking pins in you at random. You may well perk up but only because you have been led to believe they will work. You will feel better, says the quack, and in many cases you do, because of the power of persuasion.

Thompson is rightly shocked to find that there are British universities that give these procedures respectability by handing out qualifications in this nonsense. Fortunately most of them are rubbish universities whose degrees, diplomas and certificates no-one takes seriously. If a university advertises alternative medecine, don't go there, because the chances are that when an employer sees its name on your C.V. he will bin your application without even reading it through.

The author really does say some seriously but accurately insulting things about some of these universities and is suitably rude to their vice-chancellors, which is good because they've got it coming and if mocked they might actually cancel the courses. The Vice-Chancellors of many of our tin-pot "new" universities are very sensitive about their deserved lack of standing. They are snubbed by their peers and they don't like it up 'em.

The Vice-Chancellor of a pukka institution might well read Thompson's book and at the end a meeting say to the head of a despised one: I see your alternative medicine degrees got rubbished in print again, eh what ?

Assembled Vice Chancellors: Ha! Ha! Ha! …..that'll learn him.

Pukka V-C continues: Only last week our Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry and Statistics was saying….

Head of ex-tech heads for bog, fumbling in his pocket for bottle of non-alternative blood pressure pills.

One of the worst of the quackeries is homeopathy which not only does not work but cannot work because it is based on a theory of material reality that is contrary to everything else we know. Dilution of necessity tends to weaken and absolute dilution weakens absolutely. Thompson notes:

My local chemist, for example, sells homeopathic sulphur tablets marked "30c" which means that the proportion of sulphur to the inactive substance is 1 to 10030 (i.e. it has so many 0s at the end you have to write it as 100 to the power 30, a hundred multiplied by itself 30 times). That is why there is no mention of sulphur in the ingredients on the container: the pill doesn't contain any.
But in that case, why can't you or I or anyone else sell pills containing nothing at all at fifty pence a bottle from a market stall. We could label them homeopathic plus whatever name we chose to write on the label - homeopathic nitric acid, homeopathic phosphonium iodide, homeopathic cyanide, homeopathic bolonium, homeopathic tauromerdine ammonia, homeopathic lusus naturae, homeopathic Jurassic fossils, homeopathic chlorodyne or homeopathic Glauber's salt.

Since all nothings are the same, you would be defrauding no one and since it has nothing in it you can't do anyone any harm, unless of course you swear blind that it is harmful or even poisonous and they are stupid enough to believe you. You could advertise it, "Guaranteed to make you feel better" and if anyone complains afterwards that they don't or that they even feel worse, you give them their money back and tell them to consult their GP.

Anyone with a PhD can even put up a notice over their stall saying "Dr Philosopher's Remedy". After all, nothingness is not a medical but a philosophical question and if someone asks you any difficult questions about the mathematics of the infinitesimal, refer him or her to a specialist nerd. If patients ask who told you how to make up these medicines?


Where did you study them?


What's in them?


Are there any side effects?

I told you, there's nothing in them.

Are you kidding?

No way.

What possible objection can there be to doing that? If you have got your string of letters from a believable university, the placebo effect ought to work,

How could you be any more of a fraud than Mr Thompson's local pharmacist, who presumably has had some training in chemistry? If he or she knows there's nothing in it, why not say explicitly in big letters on the label Contains no sulphur whatsoever. Why do chemists not make up their own pills labelled homeopathic and undercut the supplier on price? The placebo effect is presumably a product of the pills being sold by a registered, qualified pharmacist and anyone can use the word homeopathic. The government could help by refusing to give legal recognition to any trademarks used by established homeopathic pill manufactures.

The way in which professional homeopaths, naturopaths, psychopaths and sociopaths deceive people is by selling them a bit of their time and pretending that they understand what medicine the patient needs as a particular individual.

Even with medicines that work well in most cases their effect is highly varied as between one person and another, and G.P.s and indeed specialists have neither the time nor often the knowledge to tell what will work for whom. This is the real problem with antidepressants. The prescription of antidepressants has emptied the asylums and greatly reduced the British suicide rate at a time when the social pressures towards misery such as family breakdown, secularisation and declining job-satisfaction due to bureaucratic control have increased.

None of the psychiatric interventions in the happier times of the past had any effect at all on either depression or suicide, yet in today's dismal society many get cured and suicide rates for women and men over 45 have plummeted. But different patients require different types of pill. The knowledge of how to choose which one to prescribe is very imperfect and many specialists are arrogant in the face of this ignorance.

But pity the poor GP who has to decide whether a patient is suffering from depression, which is a treatable illness, or merely unhappy which is a normal state of affairs in a world where people no longer enjoy the consolation of religion and the support of family; everyday misery is not an illness and it is not amenable to medical intervention.

The homeopathic fraud is to deceive the patient into thinking that the homeopath has specific insight into him or her as an individual, even when they are talking nonsense and saying things like "this has often worked with red-haired patients in the past". Since that stigmatised hair colour is part of their personal identity and possibly even their ethnic heritage, they are deceived into thinking that this particular "capsule of nothing" is specially designed for them. In any other area of life this would be called fraud.

Thompson quotes a witty nineteenth century Bishop of Albany as saying of homeopathy:

Stir the mixture well
Lest it prove inferior
Then put half a drop
Into Lake Superior
Every other day
Take a drop in water
You'll be better soon
Or at least you oughter.
If in the pre-welfare nineteenth century individuals chose to be fools and felt better for it, that was fine. Where the problem arises is that homeopathy is available on the NHS, including five designated hospitals. According to Thompson, Peter Hain even put an extra £200,000 of government money into Ulster to promote homeopathy there - but then Hain isn't very good at knowing where money comes from let alone where it goes to. The justification for all this is the ideology of "patient choice" in a "patient-led" health service.

But why is it not choice for all and not just for those who are suckers for pseudoscience? Why do we not allow the NHS to pay for patients' visits to the holy relics of saints? As Thompson points out, religion in its pure form makes no false claims about the material world. It is faith that makes a sufferer whole. We are saved from illness by faith alone.

Homeopaths resist double blind trials (i.e. where neither prescriber nor patient know which pill is which) or even vet and owner double blind trials for animals but by contrast there is a very rigorous procedure indeed for deciding when a miraculous cure has occurred. There are even particular saints for particular disorders. These are:

Saint Ubaldo of Gubbio for migraine.
Saint Quirinus for obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Saint Ursicinus of Saint Ursanne for stiff neck.
Saint Ulrich for faintness and for moles.
Saint Genesius or Arles for chilblains and scurvy.
Saint Dympna for nervous disorders.
Saint Polycarp of Smyrna for earache.
Saint Christina the Astonishing for mental disorders.
Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori for scrupulosity.
Saint Angela of Foligno for sexual temptation.

I have listed a few of these saints to show that they each have a specialism. Why should the NHS not underwrite the material costs of a patient's entreating a particular saint's intercession on the basis of advice from an informed doctor, according to a particular diagnosis?

It would not replace but complement conventional medicine, which is surely what state funded patient choice is about. The National Institute for Clinical Excellent might well decide that it was unwilling to fund the high cost of visits to the relics of particular saints, namely "integrant parts such as limbs, ashes or bones" or "objects sanctified by physical contact with the saint while alive".

But provided the relics are attested to by authentic accompanying documents, there is a cheaper alternative, relics of the third class. These consist of bits of cloth that have been touched to one of the higher grades of relic. Why should these not be purchased by the NHS and prescribed by doctors? Far more people have faith in relics than in homeopathy and in a democracy with patient-led health care that is what counts.

Faith makes no pretences and does not, as Thompson points out in another context, contradict or cast doubt on evidence based scientific medicine. In a plural society these benefits need not only be limited to Christians. Many a Wunderrebbe, a tzadik of extraordinary personal piety, has been venerated for his abilities to work cures, such as Rabbi Schechter for baldness. Morarji Desai lived to a great age on recycled water from the Ganges. Just as we have faith schools funded by the state, so too we can and should have faith-based prescriptions on the NHS.

What, as Thompson makes clear, cannot be tolerated are secular beliefs claiming to be alternative scientific systems whose practitioners refuse to be subjected to systematic testing.

Let it be clear, though, that the advocacy of faith-medicine is my view alone and not that of Damian Thompson, who makes no such suggestions about policy.

The most disgraceful piece of Counterknowledge about health cited by Thompson is a story in The Observer from 8th July 2007 called New Health Fears over Big Surge in Autism, reporting that there was brand new evidence linking autism to the MMR vaccine. The scientists from whose work this was falsely inferred were quick to denounce it and force a retraction.

But what if someone had acted on it and his or her children had not been properly vaccinated? Observer readers can hardly be expected to have had the kind of education that would enable them to assess the accuracy of such a story. Why is it not possible to sue those who recklessly create and disseminate false health scares? Victims who have suffered unnecessary, indeed even crippling, infections, as a result of long running wild, anti-vaccine scares that led their parents not to vaccinate them ought to be entitled to damages in the same way as those who are victims of a bad batch of drugs. Proponents of "counterknowledge" ought to be held accountable.

As I have shown in The Strange Death of Moral Britain, secularisation really only hit ordinary people in Britain after the First World War and became rapid only from about 1955 onwards. Long before that separate spheres of life had been established such as the religious, the scientific, and the commercial as part of a general differentiation of social institutions. Everyone had long realised that it was not the business of religion to pronounce on interest rates or prices or the laws of motion or how to make chemicals, anymore than stock-brokers or physicists have anything useful to say about the creation or the Trinity. Each to his own.

Even so, enthusiastic "rationalists" claimed that secularisation had occurred because of the spread of a scientific outlook among the population in general. This view is nonsense. Most people today have had little or no scientific education and did not understand what little they had. They will buy into any thesis with bits of randomly collected evidence that happens to fit in with their own prejudices. They always prefer conspiracies and cover ups to the more probable alternatives.

However good the evidence at Diana's inquest to the effect that it was just a good old fashioned case of French drunk-driving, they will always believe that the Duke of Edinburgh regrew his hair, regained his strength, went to Paris and moved the pillar like Sampson. They are secular but superstitious; they read horoscopes, keep good luck charms and perform luck rituals and, as Thompson shows, they are willing to believe not only in alternative medicine but in historical accounts that lack both reason and evidence.

They are not scientific savants but suckers for any baloney that uses scientific sounding terminology or methods that seem impressive such as psychoanalysis or numerology. These rational, secular modern people reject the Bible that they have never read but will buy any crackpot retelling of Biblical stories that claim that Jesus snuck down from the cross while still alive, married Mary Magdalene, had a granddaughter who became the wife of Flavius Josephus and a descendant who went to Cornwall to work as a tin miner and founded the Freemasons. Walking through Oxford, only last month, I had one such book thrust unwanted into my hands by an enthusiast that bore the title Crucifixion or Crucifiction. I gave him tuppence for it to be rid of him.

These, usually perfectly sane, nut cases particularly like the Bible to be reinterpreted in terms of the secret visits of spaceships, often coming from outside the solar system. Nothing like pseudo-science. You would think that a belief in UFOs is daft enough but what can you say to someone who claims to have been abducted in one and made the subject of experiments? It is the equivalent of believing in witchcraft and it ought not to be taken seriously, except in the same sense that an anthropologist might study the similar beliefs of a primitive tribe to see what the patterns of their beliefs are and how they fit into the social order. Yet Thompson writes:

In 1998, for example, Columbia University Press published Aliens in America, a study of the alien abduction phenomenon by Professor Jodi Dean, a leading feminist scholar. In it Dean refused to acknowledge that alien abductions do not exist and have never happened; instead she praised the "UFO community" for challenging oppressive and exclusionary "norms of public reason".
How come such nonsense can appear in a book by a leading academic publisher? The answer must be that feminists take up the cause of UFO freaks because they are united in a common opposition to scientific thinking. When you raise objections about their evidence or the logical connections between it and their conclusions they scream at you that you are "privileging" science.

In the feminist case it is because the findings of recent research into genetics and hormones and the brain show that the differences in behaviour and capacities between men and women are to a large extent because their brains are wired up differently. There are but few outstanding female mathematicians, physicists, composers and chess players because that's the way it is, much as men are more likely to suffer from autism.

The only way for the feminists to get out of this pit is to retreat into obscurantism and challenge "the norms of public reason". In American universities it is feminism that is the real threat to science and enlightenment, not Kansas style creationism, which no one takes seriously.

At Harvard Professor John E. Mack taught for many years that UFO abductions were for real but everyone was told they had to treat him as a respected scholar and with appropriate sensitivity. By contrast Larry Summers, the President of that University had to resign for pointing out that the number of outstanding female mathematicians and physicists was always going to be small, even though, as Stephen Pinker showed at the time, most of the evidence was on his side.

Thompson goes on further to describe how:

The French feminist critic Luce Irigaray solemnly described E=MC2 as a "sexed equation" because it "privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are equally necessary to us".
You wouldn't want to put her in charge of a reactor or indeed anything else. So what? If, for limited local purposes, other speeds are more "important", such as the 30mph speed limit that decides whether you lose your licence or not, what has that got to do with Einstein's equation involving C, the speed of light in a vacuum? What other speed would this idiot want to insert in the equation?

It is possible, if unlikely, that the equation might be modified in the future, just as we no longer believe in absolute time or distance the way our ancestors did, but we can be sure that feminist whitterings will not be relevant. Feminism is as wacky as homeopathy.

This is why feminists are willing to support without evidence absurd or untestable versions of history; a colleague of mine even argued that women had invented pottery because it was possible to tell the sex of the fingerprints on the earliest known potshards. The truth is we do not know and probably never will. There is no virtue in speculation on the basis of a presumed division of labour.

Perhaps the worst feminist mangling of contemporary events has been their belief in the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare or indeed their fanning of the moral panic about child abuse being ubiquitous in Middlesborough. Neither ever happened nor was there any proper examination of the evidence until the damage had been done. The resulting persecutions were quite frightful but I have never heard any of those involved retract or apologise and in private many a feminist will tell you she or he still believes they were right.

The many interesting cases of modern irrationality uncovered by the excellent Damian Thompson need to be placed in a more general context. My own view is that they are part of a phenomenon that is going to dominate the twenty-first century - a bitter conflict between truth and equality.

In the past the key conflict was often between truth and traditional authority, with truth-seekers using the idea of equality to try to undermine the established view. Today the problem is the egalitarian unwillingness to permit evidence to be deployed to show that some views are wrong and stupid and inferior - simply because this shows a lack of respect and sensitivity to their holders.

We have protected fools from their folly and the world is full of fools, but they may not be named. This is not a libertarian view saying that you can think and speak freely but rather egalitarian authoritarianism. Those truths, which contradict equality, cannot be uttered. You can be denounced as "wrong" because what you say is offensive to the egalitarians but not because you are talking unsubstantiated nonsense.

The opinions of the stupid are equal to those of the intelligent, those of the ignorant to those of the learned, those of the superficial to those of the thinker, those of people who don't much care about truth equal to those who see it as a never ending quest. That's modern equality for you.

From the tyranny of equality, only the truth can set us free.

Prof. Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, New Brunswick NJ, Transaction 2006.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

The insight on antidepressants is especially welcome. Prof Davies talks of social pressures towards misery such as family breakdown, secularisation and declining job-satisfaction due to bureaucratic control. Isn’t this what Durkheim called anomie and postulated it as a driver towards suicide? If so, recent research from New York suggests that Durkheim was right. See the following link:

Sense of belonging can avert suicide

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 5, 2008 12:24 PM

Asking for the intrcession of the saints is cheaper, more rational and far more efficacious than such recourse to psdeudo-scientific chicanery as homeopathy and psychotherapy. With the approval of the Church saints and relics should be free on the NHS. The homeopathic quacks should be in jail for fraud

Posted by: James at April 8, 2008 04:53 AM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement