Plagues of the Mind:
The New Epidemic of False Knowledge
by Bruce S. Thornton (ISI Books) Takes some needed swipes at the more egregious
examples of political correctness and revisionary history. Though I do not think
this muddleheadness of necessity invalidates warnings of environmentalists or
the necessity of women discovering their protoreligion in the goddess. It helps
to have some humor and common sense on these topics. Any book that explores “the
new epidemic of false knowledge” reminds us that the human race has been
afflicted with intellectual pestilence throughout its history. From my own
perspective, there are at least three major reasons for false knowledge such as
misinformation, half-truths, gratifying superstitions, and pleasant myths as
well as outright lies: insufficient and/or incorrect information; man's
inability and/or unwillingness to accept a reality which is redundantly
verifiable; and third, it serves the self-interests of those who affirm it. In
this volume, Thornton examines an "epidemic of false knowledge" which is
potentially more destructive than any predecessors because of technology that
makes it now possible to exchange more false knowledge faster and to a much
greater extent than ever before. In the Preface, Thornton explains that his aim
"is not so much to assert a positive, true doctrine that should replace the
false one, but rather to incite the reader's own critical eye to examine more
carefully the many received truths and elements of public wisdom circulating in
our collective mind. If this means that my own ideas are subjected to the same
scrutiny, then this book has achieved its aim."
Following a brilliant Introduction, Thornton carefully organizes his material within Two Parts: Of the Causes of Error and Of Three Popular and Received Ideas. He then provides a Conclusion in which he correctly suggests that the threat of other plagues in years to come requires of all thoughtful persons that "with that ability to "detect and expose error and cant and [what Sir Thomas Browne once characterized as] 'Prejudice and Prescription,' we will possess the most important freedom of all -- the freedom of our minds, out intellectual autonomy that allows us to confront the hard choices and make the hard decisions that are the responsibility of every citizen in a democracy."
Thornton briefly examines many of the usual suspects (e.g. logical fallacies first identified by Aristotle, such as begging the question ) and then shifts his attention, in Part II, to what he calls "three versions of history as therapeutic drama."
Romantic Environmentalism: Thornton asserts that "Humans, in sum, are not natural; nature is a necessary, but not sufficient, part of human identity. Nor is the natural world with which we are most intimate completely 'natural." Thousands of years of human culture and agricultural technology have altered nature's raw material into an artificial 'nature' more conducive to human survival."
The White Man's Golden Age Red Man: Thornton observes that "The tragic view of history...with all its contradictions and failed good intentions and messy complexity, is anathema to the idealizer, who finds it easier (and more profitable) to pander to the gratifying preconceptions and cheap guilt and smug compassion of contemporary whites."
The False Goddess and Her Lost Paradise: According to Thornton, "Goddess history offers a gratifying myth in the guise of empirical fact -- precisely the combination of scientism and debased Romanticism we have already repeatedly encountered. Indeed, the origins of Goddess religions can be found, not in the new discoveries of archeological science, but in the nineteenth-century's anti-Enlightenment pique."
Romantic environmentalism, Noble Savage Indianism, and Goddess "religions" are but three of several dozen inherently false but remarkably durable "versions of history as therapeutic drama." No doubt many other new 'versions" will be formulated, perhaps in strategic alliance with one or more predecessors. Some of their advocates will simply not be willing and/or able to subject them to requisite scrutiny; other advocates will exploit false knowledge to serve their own self-interests. It is probably impossible to eliminate man-made "epidemics" but Thornton believes, and I agree, that it is possible to limit their damage.
As indicated earlier in this review, Thornton offers the reassurance that if all thoughtful persons respond "with that ability to "detect and expose error and cant and [what Sir Thomas Browne once characterized as] 'Prejudice and Prescription,' we will possess the most important freedom of all -- the freedom of our minds, out intellectual autonomy that allows us to confront the hard choices and make the hard decisions that are the responsibility of every citizen in a democracy."
insert content here