Friday, April 29, 2011

Knowledge and counterknowledge

For some years I have been interested in the problem of the collision of bodies of knowledge and bodies of counterknowledge. This is generally thought to be a nonproblem, as in the case of the contrast between the round-earth theory and the flat-earth theory. In such cases, the answer is obvious.

Over the centuries, though, the pattern has not been so clear. When introduced, Copernicus geocentric theory was though by most authorities to be bizarre and improbable. Similarly, several centuries later, the germ theory of the etiology of disease.

Still, it seems fairly clear that the birther theory--that Barack Obama was not born in the United States--is absurd. But some Tea Party figures continue to assert it.

In the New Yorker, Hendrick Hertzberg, a well-known liberal journalist, compares birtherism to skepticism about global warming. This muddies the issue, because clearly the issue of climate change is complex: there are several points to chose from along the spectrum. That is not true about the birth of Barack Obama: either he was born in the territory of the US or he was not.

I would ask parenthetically, though, why was John McCain allowed to run for president? He was born in the Canal Zone, which does not send representatives to Congress and was never part of the United States--any more than the Suez Canal was part of Britain. But I digress..

Working out a typology of these various forms of counterknowledge is a complex challenge. One must set aside, I think, urban legends, such as the idea that President Kennedy did not die at Dallas in 1963, but survived for some years as a kind of vegetable in a darkened room in San Francisco. (This matter is quite separate from the controversy regarding the assassination itself.) Similarly, we had the claims about Hitler in Argentina, or the Elvis sightings.

As a teenager I was introduced to a more complex set of beliefs known as the Shaver Mystery. In 1943, one Richard Shaver wrote a letter to Amazing Stories magazine. He claimed to have discovered an ancient language he called "Mantong," a sort of Proto-World language which was the source of all Earthly languages. In Mantong, each sound had a hidden meaning. By applying this formula to any word in any language, one could discover a secret meaning inherent in any word, name or phrase.

According to the magazine's editor, Ray Palmer, he wrote Shaver back, asking how he had learned of Mantong. Shaver responded with a 10,000 word document entitled "A Warning to Future Man." Shaver described advanced prehistoric races who had built cavern cities inside the Earth before abandoning Earth for another planet due to damaging radiation from the Sun. Yet those ancients left behind some of their own offspring here, a minority of whom remained noble and human "Teros," while most degenerated over time into a population of mentaly impaired sadists known as Deros—-short for "detrimental robots." Shaver's robots" were not mechanical constrivances, but were were robotic due to their savage behavior.

According to Shaver, these Deros still lived in cave cities, kidnapping surface-dwelling people by the thousands for meat or torture. With sophisticated ray machinery that their ancient forebears had left behind, they spied on human beings, projecting tormenting thoughts and voices into our minds. Deros were to blame for nearly all misfortunes, from minor "accidental" injuries or illnesses to airplane crashes and catastrophic natural disasters. Women especially were singled out for brutal treatment, including rape.

Though generally confined to their caves, Shaver claimed that the Deros sometimes traveled by spaceships or rockets, and had dealings with equally evil extraterrestrial beings. Shaver claimed first-hand knowledge of the Deros and their caves, insisting he had been their prisoner for several years.

Palmer edited and rewrote the manuscript, increasing the length to 31,000 words. Palmer insisted that he did not alter the main elements of Shaver's story, but that he only added an exciting plot so the story would not read "like a dull recitation."

Retitled "I Remember Lemuria!" it was published in the March 1945 issue of Amazing. The issue sold out, generating a huge response. Between 1945 and 1949, thousands of letters arrived attesting to the truth of Shaver's claims. The correspondents claimed that they, too, had heard strange voices or encountered denizens of the Hollow Earth. One of the letters to Amazing was from a woman who claimed to have gone into a deep subbasement of a Parisian building via a secret elevator. After months of rape and other kinds of torture, the woman was freed by a benevolent Teros "Shaver Mystery Club" societies were created in several cities. The controversy gained some notice in the mainstream press at the time, including a mention in a 1951 issue of Life magazine.

Gratified by the increase of circulation, the magazine featured the Shaver Mystery for several years. Gradually, however, interest declined, and many felt free to declare the idea a hoax. The magazine dropped the subject once it became evident that it was not bringing in new readers.

Yet the contribution of science-fiction magazines to the vast realm of counterknowledge had not ended. In fact it was to move into high gear, for L. Ron Hubbard introduced Dianetics to the general public in the article "Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science" in the May 1950 issue of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction. This article was in fact a kind of trailer for Hubbard's book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Allegedly, he completed the manuscript of the 180,000-word book in six weeks.

The success of selling Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health brought in a flood of money, which Hubbard used to establish Dianetics foundations in six major American cities. The scientific and medical communities were far less enthusiastic about Dianetics, viewing it with bemusement, concern, or outright derision.

Hubbard blamed the hostile press coverage in particular on a plot by the American Communist Party. In later years, Hubbard decided that the psychiatric profession was the origin of all of the criticism of Dianetics, as he believed it secretly controlled most of the world's governments.

In due course Dianetics morphed into Scientology, which is still flourishing today, despite many efforts to discredit it.

Why then did one form of counterknowledge, Scientology, take hold (at least among its followers) while the other, the Shaver Mystery, dwindled away? The answer seems to be that Scientology claimed to be therapeutic, while Shaverism seemed simply paranoiac. Not that there weren't paranoid elements in Scientology, but to most of its adepts the therapeutic benefits, or so they are perceived, outweigh this.

The upshot is that counterknowledge genres have different valences. Until a representative sample is assembled and analyzed it would be hazardous to propose a general theory.

More (possibly) later.



Post a Comment

<< Home