The Age of Unreason
I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, as inspired by some recent events in my life and my blog. Specifically, conspiracy theories. There’s a lot of them, especially if one uses the term conspiracy theory loosely, which I am doing. I see some commonalities in these theories, and have some speculation about them. I have picked four theories for purposes of discussion. First, I’ve tried to pick theories that are reasonably well defined and have a definite body of supporters. Secondly, I’ve tried to pick theories that are generally well known, for clarity and to forgo as much explanation as possible. And I’ve lastly tried to pick theories that hopefully most readers of Doug’s Darkworld don’t subscribe too, but if I failed, well, bear with me, maybe we can both learn something. In no particular order:
- Holocaust denial. These are the people who claim that the holocaust either didn’t happen or was wildly exaggerated.
- Moon Landing Hoax. The theory at the Moon landings were faked by NASA.
- Ancient astronauts. The theory that aliens visited Earth and interacted with humans thousands of years ago.
- Young Earth creationism. The theory that the Earth is only about 7,000 years old.
There are any number of others, but these will do for what is a very rough analysis. I see several commonalities in all of these, as follows:
- There is enormous amounts of good, solid, empirical evidence showing that these theories are at best, wildly unsupported. In fact all of these theories have alternate scientific/historical explanations that are generally accepted among experts in their relative fields.
- The only evidence presented by advocates of these theories is interpretive, IE they look at evidence that the vast majority of people not only would find unconvincing, in many cases they would see it as evidence of the opposite. There is no direct empirical evidence for their theories.
- The followers of these theories are firmly convinced of their veracity, refuse to accept even the possibility of alternative explanation, and may very well perceive experts who disagree with their theory as “conspirators” deliberately acting as agents to deny the reality of their theory.
Interesting, nu? Now for the purposes of the following, I am assuming that the above theories are indeed poppycock. If a gentle reader feels differently, politely indicate in a comment, and I will write a future post (or even posts) dedicated to your particular theory and it can be commented upon at length. As my recent 9/11 Truther posts demonstrate.
I see a number of things going on here. (No, no more lists.) The first, and this isn’t original, is that the human brain is explicitly hard wired for pattern recognition. It’s what humans do, and more than anything else may be what separates us from the beasts. The fact that the gentle reader is able to effortlessly translate the black squiggles on this page into words, and then recognize the concepts being expressed by these words is proof positive of this. Pattern recognition is the default option, even if there is no possibility of meaningful patterns, like the shapes of clouds, humans can nonetheless recognize patterns in them. The fact that some humans might recognize conspiracy patterns where others don’t is perfectly understandable in this context.
Secondly, an this is where it gets interesting, as Seneca said: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” In other words, there are plenty of smart people perfectly happy to promote these theories for their personal gain. Be it monetary or otherwise. Some of them are sincere adherents of the theory, others are clearly laughing all the way to the bank. Worse, modern communication like the Internet and modern science coupled with propaganda/advertising has made it easier for people to promote and promulgate a theory. I don’t think there’s any question that modern conspiracy theories have achieved far greater penetration than such theories in decades past because of modern social media. Partly by just allowing their spread, partly by making it easy for people to reinforce their beliefs with confirmation bias.
Lastly, and this is conjectural, I think people belonging to some “select” groups satisfies seem deep human psychological urge. The people who believe in these conspiracies often seem to take great satisfaction that they are privy to some special understanding that others lack. They often put it far less diplomatically though. Maybe it’s a need to identify with some tribal entity. Maybe it’s like advertising, and people are programmed to express their identity through brand loyalty. Maybe it’s the same thing that makes people fans of particular sports teams, don’t know. There’s definitely some psychology going on here and no doubt sociologists are working on it as I type.
And on the gripping hand, let me conclude with the observation that people who subscribe any of these theories aren’t stupid. They may be annoying at times, but frankly when certain skeptics roll their eyes and make nasty comments about “believers,” they are pretty much exhibiting a lot of the believer characteristics they claim to deride. Not helping. No other real conclusion, this post is most emphatically primarily designed to stimulate discussion.
(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law, as it was produced by a federal employee in the course of their duties. Credit and copyright: NASA. I used it because it’s a perfect example of the sort of “evidence” that believers claim is “obvious” proof of their theory. See the flag, it appears to be waving in a breeze. And since there’s no breezes on the Moon, it’s obvious proof that the picture wasn’t taken on the Moon. Of course why the people faking the Moon shots would have a fan going on their set making the flag wave is never explained … or even asked.)