Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

The Age of Unreason

with 13 comments

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:

  1. Holocaust denial. These are the people who claim that the holocaust either didn’t happen or was wildly exaggerated.
  2. Moon Landing Hoax. The theory at the Moon landings were faked by NASA.
  3. Ancient astronauts. The theory that aliens visited Earth and interacted with humans thousands of years ago.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Discuss?

(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.)

Written by unitedcats

February 8, 2012 at 8:26 am

13 Responses

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  1. Been awhile since my last post… As always Doug the person defining the rules wins the match. Ancient astronauts? Earth only 7 k years old? Please… Absolute stupidity. How about the ‘Karen Silkwood’ conspiracy? Valid? Or the holocaust– Germans were solid fact checkers, and even calculated the lifespan of each fire-brick in each oven used to dispose of human remains. When one adds up the number of firebricks actually used, its pretty obvious that 10 million bodies couldnt have been disposed of… Alot of bodies? Yes absolutely, but not the numbers universally agreed as true and irreproachable. Dont get me wrong- the Nazi Regime was one of the darkest stains on humanity, but comparednto Stalin or Chairman Mao– they were pikers!

    Steve

    February 8, 2012 at 8:54 am

  2. Good post, i think you could be right with people wanting to belong to a “select” group, wanting to feel part of something special and elite (in their mind perhaps), like you mentioned odd football teams, strange bands or music, perhaps its like rebeling from the status quo wanting to be different, wanting to be percieved as being different?.
    I’ve never heard of the Holocaust conspiracy before though. Would love to see a post on it. And on the ancient astronauts, id really love the theory to be true, but it really is alot of bollocks, (have these people been watching too much Battlestar Galactica?!?).

    Adam

    February 8, 2012 at 9:49 am

  3. I think you have to look at any of these “conspiracy” theories with an open mind. History is defined by the conquering force. If Hilter would have took over, I doubt there would be any mention of the Holocaust. As for the ancient astronauts, the history channel has a really informative series regarding this conspiracy, worth watching if you are curious. The moon landing, well I guess we will find out if the Americans where there if the Chinese or Russians get there in the next decade.And the young earth creation. Well I think way to many geologists and archeologists would have way to many examples of older arifacts and rock samples to prove that conspiracy wrong. At any rate it is a great post Doug. I try to keep an open mind, then I realize that we as humans are hardwired to chose, either right or wrong.

    Jennifer Goodyear

    February 8, 2012 at 12:05 pm

  4. Your right about the group thing, I think its just the good ole herd mentality kicking in. Not always a bad thing, but I think it gets in the way of truth, when people think they might be wrong they fall back on thier group for a concensus, for example “everyone I know says bla bla and I’m with them”. Personally I like to hear the alternate views even if they aren’t right because I enjoy fiction mixed with reality, my imagianation has a blast with it lol. Plus I think a lot of the time the basic evidence is real but misinterpreted, so the conclusions and theories are way off. Cool post Doug! Peace.

    Pyrodin

    February 8, 2012 at 2:12 pm

  5. I think they explained it as they left a hanger door open and a breeze came in when they were shooting the film/picture of the flag

    Ryan

    February 8, 2012 at 7:24 pm

  6. Have your read “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free”
    By Charles P. Pierce? It talks about what happens when the old-fashioned ‘crank’ gains access to a very large audience.

    Margie

    February 8, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    • No I haven’t, but will see if my local library has it. Thanks. —Doug

      unitedcats

      February 8, 2012 at 9:55 pm

  7. So, somewhat related.. are we to just ‘take the governments word’ and believe Bin Laden was captured and thrown in the sea?

    Or is it ‘OK’ to have another view, in light of who is telling us to ‘believe it’ ?

    Just asking.

    John Galt

    February 9, 2012 at 7:06 am

  8. As mentioned earlier – history is defined by the winners and text books are re-written continuously. Reality is relative.

    • CONINTEL

    • J. Edgar Hoover hides the existence of the mafia.

    • Operation Mockingbird

    So how much is a belief in “conspiracies” and how much is the willingness to admit we have been repeatedly lied to by media and government so it may be best to keep an open mind.

    It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

    ~Aristotle

    I am about half-way through “The Creature from Jekyll Island” – a historical look at the Federal Reserve written from a “conspiracy” perspective.

    If we agree that alchemists and illusionists exist – then we can ask what is it they want us to see (or not see) and why is it important that we see it (or not see it)?

    The “Expando Earth” theory is interesting – but is it considered a conspiracy?

    http://halfpasthuman.com/aintwhatitusedtobe.html

    dana

    February 9, 2012 at 8:00 am

  9. Addendum:

    Next in line on the reading list:

    http://www.amazon.com/Magic-Renaissance-Chicago-Original-Paperback/product-reviews/0226123162

    Also – I am reminded that in “Men in Black” the characters seek out “The Tabloids” to get the real news. I always thought that was clever.

    dana

    February 9, 2012 at 8:19 am

  10. […] sure got some interesting comments on my “Age of Unreason” post. So I am going to address them, well, at least the ones […]

  11. I have written a follow up post addressing various comments above here: Age of Unreason II.

    unitedcats

    February 9, 2012 at 12:49 pm

  12. Without commenting on any specific theories you’ve outlined here, it’s worth pointing out that many things we take as fact today would have looked very much like these “conspiracies” 500 or 1000 years ago. Let’s take the existence of dinosaurs as an example … or put in the terms here, “the theory that the earth was once populated by giant reptiles.” There has been “evidence” of dinosaurs for millenia, but it wasn’t until we started mining for fossil fuels like coal that we really started to find enough convincing evidence to say, with scientific certainty, that Earth once had a period where giant reptiles ruled the planet.

    But regardless of whether the evidence was there or not, Earth DID have a period ruled by giant reptiles. A “philosopher” from ancient Greece might well have put forth a theory about giant reptiles, but there would be precious little direct evidence to support his theory. It might be logically consistent, and explain some weird, otherwise unexplainable fossil finds, but in ancient times, it WOULDN’T have been a theory supported by evidence. Now, we “know” that ancient philosopher would have been right about his theory, and we can “prove it” today because of new evidence we have found, but that wouldn’t have made this theory any less “outlandish sounding” back in ancient times when there was no direct evidence for it.

    The point is simple. The “Ancient Astronaut” theory doesn’t fit with the rest of your theories for the simple fact that, like dinosaurs and our ancient philosopher, we may simply not have discovered the evidence necessary to validate it. For Holocaust denial, the moon landing, and even creationism, plenty of counter-evidence exists, along with evidence of other explanations … the same can’t be said for ancient astronauts. The most that can be said about ancient astronauts is there is little evidence either way, and since most of what we see from antiquity CAN be explained through other means, thats usually how we explain it. That doesn’t mean we’ve found the right explanation though, anymore than the people who used the “daily motion of the sun in the sky” to postulate that the sun moved around the earth found the right explanation, despite it being eminently logical to stone-age intellect.

    elron steele

    February 18, 2012 at 10:49 am


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