Recently while perusing the techno-geek site slashdot.org, I came across an article expressing a familiar meme that I’d like to address in this post. When I say meme, I’m not talking about a funny cat picture; I mean it in the original sense of the term as coined by Richard Dawkins, that of an idea that seems to reproduce itself like a gene. The Slashdot item referred to a December 1st article in the Washington Post, entitled “Why people think total nonsense is really deep.”
The article describes a study by Gordon Pennycook of the University of Waterloo, which measured the receptiveness of people to ascribe profundity to nonsense. In one phase of the study, a quarter of the 300 participants rated randomly generated nonsense statements as being more profound than genuine well-recognized proverbs. To me, this has interesting ramifications about the human brain’s tendency to look for patterns where there are none. This was, however, not the focus of the study. The researchers attempted to correlate this willingness to see nonsense as profound, and came to the following conclusion:
“Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions [beliefs in things for which there is no empirical evidence (i.e. that prayers have the ability to heal)] and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.”
To put it bluntly, (and this is solely my interpretation) people whose beliefs fall outside the mainstream are that way because they’re stupid. You see this attitude most prevalently in websites such as Rational Wiki, whose mission statement includes the following:
- Analyzing and refuting pseudoscience and the anti-science movement.
- Documenting the full range of crank ideas.
“Crank” ideas, in their view, don’t just include widely-held superstitions and religiously inspired viewpoints such as Bible-based creationism. They also include climate-change skepticism, the 9/11 Truth movement, and believers in a JFK assassination conspiracy – three categories that implicate yours truly. Now I’m not saying that the writers of Rational Wiki don’t sometimes make a good argument. But I have noticed a significant amount of editorializing and hand-waving in some of their articles – as well as the inclusion of the craziest “theories” – for example, the belief that President Kennedy was abducted by aliens – along with the more widely supported ones. What a shock! These uber-rational folks, who are dedicated to exposing flaws in other peoples’ reasoning, resort to the well-worn “strawman” fallacy, as well as the notion of guilt by association.
In this mainstream view, credulity is contextual. If you readily believe the authorities and the standard explanation for an event or phenomenon, you are rational. (Unless you live in Russia, in which case you would be one of Putin’s Brainwashed Minions.) If you are more partial to alternative theories, you’re credulous and perhaps even mentally unbalanced. Obviously, I disagree: all conspiracy theories and alternative philosophies are NOT created equal. Many if not most of them are, in my view, total bunk. But we must also consider the number of theories that went from “crazy” to accepted, such as the Copernican view of the universe, continental drift (a.k.a. plate tectonics) and evolution.
As for the notion of guilt-by-association: Some may point to the popular documentary “Loose Change” and its collection of unsupported, unrelated and sometimes contradictory theories as “proof” that all truthers are cranks, and therefore conclude that the government’s story of 9/11 must be true, Yet alternative journalist James Corbett does a really impressive job of poking holes in the official story in his brief video, “9/11, A Conspiracy Theory.” Am I contradicting myself? Not at all.
It occurred to me years ago that a secretive government agency such as the CIA could easily influence the news, planting false and misleading stories, and thus manipulate public opinion. In fact, the Agency is widely acknowledged to have done so, not just in the Communist bloc and the “third world,” but in nations considered to be our allies. Does the fact that it’s illegal for the CIA to act inside the USA mean that it won’t? Of course not: “national security” will ensure that the Agency is rarely, if ever, exposed when it does so. And if some whistle-blower does expose them, they’ll be dismissed as — you guessed it — a paranoid conspiracy theorist!
The sarcastic title aside, the point of this post is not that I’m right and “they” are wrong, but that we should all be skeptical, no matter what the source of the information. Everyone has an agenda – even the people we see as “good guys.” As for the “bad guys.” assuming they do indeed have evil motives, they would have no problem inserting disinformation into our “trusted” sources, or infiltrating their agents into “good guy” organizations. In other words, question everything – including this article!
Above “tinfoil hat” image is from http://www.clubpenguinwiki.info/wiki/Tinfoil_Hat