The Age of Unreason

Men want certainty, not truth. — possibly from Bertrand Russell

Flat earth map, with the ice wall at the perimeter
Flat earth map, with the ice wall at the perimeter

A thoughtful friend asked me what 2020 will be remembered for, apart from the obvious, ie Covid and Trump losing. I could not think of anything.

My friend suggested it is the realisation that in the 21st century millions of people are turning away from science and reality towards a variety of beliefs that border on the crazy. Examples are QAnon, flat earthers (yes, they are serious), deniers of Covid, about 40% of Americans believe the Rapture is coming, biblical fundamentalism, climate change denial, neo-Nazis, Holocaust denial, belief in Trump as a saviour, doomsday predictions, sundry cults, alien abductions, New Age beliefs, and a multitude of conspiracy theories, such as that the moon landings were a hoax, or that 9/11 was an inside job.

Some of these beliefs appear harmless, but occasionally, they inspire horrific violence, such as the killing of 920 people by the Jim Jones cult, the sarin attack in Japan, the Breivik massacre, the Oklahoma bombing, the Waco siege, the Christchurch massacre, and the Heaven’s Gate suicides.

It is difficult to generalise about the various strange beliefs that people hold, as these include conspiracy theories, varieties of denial, religious fantasies, extremist political or racist views, and beliefs like the flat earth, that elude classification. There is no common thread underlying this spectrum of beliefs. Rather, they can be characterised by what they reject, which in a nutshell, is rationality.

Rationality can be defined as the desire to be guided by reason, which we apply to the available evidence. The third ingredient is the willingness to admit we are wrong. So turning away from rationality means letting emotion or emotionally-based belief take precedence over reason, an unwillingness to look at factual evidence, plus a dogmatic belief that one is in possession of the ultimate truth. Many irrational beliefs run counter to Occam’s Razor, which tells us to prefer the simplest explanation that covers the known facts. Complex processes may require elaborate or involved explanations, but the point is not to introduce unnecessary factors, especially ones of a fanciful nature.

Clearly, there are too many irrational beliefs to do them justice, so let us look at flat earthers, Heaven’s Gate and QAnon to see whether there is a pattern.

A Flat Earth

A bizarre example is the contemporary belief that the earth is flat. Is such a belief even possible in the 21st century? It may be feasible to construct a world view that makes a flat earth plausible. However, it requires factors such as a massive world-wide conspiracy to hide the truth, the abandoning of all of modern cosmology and much of physics, as well as weird ad-hoc explanations for why planes fly in circles around a flat disc, rather than around a spherical globe. Also, that ships at sea disappear below the horizon requires adjustment to the laws of optics. If that still does not cover all the facts countering a flat view, then one could invoke mind control by Martians, or something of the sort. The point is that if one wants to conjure up fantastical reasons to invalidate what we know of reality then it is always possible to do so.

It seems to me that the flat earth people are not interested in gaining knowledge about the world. They are uninterested in discovering what lies beyond the putative ice wall in Antarctica that holds back the oceans or why NASA might be guarding it. They just believe in the flat earth and that is that. Their only concern is to bolster the theory, which I think they hold on emotional grounds. They are willing to perform elaborate mental contortions to support their belief, and it is interesting to observe how much of modern science they are willing to jettison in order to keep their belief afloat, eg gravity.

Whereas the explanations given for the earth being flat are interesting, to me it is more interesting to enquire what causes people to seek these explanations in the first place. What causes people to believe the earth is flat?

Four factors come to mind. One is a desire to be rid of experts and eggheads, who insist on telling ordinary people what to think. In the case of the earth’s apparent flatness, the boffins are telling us to deny the evidence of our senses by invoking the large-scale curvature of the earth, something that is far from apparent in ordinary life. Flat earth is like the last stand of common sense in the face of the inexorable advance of science, which keeps telling us the world is far stranger than we thought. It is also a form of contrariness and rebellion against authority. The second is the ego-gratification of knowing a secret that is hidden from nearly everyone else. The third factor is on religious grounds. The fourth is a desire to return to a comforting and anthropocentric model of the universe, rejecting the notion that our planet is an insignificant speck in the incomprehensible vastness of the universe.

Many ancient cultures subscribed to a flat earth cosmography, including Greece until the classical period (323 BC). However, early Christian writers tended to believe the earth is spherical, though with some notable exceptions. Curiously, it wasn’t until 1849 that the flat earth belief was resurrected by Rowbotham and later others. He argued that the “Bible, alongside our senses, supported the idea that the earth was flat and immovable and this essential truth should not be set aside for a system based solely on human conjecture”.

In the internet era, the proliferation of communications technology and social media have given individuals a platform to spread pseudo-scientific ideas and build stronger followings. The flat earth conjecture has flourished in this environment. Social media and the internet have made it easier for like-minded thinkers to connect and mutually reinforce their beliefs. They have also had a levelling effect, in that experts have less sway in the public mind than they used to.

The belief that the earth is flat could be seen as the ultimate conspiracy theory, given how many people are needed for a cover-up on such a scale. According to the Flat Earth Society’s leadership, its ranks have grown by 200 people per year since 2009. Judging by the exhaustive effort flat earthers have invested in fleshing out the theory on their website, as well as the staunch defenses of their views they offer in media interviews and on Twitter, it would seem that these people genuinely believe the earth is flat. They tend to distrust observations they have not made themselves, and often distrust or disagree with each other. I imagine they are maverick individuals who enjoy challenging the status quo.

Paul Sutter, “The question isn’t ‘why do people believe in a flat Earth?’ but rather ‘why do people believe in a conspiracy?’ And the answer is the same reason it always is: a lack of trust. Many people don’t trust the society around them, most notably the representatives of that society. By claiming that the Earth is flat, people are really expressing a deep distrust of scientists and science itself.”

Heaven’s Gate

Far more bizarre than the flat earth belief are the doctrines of Heaven’s Gate, which melded the Bible with belief in UFOs into a religious cult. It was founded in California in 1974 by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. These two pondered the life of St. Francis of Assisi and read works by Helena Blavatsky, RD Laing, and Richard Bach. They studied several passages from the New Testament, focusing on teachings about Christology, asceticism, and eschatology (“the end times”). Applewhite also read science fiction, including Robert Heinlein and Arthur Clarke. They concluded that they had been chosen to fulfill biblical prophecies, and that they had been given higher-level minds than other people. They wrote a pamphlet that described Jesus’ reincarnation as a Texan, a thinly veiled reference to Applewhite.

Eventually, Applewhite and Nettles resolved to contact extraterrestrials, and they sought like-minded followers. They published advertisements for meetings, where they recruited disciples, whom they called “the crew”. At the events, they purported to represent beings from another planet, the Next Level, which sought participants for an experiment that would bring people to a higher evolutionary level.

In September 1975, the group visited the small town of Waldport, Oregon, to give a lecture about how UFOs were soon going to make contact with the human race. Roughly 150 people packed into a motel hall to hear Applewhite. At first the town thought it was a joke. However, soon after, in a testament to Applewhite’s charisma and powers of persuasion, 20 people — or about one in 30 residents of the town — drove off to a meeting of about 400 people in Grand Junction, Colorado, in the hope of meeting aliens.

Later, the crew sold all their worldly possessions and said farewell to loved ones; the group vanished from the public eye. From that point, “Do and Ti”, as the two now called themselves, led the nearly one-hundred-member crew across the country, sleeping in tents and begging in the streets. Evading detection by the authorities and media enabled the group to focus on Do and Ti’s doctrine of helping members of the crew achieve a “higher evolutionary level” above human, which they claimed to have already reached.

Most of their followers are described by researchers as having been longtime truth-seekers, or spiritual hippies who had long attempted to find themselves through spiritual means. The clan of UFO followers all seemed to have in common a need for communal belonging in an alternative path to higher existence without the constraints of institutionalised faith. The group purchased alien abduction insurance that would pay out $1 million per person, covering abduction, impregnation, or death by aliens.

Applewhite began to emphasize a strict hierarchy, teaching that his students needed his guidance, just as he needed the guidance of the Next Level. A relationship with Applewhite was said to be the only way to salvation and he encouraged his followers to see him as Christ. In the 1980s, the group became more like a religion in its focus on faith and submission to authority. Students who were not committed to this lifestyle were encouraged to leave; departing members were given financial assistance. He specifically cited sexual urges as the work of Lucifer. Applewhite, “We do in all honesty hate this world”.

In March 1997, Marshall Applewhite videoed himself in Do’s Final Exit, speaking of mass suicide as “the only way to evacuate this Earth”. After asserting that a spacecraft was trailing Comet Hale-Bopp and that this event would represent the closure to Heaven’s Gate, Applewhite persuaded 38 followers to prepare for ritual suicide so their souls could board the supposed craft. Applewhite believed that after their deaths a UFO would take their souls to another level of existence above human, which he described as being both physical and spiritual.

News of the 39 deaths in Rancho Santa Fe motivated the copycat suicide of a 58-year-old man living near Marysville, California. The man left a note, “I’m going on the spaceship with Hale-Bopp to be with those who have gone before me,” and imitated some of the details of the Heaven’s Gate suicides as they had been reported in the media. At least three former members of Heaven’s Gate committed suicide in the months after the mass suicide.

Heaven’s Gate members believed the earth would be wiped clean and refurbished before 2027, and that the only chance for their consciousness to survive was to leave their human bodies at an appointed time. Initially, the group had been told that they would be transported with their bodies aboard a spacecraft that would come to earth and take the crew to heaven, the Next Level. When Nettles (Ti) died of cancer in 1985, it confounded Applewhite’s doctrine because Nettles was allegedly chosen by the Next Level to be a messenger on earth, yet her body died instead of leaving physically to outer space. The belief system was then revised to include the leaving of consciousness from the body as equivalent to leaving the earth in a spacecraft.

While the group was against suicide, they defined “suicide” to mean “to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered” and believed their bodies were only vehicles meant to help them on their journey. Suicide, therefore, would be not allowing their consciousness to leave their human bodies to join the Next Level. They believed that, “to be eligible for membership in the Next Level, humans would have to shed every attachment to the planet”. This meant members had to give up all human characteristics, such as their family, friends, sexuality, individuality, jobs, money, and possessions.

The Evolutionary Level Above Human was seen as a physical, corporeal place, another planet, where residents live in pure bliss and nourish themselves by absorbing pure sunlight. They do not engage in sexual intercourse, eating or dying. Heaven’s Gate believed that what the Bible calls God is actually a highly developed Extraterrestrial. Evil space aliens — called Luciferians — falsely represented themselves to Earthlings as God and conspired to keep humans from developing. Technically advanced humanoids, these aliens have spacecraft, space-time travel, telepathy, and increased longevity. They use holograms to fake miracles. Heaven’s Gate believed that all existing religions on earth had been corrupted by these malevolent aliens.

Applewhite taught that “aliens planted the seeds of current humanity millions of years ago, and have come to reap the harvest of their work in the form of spiritually evolved individuals who will join the ranks of flying saucer crews. Only a select few members of humanity will be chosen to advance to this transhuman state. The rest will be left to wallow in the spiritually poisoned atmosphere of a corrupt world”. Only the individuals who chose to join Heaven’s Gate, followed its belief system, and made the sacrifices required by membership would be allowed to escape the prophesied disaster.

In a group open only to adults over the age of 18, members gave up their possessions and lived a highly ascetic life. The group was strictly regimented, tightly knit and everything was communally shared. Eight of the male members, including Applewhite (who was gay), voluntarily underwent castration as an extreme means of maintaining the ascetic lifestyle. “They couldn’t stop smiling and giggling,” surviving member DiAngelo told Newsweek. “They were excited about it.”

Lalich speculates that they were willing to follow Applewhite in suicide because they had become totally dependent upon him, hence were poorly suited to life in his absence. He isolated them socially and cultivated an attitude of complete religious obedience. Applewhite’s students had made a long-term commitment to him. Most of the dead had been members for about 20 years, although there were a few recent converts.

Three of the people who suicided left exit statements on their website. These extoll the joys of the Next Level while summing up people on earth as the walking dead. The texts are not the ramblings of disordered minds. The content is fantasy, but they are written in a lucid way in excellent English and give every appearance of sincerity. Unlike the Flat Earth Society, which no doubt numbers people who joined for a joke, as well as those who are not fully convinced, there is little doubt that the members of Heaven’s Gate were totally committed to their beliefs. After all, they gave up their sexuality and their lives for their ideal.

QAnon

QAnon is a powerful but diffuse contemporary movement that sought to have Trump re-elected. It is animated by a loose collection of extreme right conspiracy theories whose central theme is that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against Donald Trump, who is fighting the cabal. QAnon claims that Obama, Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and others are planning a coup against Trump and are involved in an international child sex-trafficking ring. It alleges that an elite cabal of pedophiles, comprising, among others, Hollywood A-listers, leading philanthropists, Jewish financiers and Democrat politicians, covertly rule the world. Followers of QAnon believe that there is an imminent event known as the “Storm”, when thousands of members of the cabal will be arrested and possibly sent to Guantanamo Bay prison, and the US military will brutally take over the country. The result will be salvation and utopia on earth. QAnon promises a “Great Awakening”, in which the elites will be routed and the truth revealed.

However, this summary is misleading because QAnon is amorphous, multi-faceted and confusing. In addition it keeps shape-shifting.

The conspiracy theory began with an October 2017 post on the anonymous bulletin-board 4chan by “Q”. Q claimed to be a high-level government official with Q clearance. Q predicted the imminent arrest of Hillary Clinton and a violent uprising nationwide. It is likely that Q has become a group of people acting under the same name. QAnon’s adherents, while seeing Trump as a flawed Christian, also view him as a messiah sent by God. Trump himself pretends to know little about QAnon, which is a lie. Trump has amplified QAnon messaging at least 216 times by retweeting or mentioning 129 QAnon-affiliated Twitter accounts, sometimes multiple times a day. Being a savvy politician, Trump is perfectly aware that many, perhaps most, of his supporters are QAnon people. He made a correct political calculation, deciding to give only scant public endorsement to QAnon. Showing full support would hurt his standing with moderate Republicans, whereas he does not need to do anything to retain the devotion of QAnon. They are happy with the crumbs he throws their way, being accustomed to snatching at Q’s hints.

Q’s posts have become more cryptic and vague, allowing followers to map their own beliefs onto them. Part of QAnon’s appeal is its game-like quality, in which followers attempt to solve riddles presented in Qdrops by connecting them to Trump speeches and tweets. Q enthralls readers with clues rather than presenting claims directly. Travis View, a researcher who studies QAnon, says that it is as addictive as a video game, and offers the “player” the appealing possibility of being involved in something of world-historical importance. According to View, “You can sit at your computer and search for information and then post about what you find, and Q basically promises that through this process, you are going to radically change the country, institute this incredible, almost bloodless revolution, and then be part of this historical movement that will be written about for generations.”

Although Q’s claims are false and the prophecies routinely fail, this does little to decrease Q’s influence. Believers overlook the lack of results and failed predictions because they gauge the movement’s success by its popularity, its opposition from the mainstream media, and its recognition by the President himself. On multiple occasions, Q has dismissed his false claims and incorrect predictions as deliberate, claiming that “disinformation is necessary”. This has led psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky to emphasize the “self-sealing” quality of the conspiracy theory, so that evidence against it can become evidence of its validity in the minds of believers. “The absence of evidence is reinterpreted as evidence without batting an eyelid.” Conspiracy enthusiasts believe that the burden of proof lies with their opponents, ie that QAnon’s claims are valid in the absence of positive proof that there is no cabal and no trafficking of children by Democrats.

Experts judge that QAnon’s appeal is comparable to that of religious cults. According to Renee DiResta, QAnon’s pattern of enticement is similar to that of cults in the pre-internet era where, as the targeted person was led deeper and deeper into the group’s secrets, they became increasingly isolated from friends and family outside the cult. Rachel Bernstein, an expert on cults, has said, “What a movement such as QAnon has going for it, and why it will catch on like wildfire, is that it makes people feel connected to something important that other people don’t yet know about… All cults will provide this feeling of being special.”

A series of ideas began burbling in the QAnon community: that the coronavirus might not be real; that if it was, it had been created by the “deep state”, the cabal of government officials and other elite figures who secretly run the world; that the hysteria surrounding the pandemic was part of a plot to hurt Trump’s re-election chances. QAnon is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. Some QAnon-ers are highly focused on what they perceive as degeneracy in the mainstream media, a perception fuelled in equal measure by Q and by Trump. QAnon may be propelled by paranoia and populism, but it is also driven by religious faith. The language of evangelical Christianity has come to define the QAnon movement. QAnon marries an appetite for the conspiratorial with positive beliefs about a radically different and better future, one that is preordained. As one adherent proclaimed, “It’s not a theory. It’s the foretelling of things to come.”

Edgar Welch is a deeply religious father of two, who until December 4, 2016, had lived an unremarkable life in a small town. That morning, Welch grabbed his collection of guns and drove 580 km to a neighbourhood in Northwest Washington, DC. He held an AR-15 rifle across his chest as he walked through the front door of a pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong. Welch was there because of a conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate, which three years later became a pillar of QAnon. It claimed that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of Comet Ping Pong. The idea originated in October 2016, when some conspiracy theorists asserted that sexual abuse of children was taking place in the basement at Comet, where there is no basement. After firing a rifle to break a lock, Welch realised his mistake and gave himself up to police. He was sentenced to four years in prison. The New York Times wrote in June 2020 that posts on TikTok with the #PizzaGate hashtag were viewed more than 82 million times in recent months. The abuse of children fantasy arose because someone suggested that emails written by the restaurateurs referring to ‘pizza’ and ‘pasta’ were code words for ‘boys’ and ‘girls’.

Anthony Comello was charged with the March 2019 murder of Gambino crime family boss, Frank Cali. According to his defense attorney, Comello had become obsessed with QAnon theories, believing Cali was a member of a “deep state”. Comello was convinced he “was enjoying the protection of President Trump himself” so he decided to act. Confronting Cali outside his Staten Island home, Comello allegedly shot Cali ten times. A May 30, 2019, FBI Intelligence Bulletin memo from the Phoenix Field Office identified QAnon-driven extremists as a domestic terrorism threat. Although the conspiracy that QAnon imagines does not exist, there is a real danger that QAnon itself might become a conspiracy of armed vigilantes, determined to bring about the promised “Storm”. The storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters, including QAnon-ers, is not a good sign.

Heavy on millennialism and the idea that a reckoning awaits the world, the theory has found fertile ground in the American alt-right. Some 56% of Republicans believe that QAnon is mostly or partly true. At least 35 current or former congressional candidates have shown support for QAnon. A Time magazine article listed Q among the 25 most influential people on the internet in 2018. Counting more than 130,000 related discussion videos on YouTube, Time cited the wide range of the conspiracy theory and its prominent followers and news coverage.

Why did Q’s cryptic post on an obscure message-board ignite a movement involving millions? Why were so many eager to embrace such a far-fetched conspiracy theory? Perhaps it was the surge in confidence of the Right in the wake of Trump’s win. Whatever the reasons, the grass was dry and Q provided the spark.

QAnon is not confined to the US. It has organised protest demonstrations in 200 countries, ostensibly to “save the children”. One in four Britons are said to believe in QAnon-related theories. According to The Guardian, QAnon is growing in the UK, spilling over into anti-vaccine and 5G protests, fuelled by online misinformation. At a QAnon rally, Shemirani, a nurse suspended for promoting baseless theories about Covid19, told the crowd: “Our government has declared war on the people of the UK.”

“There is a high possibility that the spirited belief system which surrounds QAnon can slowly become a political movement in the UK,” Liyanage said. “It will be successful because no one can fight it through reason. It’s not a rational belief system but mostly a supernatural belief system.”

The time for Trump to arrest the pedophiles and satanists is fast running out. It is interesting to speculate what effect his departure will have on a conspiracy theory in which he is the key figure. My guess is that the powerful energy and passion that drive QAnon will shift focus.

My own view is that QAnon is a blank slate onto which people project their darkest nightmares, as well as their hopes for a Christian utopia. Where do the ideas of satanism, eating children, sinister cabals, sexual depravity, and other crimes against children come from? The answer is simple: from the minds of those who form QAnon. QAnon is nothing but a mirror showing people their shared fantasy. People are sharing with each other their worst fears, as well as their hopes. The dark parts are projected onto the favourite targets of the alt-right, ie Hillary and other Democrats, Jews, and liberals, whereas the messianic hopes are projected onto Trump and Q. However, it is a mistake to see the QAnon conspiracy theory as the work of Q. Although Q was the initial cause, his cryptic and vague messages are merely prompts, asking people to fill in the blanks. This is what many have done and the result is a miasma of fanciful lies about corruption, sexual perversions and violence. The irony is that whereas the accusations made by QAnon are entirely baseless, QAnon might itself become a violent entity, little better than the chimera it rails against.

James Baldwin wrote, “It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own.” Voltaire put it more starkly, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Is Credulity Humanity’s Achilles Heel?

The three belief systems discussed have almost nothing in common except the rejection of the consensus view of reality, combined with belief in a fantasised conspiracy. In each case, powerful unseen forces are seen as perverting or hiding the truth of what is really going on. All three beliefs appear absurd except to people who are believers. The puzzle is why do apparently normal people adopt such ideas?

In a study published online in March, 2014, in the American Journal of Political Science, Oliver and Wood, found that about half of Americans endorse at least one conspiracy theory, such as the notion that 9/11 was an inside job or the JFK conspiracy. “Many people are willing to believe many ideas that are directly in contradiction to a dominant cultural narrative,” Oliver said. According to him, conspiratorial belief stems from a human tendency to perceive unseen forces at work, known as magical thinking.

In the Middle Ages the Devil was a convenient factor that could be used to explain anything weird or harmful, while the deity took responsibility for the rest. With the advance of science, both the Devil and God gradually lost their explanatory powers. God became “the God of the gaps”, being only needed to explain what was missing in our understanding of the physical world. Nowadays, the term “act of God” is reserved to describe the insurance industry’s view of natural disasters.

In the modern era magical thinking has undergone a new twist. God and the Devil have been replaced by conspiracies. A recent survey of 26,000 people in 25 countries asked respondents whether they believe there is “a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together”. In the US 37% replied that this is “definitely or probably true”. So did 45% of Italians, 56% of Spaniards and 78% of Nigerians.

2020 was the year of Covid19. The coronavirus has triggered the rise of myriad myths, waves of misinformation and virus conspiracy theories, including that it does not exist — believed by 22% in Poland, where there have been nearly 1.4 million cases. The virus has also had an incubating effect on unrelated conspiracy theories because it has thrown humankind into a state of fear and isolated people in their homes with too much time to think and surf. The extra time in the virtual space means increased exposure to the proponents of conspiracy theories, without the balancing effect of social interactions.

According to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the normal process is that as people begin to acquire knowledge of a given subject, their feelings of competence rise quickly towards a peak, before declining, as they begin to realise how much more there is to know. In the case of conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, people can arrive almost immediately at that delicious peak of confidence, without actually learning anything at all. QAnon is like a super-car that can do 0 to 100 kph in 3 seconds flat. Many are captivated by the vicarious thrill of believing they are privy to vastly important secrets about which millions of people have no idea. This is the seductive appeal of conspiracy theories.

What causes us to believe? There is an analogy between religions and conspiracy theories. Once you pay the price of entry, ie faith in a religious doctrine or conspiracy, the payoff is that much of the confusion and mystery of life is dispelled because you are in possession of the answers. Yuval Harari: “Our lives are repeatedly rocked by wars, revolutions, crises and pandemics. But if I believe some kind of global cabal theory, I enjoy the comforting feeling that I do understand everything. The skeleton key of global cabal theory unlocks all the world’s mysteries and offers me entree into an exclusive circle — the group of people who understand. It makes me smarter and wiser than the average person and even elevates me above the intellectual elite and the ruling class: professors, journalists, politicians. I see what they overlook — or what they try to conceal.”

The spectrum of irrational beliefs shares one characteristic: they are all unfalsifiable. Their adherents never say, “If such-and-such happens I will discard this belief.” This is particularly apparent in doomsday predictions. The predicted date comes and goes, but the true believers simply reset the clock to a future date. A cult called the Seekers went one better. They believed a UFO would save them from a cataclysm on December 24, 1954. Afterwards, some of the members claimed that their group’s devotion had saved the rest of the world from disaster. They responded by proselytizing with renewed vigour. Cults and conspiracy theories are highly resistant to correction. Even the thoroughly discredited Pizzagate is still believed by masses of people.

The self-validating nature of the beliefs ensures that all evidence can be construed as confirmation. New findings that contradict a belief are interpreted as proof of the further workings of the conspiracy to hide the truth. Yet cults and conspiracy theories are not the only systems that guarantee their own validation. If one questions what is taught in a personal growth course one is rebuked with, “You are resisting”. Pseudo-science is very difficult to debunk. Inconvenient facts, such as aliens not showing up, are explained by another tweak to the doctrine.

To be fair, the process of theory adjustment happens in science proper as well. When a theory fails experimental test it may be given an additional proviso that accounts for the discrepancy. For instance, the fact that personal experience can be handed down as a genetic legacy to future generations seems to contradict standard evolutionary theory. As it turns out, there is no contradiction. A new sub-science called epigenetics explains the mechanism of this process in terms of alterations to the DNA molecule that do not change the genetic code but which influence gene expression.

Since science is a human activity, it is subject to the foibles of our species. It too has dogmas that are difficult to overturn. Thomas Kuhn has written persuasively about paradigm shifts in science. He saw the history of science as consisting of normal and revolutionary phases, in which the community of scientists in a particular field are plunged into periods of turmoil, uncertainty and angst. These revolutionary phases, such as the transition from classical physics to quantum mechanics, involve great conceptual breakthroughs and lay the basis for a succeeding phase of business as usual. This is captured in an aphorism that is only half humorous, “The measure of the greatness of a scientist is how long they hold up advancement in their chosen field.”

The history of science features dogmas that were held too long and new ideas that took an unreasonably long time to be accepted. One example is the resistance to the theory of plate tectonics, another is the opposition to a bacterial explanation for the cause of ulcers. The mainstream rejection of functional medicine and the progress it has made in curing Alzheimer’s Disease is a current example.

Nevertheless, the greatest strength of science is that it is tentative: any scientific theory may be overturned and replaced by a better theory in the future. The criterion of a theory being scientific is that it makes predictions which could, in principle, be falsified by new data. Yet to a fundamentalist or a common sense sceptic, such as a flat earther, this is not a strength but a weakness. They point out that science can never prove anything, that scientific theories have been debunked plus questions science can’t answer. Hence science is not to be trusted. With the authority of science diminished, the field opens for persuasive individuals with pet theories, especially about conspiracies. The bottom line is that many people do not perform due diligence in checking the information they encounter and its sources. Given the virulent spread of QAnon and other conspiracy theories, this is a massive under-statement. The worry is that many obtain their news from questionable sources, such as Facebook and YouTube.

Ultimately, eschewing reputable news media in favour of bulletin-boards and succumbing to their conspiracy theories has deeper causes. These are alienation and a lack of trust in society and its leaders. Why are people alienated and distrustful? Perhaps the underlying problem is not credulity but its opposite, ie a loss of belief in the system. Those who are drawn to far-right conspiracy theories have lost trust in democracy and the modern state. They think the US no longer embodies the ideals they believe in. Conservative Christians and right-wingers resent their defeat in “the culture wars”, which were about abortion, separation of church and state, creationism, recreational drug use, homosexuality, and censorship. Perhaps the “Great Awakening” is their dream of a return to how things were. The fact that they grasp at ludicrous ideas indicates the depth of their disaffection.

Of course, irrational beliefs, superstitions, baseless theories and weird cults have been with us all through history, ever since the invention of writing, and probably long before. The difference now is that we supposedly live in the age of reason and science. Furthermore, knowledge is far more freely available than at any time in the past. The problem is that disinformation, extravagant falsehoods, fringe beliefs, and sensational stories are more easily disseminated than ever before, and they seem to capture peoples’ attention more than sober facts. The difference between 30 years ago and now is that anyone can post anything and potentially reach millions of people. It’s the old story — those who know least have the loudest voices. The paradox is that although reliable knowledge is now easily accessible to anyone with an internet connection, millions are turning their backs on both science and common sense.

My conclusion is that despite the advances of human knowledge, human nature itself has not changed. We remain a species ruled by emotion rather than logic, and hence we come to believe all kinds of nonsense.

Another conclusion comes from an insight of the brilliant intellectual, Yuval Harari. He is convinced that we human beings can only prosper and live in harmony with each other provided we believe in a shared myth. If so, then a propensity towards credulity might be built into our genome. Unfortunately, credulity is dangerous, as shown in Heaven’s Gate, the Jim Jones cult and QAnon.

Tad Boniecki
January 2021

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Tad Boniecki

I am a curious character, wanting to understand the nature of the world and what causes people to act as they do. In short, I like to ponder the imponderable.