In which the Armour of Unreason is proven impenetrable by the Arrows of Rationality.
I remember The X-Files from the early ’90s. I never watched very much of it at all; it wasn’t really my cup of tea. Too much paranormal bizarrity and just random grossness for my taste.
One of the things I do remember is that Mulder had a UFO picture on the wall of his office with the caption “I want to believe”.
I bring this up because I’ve been arguing with crazy people on the Internet again.
The Internet, and particulary social media, must be a gift to people with strange ideas. No matter how outlandish or irrational your viewpoint, it seems you can always find “like-minded people” who share and thus normalise your particular brand of crazy.
It’s not that I don’t hold some views of my own that others would probably dismiss as the ravings of a madman. The fact that I believe in God and acknowledge the fact that there’s a spiritual world would make a lot of hardcore atheists dismiss me as deceived or mad. I’ve been a Creationist in Britain, where it’s hard to publically doubt evolution, especially as a Biology undergraduate. I don’t make much of an issue about it here in Texas, where it seems like it’s fashionable to believe that scientists, the media and the government are conspiring to lie to us all for their own nefarious purposes. Firstly it’s no fun, and secondly, I’m really uncomfortable with the general disrespect for science displayed by most people who self-identify as Creationists.
The best way to convince me to change my views is to present me with an extremist version of views I already hold. See this crazy person? That’s what you look like…
Which is probably why I get into it with crazy people in the first place.
Not every crazy person is going to meet my semi-Pavlovian response of, to make use of Terry Pratchett’s hilarious satire, “Smite-the-unbeliever-with-cunning-arguments” (this being the given name of one of his pseudo-Jehovah’s Witnesses, through whom he pokes fun at the church in general. Smite’s co-religionist is named “Visit-the-ungodly-with-explanatory-pamphlets”). There are times that I just throw my hands up and say “you know what? Why should I bother trying to convice you. It’s fairly obvious you aren’t going to listen to reason.” But with Christian crazies, somehow I just can’t help myself. You claim to be a follower of Christ like me, so I have to acknowledge you as one of the family of faith. And yet you also hold these other views that are all the way out the other side of fringe and approaching sanity from the back side. By association, you’re making me look crazy, and making my faith look irrational. Stop it. Please, for the cause of Christ, don’t ever tell people you’re a Christian.
This particular crazy person believed that the US military is poisoning us all by means of the water vapour contrails of high-altitude jet aircraft. If he’d stopped there I probably would have just written him off as a random crazy. But then he went from there to “surely the Day is coming. come, Lord Jesus!”, thus indelibly linking faith in the coming Kng-Messiah Jesus with his irrational beliefs. I’m afraid I let him have it with both barrels.
Any idiot wth half a gram of scientific training and logic can tell you that when hot wet jet exhaust hits cold dry upper atmospheric air in which there is enough dust for water droplets to condense around, vapour contrails form. It’s exactly the same process as with clouds. It’s not uncanny and it’s not sinister. It’s just water obeying the laws of physics that God set for it.
To believe anything else… My question is “how do you get there?” Surely you don’t do a Google search on “how do jet contrails form?” and then, in spite of the vast majority of scientific, scholarly accounts explaining the physics of what’s going on, out of all of the diverse theories, opt for “the US military is poisoning us all”?
No, you have some preconceived idea that makes you embrace that possibility in spite of the main body of evidence. Like Mulder, you want to believe.
It certainly seems a popular idea to believe that We Are Being Lied To. I see car bumper stickers here in the arch-conservative state of Texas saying (and this is a direct quote): “I Don’t Believe The Liberal Media”.
Now, the issue of bias in news reporting is a complex and subtle one, and everyone comes at stories with a certain amount of preconception based on the fact that we, as humans, cannot stand outside of our own worldviews and belief systems. We are limited and finite in our intelligence, and so we have to make decisions on what data we will accept as valid and relevant. Some of this happens on an unconscious basis.
For example, if you believe that the material world is all there is and that things not conforming to the laws of science as we understand them (ie miracles) cannot happen, by definition, you will automatically look for a non-miraculous explanation of a miracle story: It’s an exaggeration, or the placebo effect, or selective reporting, or an outright lie, or some scientific principle that we don’t fully understand yet.
News organisations do have their biases. I grew up in Britain, where the political leanings of each of the major national newspapers is public knowledge. As a hint and example, the Independent isn’t.
But what these bumper stickers generally mean is “I get all my news from internet outlets known more for their adherence to a right-wing political line than for attempting objectivity and neutrality”.
The information and sources you accept as valid frame the interpretations you are willing to accept. If you already believe the media are lying to you (or at least, misrepresenting the data and being selective in their reporting), you are predisposed by that belief to take fringe conspiracy theories more seriously. After all, they’re lying to you about this (whatever it is), what else might they be lying to you about?
And because of the internet (especially the way search engines remember what you’ve searched for in the past in order to try and bring you results they think you’ll like), you gather with other like-minded people in your own little puddle of crazy. Where, because everyone thinks like you do, you think you’re normal. Information coming in from unapproved channels and sources can be safely dismissed as unreliable. “They’ve bought into the lie“. “They’ve been corrupted by the enemy“. “They are biased against us”. “They’ve gone over to the Dark Side“.
Can no-one weigh evidence any more? Do we truly not understand how to distinguish fact from fiction? If William of Ockham had been alive today, he would grow a beard, so little do we use his famous “Razor”.
Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. In other words, the simpest explanation that fits all the facts is the one likely to be true.
Which is simpler? To believe that 9/11 was a terrorist attack by al-Qaeda (who, let’s remember, claimed responsibility for it, as well as this being where most of the physical evidence points), or to believe it was all a massive government conspiracy in order to start a war in the Middle East? To believe that vapour contrails are just water obeying the laws of physics or that they are a hyper-secret plot by the military to poison us all?
Never mind the infrastructure that would have to be in place to load these hypothetical poisons into the planes to begin with (and under the noses of not only the passengers and air crews but also all of the maintenance people as well), but the amount of people that would have to be in on it to make it work is immense. A super-secret conspiracy involving huge numbers of people is an oxymoron.
Or at least, extremely unrealistic. And this is not even mentioning questions of motive and motivation. Why would they want to do that, and why would they go through with it? The individual military people I know are honourable men and women, yet you want me to believe that their entire organisation is evil? It doesn’t fit.
It is, in essence, Crazy.
But of course, if you’re crazy, you’re very selective about the reality you accept. You have armoured yourself against such puny things as logic, objective evidence and rational debate. You want to believe, and you’ve surrounded yourself with like-minded people to the extent that you really do believe that all of your crazy theories are “blatantly obvious”. After all, everyone in your narrow circle agrees with you! If you don’t agree, you must be evil or deceived.
Analysis of source reliability is a basic tool for discerning truth from error. If you can’t distinguish reliable sources from unreliable ones, you are open to any lie that happens to reinforce your preconceived ideas. It’s more attractive to believe in a sexy conspiracy theory than a boring truth that includes some “we’ll probably never know exactly why”s. The internet doesn’t care whether something is true or not. It just finds stories. The onus is ours to sift and weigh the information, and to all appearances we’ve lost the ability to judge source reliability. And this says uncomfortable things about our Christianity. Who cares about evidence? Believe in Jesus because it’s a sexy story and you get good feelings from it.
It’s all very disheartening. The lunatics are running the asylum, secure in their armour of unreason. Like the dwarfs in CS Lewis’ The Last Battle, so afraid of being “taken in” and deceived that they cannot be taken out of the prison of lies they have built for themselves.
I know. I shouldn’t argue with the crazies, even the Christian ones. It only feeds the outrage and disconnection that fuels their pursuit of unreality. But somehow I find it difficult to stop myself. I love truth, and you’re equating it with your own irrational delusions. It makes us all look as crazy as you, and I object to that.