Monday, February 29, 2016

Flat-Footed Flatheads

Part of my evening reading the past few weeks has included Ron Brotherton's Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. So I found the following email from a friend more than a little intriguing.

We live in an interesting period of human history. One of the ruling philosophies of the Boomer generation has been "Question Authority." And because of our knowledge of history, of propaganda and the media (cf. Edward Bernays and Marshall McLuhan) we're not without foundation to take this stance, up to a point. It's the age of suspicion.

Being suspicious is one thing, but when we distrust everything it can put people into some pretty precarious places. Advances in modern medicine have eliminated many of the diseases that ravaged communities in olden days. In earlier times there were reasons families were large. Many of those children were never going to reach adulthood. But now, with conspiracy theories surrounding the very vaccinations that have made us safe from polio, small pox and other deadly diseases we're seeing a rise in some of these diseases that had been nearly eradicated.

Brotherton doesn't mock and dismiss people who believe conspiracy theories. His book's aim is not to catalog all those rabbit holes. Rather, he attempts to present new research on how the brain works and why we tend to be so susceptible.

This past week I once again watched Woody Allen's Zelig, a fictional documentary about a "chameleon man" who becomes like whoever he is around. It's a clever psychological study about our efforts to fit in. While serving as a masterful piece of entertainment it simultaneously affirmed one of the basic reasons the masses are susceptible to many of the most absurd assertions.

Here's a portion of yesterday's  email, which the writer titled, Flat-Footed Flatheads.

There's this growing phenomenon occurring on YouTube promoting a flat earth theory. They believe the Earth is a flat disk with a dome over the top they call the "firmament" that is described in Genesis of the Bible... separating the waters above from the waters below. On this dome the universe is projected to us including the sun and all the stars. Another claim about Antarctica is it's a wall of ice that goes around the entire edge of the disk. Underneath are the usual layers of earth, crust, mantle, core, etc. They also claim that the UN logo is an actual map of flat Earth.

As creative as it sounds, it's laughable how serious the followers are. I'm not going to explain why the earth is a sphere. Anyone with a couple of thumbs can Google it. What I am going to discuss is the nature of conspiracy theories and the people who follow them. I can be charged as guilty for being amongst this crowd for a sizable portion of my 37 years. The reason I fell into this stuff was I felt hopelessly disenfranchised as a disabled person. There was a theory and explanation for every injustice and corruption present in the world. It's almost a religious experience, the level of catharsis these theories bring to a lonely tortured person. So I get it. I understand why people fall into this tomfoolery.

This is where I have to turn my back on these people. There's definitely something bizarre going on in a possibly sinister way. 

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Some of my friend's observations here and Brotherton's assessment of conspiracy followers dovetails with Eric Hoffer's invetigative analysis and conclusions regarding people swept up in mass movements. His book The True Believer is a classic. Here are a few quotes.

"When our individual interests an prospects do not seem worth living for, we are in desperate need of something apart from us to live for." p. 24

"When people are ripe for mass movement, they are usually ripe for any effective movement, and not solely one with a particular doctrine or program." p. 25

"A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence." p. 44

"The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning, but from its certitude." p. 76

This should be enough to chew on for today. Let's see what happens next.

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