Saturday, January 19, 2013


This started out as a reply to a comment by my friend, Jim Harris, but it got too long for that (as my replies tend to do). Well, I had more to say about it than I expected (again, quite common, for me).

You can read my original post and our comments there, if you want, but I'll summarize here. I was talking about conspiracy theories in general and the Sandy Hook conspiracy theories specifically, how it was ghoulish to use such a tragedy for your own entertainment.

Jim found my interpretation hard to believe. (Note that this is just an excerpt from his comment.)
I tend to think there are lots of people beyond reason, who are neurotic or psychotic. I've known schizophrenic people who believe in wild paranoid beliefs like this. ...

Like our problem of insane people getting guns, I think we have a problem with insane people using the internet.

Now, I commonly use words like 'crazy,' 'insane,' and 'lunacy' when I'm blogging here, often referring to ideas, but sometimes to people, too. Heck, I've even got a tag for insanity. But I don't mean it literally.

Of course, I'm not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, so I'm not qualified to make a diagnosis of insanity. But there's more to it than just that.

For one thing, I grew up when totalitarian regimes, if they didn't want to just execute political prisoners, would sometimes declare them insane and imprison them in well-guarded asylums. That works better than a regular prison, because who's going to pay attention to what an insane person says, right?

For another, I'm not sure that insanity is all or nothing. You can hold crazy beliefs* without being completely crazy, and you can have a mental disorder without being insane. In fact, I suspect that most of us, at one time or another, could stand for a little more mental health. IMHO, it's too simplistic to label all these people 'psychotic'.

But mostly, I just don't think this stuff would be so widespread if it were actually due to insanity. In fact, I think it's just the reverse, that it's such a common problem because it appeals to perfectly normal human nature.

It's human nature that makes it easy - very, very easy - to believe what we want to believe. Even skeptics have to fight against that tendency. In fact, scientists have created the scientific method, in part, as a clever way to work with human nature, rather than against it, because human nature is so powerful.

Now, if you look at an ordinary human being like you or me, how important are we in the grand scheme of things? If this were a play, we wouldn't even have a walk-on role. We'd be in the chorus - and not in the front line, either, but back behind everyone else.

But everyone is a star in his own story. You may be completely inconsequential to most people (though important to a few, admittedly), but in your own mind, you've got the lead role. You're the star in your own story, and it's only natural to want that story to be as entertaining as possible.

There are many ways to do that. For example, you might identify with a religion or a political party. You might be a Christian soldier, helping God to battle Satan for our souls - the most important fight that ever was or ever could be. Sure, you're just a foot-soldier, not a general, but you're still fighting a super-villain. How cool is that?

Conspiracy theories make it even better. Of course, your conspiracy of choice tends to depend on your political and/or religious leanings. You might be a 'birther' or a 9/11 'truther', but you're unlikely to be both. So conspiracy thinking doesn't usually replace the other entertaining elements in your internal story, but adds to them.

By the nature of conspiracy thinking, most people think you're crazy. To you, you're one of the small minority who know the Truth, the valiant few who haven't been hoodwinked by authority, the brave fighters against overwhelming odds. What a story, huh? You're not just a member of the chorus now!

No, now you're Walter Mitty. You're in the French Resistance. You're in The DaVinci Code. You may not be the leader of the movement, but you're still important. The real crazy people - crazier, at least - take it too far, but most conspiracy enthusiasts aren't like that. They're just pepping up their lives and, especially, their internal narrative.

That's why I call it entertainment. But it's also ghoulish when they're using a real tragedy, where six- and seven-year-old children were murdered, along with their teachers, and many others traumatized by the event. Real families are grieving, and it's despicable to use that just to spice up your own life.

Now, I know that these people don't realize that's what they're doing. I understand that. But it's still pretty disgusting, don't you think? What it's not, though, is insane - not technically, not literally. It's just human nature. That's my thinking, at least.

What do you think?

* PS. It's funny what we consider to be crazy and what we don't, isn't it? If I thought that aliens replaced all of us just before death, beaming us up to the mother ship while leaving a simulacrum behind to die, and that all people end up living on alien planets, healed of our injuries and cured of our diseases, that would be crazy.

But I could believe something very similar and it would be considered perfectly normal - even expected - religious faith. Both beliefs seem roughly equivalent crazy-wise, but one is sanctioned by our society and one isn't.


Jim Harris said...

Bill, probably if you looked through the latest edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders you'd find a classification similar to the one you described.

Mental illness is a spectrum, and most of us have our quirks, if not neurotic aspects, but some people live beyond normal, way beyond.

I get the feeling you haven't been up close and personal with people like you described. Explaining that conspiracy theory nuts do it to make themselves important ignores everything else about them.

The spectrum of mental illness relates to the spectrum of how well individuals can cope and perceive reality. You think conspiracy theories give people self-importance, and that might be possible, but I see other things too.

I am reminded of my younger days when I used to explore the doors of perception via chemical adventures. Hallucinageic drugs shatters the mind, and to cope you fixate on ideas to bring order to a confused reality.

To normal people reality is calm and transparent. To crazy people, if my experience with drugs give an insight into their minds, reality is more like a confusing storm. It takes a lot to hold your mental shit together. Focusing on an idea calms the raging storm.

I believe being really crazy is like living in a mental hurricane. I tend to think of people who believe in extreme conspiracy theories as having minds confused like those of dreaming minds, or drugged minds, or minds confused by fevers, where things don't make sense but you need some kind of thread to hold thing together.

We spend billions and billions on physical health, but as a nation tend to ignore mental health. We all talk endlessly about our physical problems, but we're too shy to discuss our mental problems.

We live in a egalitarian society where we want to think everyone is equally mentally. But that's just not true. Many people can't cope with reality. People who believe in conspiracy theories are using them to cope with their mental problems. Conspiracy theories are just a symptom of much deeper mental illness.

WCG said...

Jim, you might be right, but note this recent poll, which indicates that 63% of registered voters "buy into at least one political conspiracy theory."

Note that those are just political conspiracy theories, so it doesn't include people who think the Moon Landing was a hoax, or that the government is keeping aliens in Area 51.

In fact, those are just the people who believe in one or more of the four specific conspiracies they inquired about (so they didn't ask about such things as the JFK assassination, either).

Does it make sense to think that 63% of Americans are just insane? Indeed, that number would be higher than that - far higher, likely - if they'd asked about more than just those four specific conspiracies.

I hadn't seen that poll when I wrote this post, but it backs up my contention that this is just human nature, don't you think? Maybe it's us rational people who are the aberrant human beings. :)

PS. I thought this was interesting, too: "Generally, the more people know about current events, the less likely they are to believe in conspiracy theories – but not among Republicans, where more knowledge leads to greater belief in political conspiracies."

More specifically, "the relationship between current events knowledge and belief in conspiracy theories is conditional on partisanship. Among Democrats, each question answered correctly reduces the likelihood of endorsing at least one of the conspiracy theories by seven points. Among independents, each additional question reduces it by two points. For Republicans,though, each additional question answered correctly tends to increase belief in at least one of the theories by two points"

Funny, huh? But Republicans get their 'knowledge' from places like Fox 'News' and right-wing talk radio, where they're deliberately misinformed.

Other studies have also shown that Fox 'News' viewers might know who the president and vice-president are (that kind of 'knowledge'), but they're woefully misinformed about everything with a political implication. For example, many of them still think that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Democrats tend to get better informed when they pay attention, but Republicans just get misinformed. If you're a Republican, you're more likely to be correct if you're apathetic and pay absolutely no attention at all. Crazy, isn't it?

Jim Harris said...

Like we've already agreed upon, sanity is a spectrum, and insanity is also a spectrum, and sometimes I don't even know if they are the same spectrum.

I have a theory that people who become Republicans are a certain personality type anyway. Of course that's true of Democrats too. I think conservatives and liberals are mentally different. But that isn't to say we're not 90% the same in other ways.

We already know conservatives tend to be more religious. Religion is just another delusional coping mechanism. Is believing a guy died for your sins 2000 years ago any more rational than believing that the government covered up the JFK killing, hides flying saucers or faked the Moon landing?

It is my contention that most of humanity hides from reality one way or another. Humans are programmed to put a spin on patterns of information. Humans are not programmed to analyze data scientifically.

Bill you spend a lot of time writing about atheism, but you assume belief in religion is merely faulty processing of facts. People who buy into religion don't think, they are delusional. They've already drank the Kool-Aid. They see reality different. It's another form of insanity. For most people it's very mild.

I'm saying sanity is seeing reality for what it is, and very few people do that. There are many definitions of sanity, most deal with being able to function in society. I'm saying we can have a completely functional society, with everyone acting orderly, but all believing the same delusion. But how is that sane? Christians, Mormons and Muslims can have very smoothly run societies with very happy people, the very definition of sanity. But is it sane to believe all those delusions about reality that they believe?

When I say people are crazy, I don't necessarily mean they need to be locked up in a padded cell to protect society and themselves. I'm saying their map of how reality works doesn't actually map to reality. Most people reject reality and create a delusion that makes them happy and they map all behavior to it.

You and I are a couple of guys going, "Hey, things are different from what you're seeing." and we're being ignored because most people aren't seeing but believing. Most people look at reality from tinted glasses and only see the tint.

WCG said...

"It is my contention that most of humanity hides from reality one way or another."

It sounds like you agree with me, Jim, that this is just human nature.

And heck, I frequently use the word "insane," myself - as I admitted early in my post (although I also cautioned that I don't mean it literally).

So it sounds to me like we don't actually disagree, or not on much. However, if we label the vast majority of people as "insane," then we're going to need a new word for the aberrant few.

Although, in that case, the "aberrant few" would probably be us, huh? :)

Jim Harris said...

I think we're a growing subset of the population

If you look at the DSM, you'll see endless classifications of mental illness.

Here's a breakdown of rough numbers