Monday, February 9, 2009

Creationists and Moon Landing Conspiracy Theorists: Why the Similarities?

Ever been to Mt. Shasta? If not, you're missing out; it's a real stunner. Once, when I was getting ready for a multi-day climb, at the trailhead I was treated to a conversation with a gentleman who told me he'd been drawn to the mountain by the spirits of the Ascended Brotherhood. He didn't take the hint I was trying to provide with my half-hearted grunts of comprehension that I wanted to be left alone so I could concentrate on double-checking all my equipment before I set out. While I may seem to have missed an opportunity to take a nutcase to task, at the time I had more important things to be thinking about than trying to devert this nutjob. Now, Mt. Shasta has drawn more than its share of nutjobs over the years, and at one point people even claimed (famously, in writing) to see demi-humans cavorting on its slopes, which they named Lemurians. So at some point, while fastening shut my boots and feeling obligated to fill the open spot that had just opened in his monolog about the Brotherhood, I mumbled "Oh, are they like the Lemurians?" "No!" he snapped, with an expression like he couldn't believe I would ask such a ridiculous thing. "That's all just made-up stuff!" True story.

I can't decide how interesting it actually is that people who believe in one schmendrick theory seem more likely to believe another schmendrick theory - Moon landing conspiracies, the vaccines-are-evil movement, creationists, Holocaust deniers - take your pick. (I'm adding this link after the original posting because the behavior of the anti-vaccine mob is too textbook to pass up.) For example, as a drug research professional, it's my experience that conservative Utah Mormons are, of any U.S. demographic, most likely to reject traditional pharmaceuticals and rely on herbal treatments and homeopathy. At first this surprised me: I had always associated the herbal crowd with New Agers and confused neo-hippies, not religious conservatives.

But people seem to pick and choose and combine crackpot theories with no consistency as to where these worldviews fall on the political or "philosophical" spectrum, and the theories they pick have more to do with their personalities than any talent the crackpots might accidentally retain for getting at facts. That's why crackpots can adhere to what seem to be conflicting theories, or they can violently reject one idea when it has exactly the same evidence to support it as another that they build their lives around. Namely, zero.

That's why it shouldn't be surprising but is still somehow interesting that the Ascended Brotherhood seems plausible to some folks, but that the Lemurians are obvious nonsense. Picking up on this phenomenon, the radio host Howard Stern has on several occasions delighted in finding two people on the streets of New York claiming to be Jesus, and then putting them both on the air at once to let them fight it out for the benefit of his audience. Not so strange that I am Jesus. But you? You're just a nutjob from the streets of New York!

No doubt there are many creationists who think (for example) moon landing conspiracy theorists are nutjobs, and vice versa. But whatever their "theory" of choice, these movements' torch-bearers frequently have certain disturbing personality characteristics in common, even beyond their evidenceless thinking. What's really curious is how the torch-bearers tend to have similar personality defects. As my case studies I've chosen everyone's favorite late moon conspiracy theorist Bill Kaysing, and creationist entertainer Kent Hovind, who (if you need a refresher on who he is) receives in the following interview all the dignity and respect he deserves.

Here are the parallels:

1) Both of them have trouble avoiding difficulties with authorities. Hovind is in jail for massive tax evasion. Kaysing was threatened with arrest for stalking Neil Armstrong and tried to sue Jim Lovell after Lovell called him "wacky". (Aw, let's have a pity party.)

2) Their conspiracies multiply. As said before, it's tough for this kind of person to restrict himself to just one conspiracy. Kaysing was convinced the CIA and IRS were trying to poison the American public. Hovind has spoken publicly on several occasions about the encroaching dominance of a New World Order, consisting (apparently) of Ted Turner et al. Hard to see the link with cavemen riding dinosaurs there, but somehow Kenny involves himself in both.

3) They both have "I can't believe how much more clever I am than these eggheads" syndrome, and dramatically overstate their qualifications. I mentioned this "I'm smarter than the ivory tower guys" point before in my discussion of intelligent geography. Kaysing puffs himself up as a rocket propulsion authority from an aerospace contractor, when in fact he was a record keeper for a contractor. Hovind has a non-accredited correspondence degree from a Bible college but actually listed himself in the phonebook as "Dr. Hovind". Esteem issues? Furthermore, both of them rely on an appeal to populism at least as much as they do on any kind of attempted argument. Yet for people who realize they're bucking the received wisdom, neither seems very accepting of criticism of his arguments or prepared to defend them publicly. Quite apart from the emptiness of their arguments, they often don't even bother to put any effort into communicating them in a neat and presentable format. (See the link on Kaysing for details of the "book" that he gave to an publisher; when they told him they needed more than disorganized scribbling and vague ideas to publish him, he of course decided it was the Conspiracy suppressing the Truth.)

As an aside from personal experience: at the Maker Fair in San Mateo, California in 2007, there was a display by a gentleman who claimed to have disproven quantum physics. If I described his display as crayon drawings scrawled on a torn-off-cardboard box panel, I would be exaggerating only a little. There were more than a few genuinely interested physicists and engineers stopping at his display and trying to politely investigate his results, but he was having none of their impudent questioning. How dare they not just accept his theory without critique! Or indeed without a supporting exhibit that looked like it was made by grown-ups!

4) Hovind and Kaysing are both lone wolves. People who are genuinely after the truth share their work with others and join groups and alliances and discussions to exchange findings. In fairness this is also kind of a forced move; to some degree hanging out on your own becomes necessary if you're a vapor merchant.

5) They are both personally victims of conspiracies. This goes without saying. If it wasn't for the evil cabal of Darwinists, or the Government, brainwashing us all, the truth would be obvious to everyone. The depth of their pathologies is such that one wonders what the dividing line is between conspiracy theorists and mental illness.

6) Both seem constitutively unable to display any humility in the face of the unknown; both claim knowledge of the Big Picture, and the entire big picture. Admittedly my observation here is pretty abstract, so to make it more concrete, look for any humility, or for these characters to occasionally admit ignorance on certain topics, or to acknowledge that their idea is good enough for now but doesn't explain everything. You'll be looking for a long time. For that matter look for a single "I don't know" from these guys. There is nothing in their behavior or communication that suggests a continuing search for knowledge, because their quests seem more motivated by a psychological search for dominance by forcing others to accept their worldview than they are by a philosophical search for truth.

Of course, it's possible that these guys are fully aware of the B.S. they're peddling the whole time, and it's really just a sunk-cost fallacy, as named by Dennett here; that is, even though they realized long ago they're full of it, they want to keep selling books, or they don't want to let down their wives and kids. Then again, perhaps on some level, after long enough, they do end up believing it. As Upton Sinclair said, it's difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding. But given the similarities between Kaysing and Hovind (and Harun Yahya, and Hutton Gibson), I think it's deeper than that. I think their theories say more about their evangelizers' personality defects than about external reality.


Dan said...

Stop making fun of the mentally ill!

Michael Caton said...

Hey, there's a difference between making fun and not buying their books or electing them.

Dan said...

Look, just because people are raving batshit insane and divorced from reality, doesn't mean they should be denied the right to command our armed forces, educate our children, shape our foreign policy, and captain our industries.

Either Jesus or Aliens or a wizard designed them to lead us!

Michael Caton said...

Some of the actually observed psychotic delusions I've heard from physicians treating institutionalized people are pretty elaborate. What fascinates me is what keeps Kent Hovind out of an institution (if not out of a jail)? Is it a matter of magnitude , i.e. he's not *as* psychotic? Is it just a majority-is-always-sane question? Or is there a class of persecution-complex personality that can do a better job of keeping the lights on because there's a more effective doublethink strategy? If that's the case, then I think over the next 1-2 decades there will be fMRI studies showing us physically how that's accomplished, and I hope to be doing some of those studies. Sam Harris already beat me to the punch regarding studying the effect of belief on real-time changes in brain activity.