Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tax Protest as Another Conspiracy Theory-Cult

Over at ERV, a commenter (Joshua Zelinsky) made the following interesting observation:

[A chiropractor also being a tax protester] seems to be part of the general pattern that people who care strongly about one form of woo are likely to buy into others as well. It is a strange pattern. The tax protesters are really one of the craziest groups out there. At least most forms of fringe beliefs rest on the notion that somehow they are resting on how they think the universe actually works. But things like taxes are inherently social constructs. If no one agrees with you, you're wrong.

Though I've often thought the same about tax protesters, I would disagree that wooers are more likely to buy into each other, with the large exception of individual-persecution-related woo. Yes, in the course of a life you can have several crazy ideas, but wooers usually are serial wooers; that is, you can only have one theory at a time that explains everything. And sometimes you need persecution wooery to help preserve it (case in point, chiropractors and creationists are often tax protesters, because the evil government is after them both, of course.) But you won't often find, say, a Truther who is also a creationist.

What I've found is that wooers are often offended that you would even associate them with those other crazy (non-persecution) theories. (There was the time I got yelled at for the egregious mistake of confusing the Ascended Brotherhood with the Lemurians, and no, it wasn't even at a Star Trek convention.)

But I agree with him that the whole tax protester thing is fascinating. It's as if they've "solved" the Constitution and now are legally Enlightened and above it. That idea is incoherent enough when applied to material reality, but to social constructs? Bizarre! There are lots of laws that people disagree with, but so far as I know, this is the only instance where a group of people think they can say a codeword (or a secret handshake or a cross or something like that) and agents of the law will have to stop pursuing them.

But maybe I'm not being fair; let's apply it to myself. Let's look at a case where there's a law that I (along with lots of other people) don't like and think is unconstitutional: the gay marriage ban on the books in California that passed in November 2008 (Prop 8). Do I think it's immoral? Yes. Do I think it is, and can be shown to be, unconstitutional? Yes. So what do I do - If I'm gay, do I march down to city hall and demand that they marry me and my husband, because in some seminar someone came up with some crazy legal theory that Prop 8 is unconstitutional? Of course not. What do I think that would accomplish? What are the tax people thinking?

If I had two lives, my second would be spent as a sociology professor, and I would build a compendium of all coherent conspiracy-theory based cults. Tax protesters, Truth-outers, AIDS-denialists, you name it. The qualifier would have to be that they have a social component (i.e., there are lots of physics crackpots, but not physics crackpot society or Center for Crackpot Studies, but there are tax protest leaders, like the one that Wesley Snipes got involved with.) I would also wonder why certain societies spawn more of them. Why the Burned Over District in nineteenth-century upstate New York? Why the propagation of cults in post-war Japan? Humans being the way they are, one virtue of such a profession would be job security.

(Josh, I would've emailed you to let you know I was using the quote but couldn't find your contact info.)


Joshua said...

There may be confirmation bias in my statement that people who believe one form of fringe belief are likely to believe others as well. One certainly does see this many times over however in the alt med community where people who simultaneously subscribe to multiple contradictory modalities. But in those cases, the people aren't using the belief as an overarching explanatory hypothesis (like the YECs and the moon landing hoax claimants) which may be why they are able to combine them and don't need to adopt a serial approach.

Note that certain fringe beliefs are often connected with others however. For example, Jonathan Wells and Philip Johnson, two of the main ID people, are both HIV-AIDS denialists. And if one looks at the comments threads of one gets a surprisingly large number of HIV-AIDS denialists. In this case, it seems almost like there a more general, underlying problem with biology that is manifesting its symptoms as distinct forms of pseudoscience.

Similarly, almost all the modern geocentrists are also Young Earth Creationists. (In this case the explanation is pretty obvious since the geocentrists are generally geocentrists because they believe a literal reading of the Bible requires it).

Note that there's also a lot of overlap between the Birthers and the Tax Protestors and they are using nearly identical tactics in fact (file lots of silly lawsuits).

(Disclaimer: I'm conflating woo, fringe beliefs and pseudoscience in the above, which may be distinct categories. I don't think in this case the general categorization effects things substantially).

(Since you had my blog couldn't you have just left a comment there? Or left a note on the comment thread at Abbie's blog?). Anyways, to prevent the evil spam harvesters, my email is my last name

Michael Caton said...

The more I learn, the more I'm coming to agree with you. But I'm still interested when there IS a conflict; an anti-quantum-physics crank might be a strong moon-landing denier but very pro-vaccine. If you believe one untrue thing, what stops you from believing the rest? There is something to be learned from studying the process of selective cockamamey belief. If it's more than just stochastic, I wager it's social (i.e. you have friends that believe it) since religion seems to be primarily a social behavior phenomenon. One way to test that: do isolated people get more or less religious? That is, does a religious person stranded on a desert island for ten years drift away, or remain faithful? How about a lone religious person surrounded by unbelievers?