The root of all wobble?

Several years ago I used to hang out on UFO and paranormal forums, seeing what kind of evidence was being put forth and the reasoning behind the beliefs. I’m fond of saying that if I had been pursuing some kind of psych degree, I had the ingredients for several theses right in front of me – there is, without a doubt, a curious standard of thinking that becomes very noticeable when dealing with subjects such as alien visitation, conspiracy theories, paranormal activity, and similar topics. Not everyone displays it, but those that do are usually unmistakeable. When skimming through Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World recently, I was in Chapter 11, “The City of Grief,” which is made up entirely of letters from readers. These were received in response to a widely-published piece critically examining alien visitation experiences, and one letter in particular exemplified this trait, even though it’s an extreme example:

Thanks to the Supreme Court… America is now wide open for the Eastern pagan religions, under the aegis of Satan and his demons, so now we have four-foot gray beings kidnapping Earthlings and performing all sorts of experiments on them, and are being propagated by those who are educated beyond their intelligence, and should know better… Your question [“Are We Being Visited?”] is no problem for those who know the word of God, and are born-again Christians, and are looking for our Redeemer from Heaven, to rapture us out of this world of sin, sickness, war, AIDS, crime, abortion, homosexuality, New-Age-New-World-Order indoctrination, media brainwashing, perversion and subversion in government, education, business, finance, society, religion, etc. Those who reject the Greater God of the Bible are bound to fall for the kind of fairy tales which your article tries to propagate as being truth.

First off, yes, I know this person has been selling their medications to stay abreast of the fashion in tinfoil chapeaus, and I’m not going to consider them typical. Yet the topics within this brief screed are fairly common, and the attitude more common still. I feel the need to point out that the writer of this manifesto hadn’t read Sagan’s article very carefully, since it was openly skeptical of alien visitation. Regardless, there are several aspects, commonly seen, that I wish to speak about, and while many of these can be put down to actual mental illnesses, I think it’s unfair and judgmental to dismiss the majority of circumstances in such a manner.

1. A preponderance of threats. Very few people who are involved in subjects like alien visitation consider such occurrences to be good things; a certain number treats them from a neutral standpoint, neither good nor bad, just something that’s happening. But a noticeably large percentage of those claiming visitations are real do so from the standpoint that this is a bad thing, that there are real threats to individuals and society. No small number (I cannot provide statistics – I’m not sure anyone has tried to tally such) appear seriously agitated over the prospect. This doesn’t seem unreasonable on the face of it; aliens with untold abilities that seem intent on kidnapping humans would certainly be something worth fretting over a little. And the same can be said for most conspiracy theories, ghosts and poltergeists, and various other topics. The curious aspect comes when you try to examine the evidence with them, or Borg forbid, point out that the likelihood of such things being true is very low. The defensiveness may start up immediately, and you can find yourself dealing with emotions as strong as if you just denied Johnny Depp could act.

Sure, the argument can be made that such an approach is calling someone’s integrity into question – the same can be said for disagreements in politics, religions, und so weiter. Yet, these beliefs are a cause of no small anxiety in the believer, where they should be ready and willing to entertain the thought that they’re worrying for nothing. One doesn’t often engage in fierce arguments with someone afraid of flying when you point out the statistical improbability of air crashes – they want to believe you, despite their fears. It shouldn’t actually be a struggle to relieve them, much less a personal affront. If you examine that letter above again, you can be convinced that the writer is dealing with near-constant anxieties, but when you engage such beliefs, you encounter an attitude that seems to only indicate that they want to remain this anxious, beyond the idea that they’re defending their own integrity. I’ve seen it too often before to consider it just an emotional reaction.

2. Privileged knowledge. Indicated above in the line about “educated beyond their intelligence,” this frequently-seen aspect is one of the commonalities within visitation/conspiracy discussions. The believer holds an intellectual high ground by being one of the few who knows what’s really happening, unblinded by the propaganda that keeps the populace docile (if you’ve even seen the word “sheeple” used seriously, you know what I mean.) This one’s fairly easy to understand, since it essentially makes the believer special, a cut above the rest, without the reliance on the typical status indicators within society such as intelligence, success, money, et cetera. Additionally, there’s a bit of the hero thing going in that, when the shit hits the fan and the aliens (or government) finally decide to stop hiding and start harvesting or whatever, the believer knew that this was coming all along. I don’t think I’ve seen it extend to having a game plan for this event, but at least they can say they told us all so, I suppose.

3. Putting the pieces together. Like the connection between the rapture and the kidnapping grays in the letter above, another common thread is the fitting together of disparate details. This is fairly easy to understand as well, when you recognize that we’re a pattern-seeking species, so when a believer finds something that doesn’t seem to quite ring true, like the peculiar appearance of the collapsing World Trade towers, they then seek to link it with something else to support their idea. This is a symptom of an underlying drive, it seems, to find the hidden stories. It’s not just a facet of conspiracy-mongers; plenty of people seek the hidden meanings in poems and literature, songs and films, even biology and astronomy. This is fine – it’s an important aspect of gaining knowledge. But like the difference between avoiding being wrong, and avoiding the recognition of being wrong, the drive to find hidden meaning can be misplaced or misapplied. Sharp readers may point out that I could be guilty of this right now.

Further, this drive often seems to result in elaborate machinations in order to support the original ideas. I readily admit, the collapse of the World Trade buildings 1 and 2 seemed odd, more controlled than the toppling of the stories above the impacts that one would expect. But to take this curious fact and then try to expand it into an elaborate conspiracy involving countless details, moreover ignoring all of the factors that damage the conspiracy idea, takes a certain desire to confirm the suspicion, to seek support for an idea that really doesn’t bear logic in the first place. If the buildings were rigged to collapse, why bother with planes, and all of the additional subterfuge required to implement that portion of a plan? Years earlier, a car bomb had been set off in the parking garage in the basement of one of the very same towers, an easily disguised method of bringing down the buildings (and one which would have created many, many more “martyrs” from employees who could not escape, if that was the goal.) A smaller plane loaded with a thermonuclear device could also have been used, requiring far less in the way of staging than using commercial airlines, additionally bolstering the idea that terrorists actually had WMDs. There are countless ways it could have been done much more effectively, had the US government truly been seeking an agenda. Such aspects, however, are routinely ignored.

4. The screen door. Yeah, I’m coining my own terms now – watch for them in the mainstream literature in a few days. One could argue that a screen door is either open or closed – open to let air through, closed to the passage of people, a secure barrier only as long as people respect it. The same can often be said of visitation and conspiracy believers, who often pride themselves on their open minds and willingness to accept unorthodox proposals. At the same time, they can be very resistant to accepting evidence contrary to their beliefs. There is a certain irony in the letter above when the writer mentions the “perversion and subversion in… religion” while wholeheartedly accepting the concepts of “born-again” (one of the lamest ideas ever to be promoted so widely) and the rapture. The same can be said for those who maintain that the Illuminati/Bilderberg secretly control the world while never recognizing that power is rarely shared and such cabals would be subverted from within almost immediately. They seem to equate “open-mindedness” with “bucking the common trend,” not with “examining all proposals with equal judiciousness.” Another way of putting it is the difference between being open to the possibility of something, which means little, and being open to evidence of such, which is a critical distinction.

Again, this is a fairly common trait called confirmation bias, and appears in behavior everywhere, not just among conspiracy theorists and fringe believers. Fox News wouldn’t have a damn thing to report on without it. But it gets raised almost to an art form when speaking of alien visitation and government conspiracies.

The curious part, to me, is how all of the above traits seem to come together so often. I believe many people consider conspiracy theories and such to be relatively rare in a populace, too insignificant to be worth examining, but there are a surprising number of such people out there, and not just sitting in their mother’s basement – the number of PhDs that contribute is eye-opening, as anyone who reads the letters in response to skeptical articles can see. And while I’ve named the typical cases such as alien visits, WTC, and Bilderberg, we can’t ignore the Birthers, JFKs, Protocols of Zion, crack as a method to impoverish blacks, fluoridation, and for that matter, even innocuous things like healing crystals and astrology, which lack only the first trait I outlined above. The frequency of these traits being connected is almost disturbing.

To some extent, popular media is to blame, in sensationalizing and disseminating such ideas until they become reinforced in the public mind – the Kennedy assassination being the greatest example. At the same time, this wouldn’t work half as well as it has if the market didn’t exist in tie first place. Yet it becomes a downward spiral; Richard Wiseman, attempting to publish in the US a badly needed book examining paranormal activity, could not actually find a publisher willing to print it, and this is a book already published in the UK and written by a known author. We are unlikely, however, to see any conspiracy theorists latch onto this abject bias from publishers.

I admit that I’m an armchair dabbler in evolutionary psychology. We can understand many of our behaviors and thinking processes in terms of how they provide some benefit, to our ancestors in the past and even to our current lives. Granted that many of these are hard to prove because such aspects of brain activity cannot even be detailed now, much less within fossils or the genetic line, but they can help explain why we engage in the behaviors and reactions that we do so often. The collection of above traits, however, still eludes me – I’m not sure why they come together so frequently. While I try to tie posts up, this one I’m going to leave hanging, and anyone that wants to provide input or open a discussion is more than welcome.