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Beyond Understanding [Trenchant Edges]
Estimated reading time: 11 minutes, 56 seconds. Contains 2387 words
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, a newsletter about weirdshit and the people who get up to it.
I’m your host and archnerd, Stephen.
I keep aspirationally writing, “And this one’s finally on time!” which I’ve decided is cursing my process. Instead, I’m going to invoke the Uno Reverse card. Who knows when this is gonna be done? Not me. Not you either.
Except that if you’re reading this it already is.
We’ve been having a nice break from UFO bullshit over the last couple weeks, focusing on Fake Paul and then some of my reflections on what constraints push people to be interested in conspiracy theories.
Today we’re going to do something a bit experimental. Normally for these, I’ll pull together a couple of resources and use those to contextualize and flesh out my ideas
We’re going to dip our toes in what academia thinks on the subject.
This is beyond understanding because we’re going to look at what factors other than the information evaluated itself leads people to delusions.
We’ve talked a bit (and at length) about some of the core essays of the field before: Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics, The Cultic Mileu, When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, and I think Culture of Conspiracy by Michael Barkun.
Especially since COVID-19, this is a growing field. I’m less interested in the really “cutting-edge” stuff and more in the basic research.
We’re going to start with some psychology and neuroscience and move outward toward social psychology and sociology
What’s in a Brain Anyway?
For our purposes today, the brain is a kind of tool: It’s the interface awareness uses to process information, control our bodies, and order awareness.
The vast majority of this happens outside of awareness’ candle in the dark, leading to all sorts of complications.
This is probably necessary because there’s just so much more information in our environments than our conscious minds can handle and much of the processing of it isn’t really useful to put attention on.
Like, what exactly are you going to do to create the illusion of 3D vision? Your brain probably has that taken care of, pending illness, injury, or bored researchers.
All of this is usually seamlessly integrated into our experience which is a great benefit and a great problem.
Our brains are more or less set up to work with intention or goals.
While goals appear simple, they can be asymmetrical networks of ideas, feelings, desires, fantasies, and needs. Unpacking even apparently simple things often reveals the iceberg cliche: It’s bigger under the water.
We’re going to avoid getting too deep in the physical mechanism weeds, but it’s worth mentioning one thing: The Reticular Activating System.
The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a complex and diffuse brain structure responsible for a huge chunk of automatic body functions like body movements, cardiovascular control, and the two things we most care about: Alertness/Sleep and Habituation.
In these respects, the RAS acts as a kind of filter to help a person respond to situations correctly. The classic example is someone who can sleep through busy city noise but still wake up if they smell smoke or hear an alarm.
Have you ever thought about something and then suddenly find yourself seeing examples of it everywhere? That’s your RAS changing how you filter information. Thinking about buying a Red Honda Civic, all of a sudden all the Red Honda Civics you see pop out at you.
See where we’re going here?
Put a pin in that.
Let’s move on to another core concept: Apophenia or seeing meaningful patterns in meaningless situations like shapes in the clouds.
Now, I dislike this framing of what’s going on. How, exactly, do you know that the pattern you see isn’t real? The initial connection is usually just an association: X reminds me of Y.
There are a lot of variations of Aopophenia, from seeing faces (Peridolia), Gambler’s fallacy, clustering fallacy, and the ever-popular confirmation bias.
All this stuff happens when your psychic machinery gets a false positive about something. What’s tricky about it is the difference between a meaningful pattern and a fake meaningful pattern might be imperceptual in a moment.
This is especially true with highly abstract things like, say, news reports about UFOs.
What’s the difference between a story about an alien landing and an alien landing hoax? Well, what happened. Which requires additional information from the story.
This brings us to our cornerstone idea: Motivated Cognition.
I could write something about this, but instead, I’m just going to quote the entire abstract of a paper because it’s so clearly written.
Goals and needs shape individuals’ thinking, a phenomenon known as motivated cognition. We highlight research from social psychology and cognitive neuroscience that provides insight into the structure of motivated cognition. In addition to demonstrating its ubiquity, we suggest that motivated cognition is often effortless and pervades information processing.”
This is from The Neuroscience of Motivated Cognition by Brent L. Hughes and Jamil Zaki 2015 from Trends in Cognitive Science.
I don’t think I could do a better job of describing it.
The really important things here are the intersection between goals/needs and effortlessness/pervasiveness.
The paper then goes on to describe the different stages within information processing that one of these biases can nudge our thinking.
Put another way: What you see, what you choose to focus on, and all the little evaluations that add up to a decision or conclusion can all be nudged or controlled by your desire to see a particular result.
This is true for both confirming and disproving things.
This is all further complicated by one’s own sense of self. If one believes themselves to be X, and that to be X you have to Y, both X and Y will skew your evaluations.
Ex. A few years ago I tried to gauge the risks involved in 5G cellphone towers. There is some scary research out there but a lot of it is very qualified or requires extreme behaviors like standing within a few feet of such a tower (Which you should definitely not do) or talking on a cell phone for a long time every day (which may be a cancer risk).
I had an aversion to the claims I saw about 5G and wanted to move away from the people who believed what I saw as ridiculous things. Simultaneously, I was and remain skeptical of the tech goons who want to implement 5G mainly to get huge bandwidth boosts to the Internet of Things.
So I didn’t want to say, “This is fine” or “This is the end of the world” so I settled on a measured response linked to my very amateur reading of studies I couldn't criticize because I don’t have the physics to understand the actual mechanisms and often lacking the mathematics to keep up.
The conclusion I came to was that while there were some risks and no safety work had been particularly well done those risks looked to be modest for most people and the fearmongering was largely unjustified.
A messy bit of decision-making.
But was that chain of guesses right? I don’t know. Time will probably tell.
It’s entirely likely that factors beyond “the evidence” determined my conclusions.
Before we move on I want to spotlight one more bit of research. The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories by Karen M. Douglas, Robbie M. Sutton, and Aleksandra Cichocka.
They identify three classes of motivation for conspiracy-belief: Epistemic, Existential, and Social.
By Epistemic they mean that conspiracy theories may be used to support flailing beliefs or to dismiss contradicting evidence against our beliefs.
Existential motivations are related to feelings of safety or threat and having a sense of control over their environment. In short, let lets you feel like you get the really real mechanism behind whatever event and that’s easier to deal with than chaotic ambiguity.
And lastly, social motivation involves forming groups based on shared belief or shared opposition to something else. The easiest way to motivate people to work together is to give them a shared enemy threatening them.
Let’s take some more time to focus on the of those:
Not I, But We
I have a love/hate relationship with the late David Graeber and his last book The Dawn of Everything is no exception. This will seem like a petty example but it’s true. I like the way he focuses on groups of people forming around, in part, rejection of people near them. I hate the way they (Sorry for almost skipping you, Dave Wengrow, Graeber’s coauthor), use the word Schismogenesis for it.
It’s so overwritten and lofty for what’s a very fundamental and constant process of identity formation that slowly builds as people choose each other or not.
I hate it, but Schismogenesis is a pretty good word for how my conclusions about 5G played out. I didn’t want to be with either the, “This is entirely harmless” or “5G is literally Hitler” camps, so I made my own with guesses about what “the real” risks are.
While I’ve got some experience with psychology and research, I don’t know a fucking thing about high-energy physics so I estimated the best I could and filled in the rest with my assumptions.
I bring up this example because I spent like an hour today looking at a guy’s “evidence” for a much more extreme negative view even though none of his evidence really supported that so it’s fresh in my mind.
Both of us were making reasonable to us evaluations.
I don’t want to harp on the guy, this isn’t about his evidence but the experience of it is fresh in my mind.
The core concept here, I think, is Intergroup Conflict. That is, conspiracy theories represent accelerations or intensification of existing intergroup issues.
I see myself as smarter than most people and pretty much all groups despite knowing that there are plenty of people smarter than I am. That’s a delusion that provides energy and intention for me to move around conceptual space.
Well, if these people are buying into X, they must be partially mistaken. Followed by ideation to find a better answer.
Groups are complicated and will often do things to provoke each other. With enough antagonism, they begin to actively look for new bad things about each other.
If connected up in the right kind of network this can rapidly create polarization and more extreme speculation, which is what we observe in the conspiracy world.
We can see this most clearly at its most extreme: Neo-Nazis arguing that Hitler’s crimes were justified and necessary because of the great threat facing Germany. Delusional, Adolf wanted to commit a stack of genocides so Germany could be a big-boy empire.
But it’s easy enough to see why it’d be compelling to someone who believes it.
This is why Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascism stresses the plot and scapegoating. Your enemies must be beatable and as loathsome as possible.
OK, I see we’re running out of space here.
Let’s run through a few other things and wrap up early.
Other sociological explanations:
Conspiracy as pseudo-theories that reduce social complexity
Conspiracy as scapegoat for loss of status/privilege
Conspiracy as rejection of hegemonic sensemaking
Conspiracy as an attempt to maintain an accurate understanding of a messy world
Conspiracy as a political weapon
A few of these are self-evident and we’ve kind of talked about them already to some degree. So let’s start with #3.
Many conspiracies are an attempt to create a space where people in an outgroup can develop their understanding of the world without censorship or suspicion. Clive Woods makes the argument that this is the genesis of much of Black American culture in what he calls the Blues Epistemology of the Mississippi Delta in the excellent book Development Arrested.
Many socially conservative people are frustrated with culture and unable to address the serious roots of much of what they dislike (such as capital devastating communities and provoking more people to migrate to find work), so they blame Liberal permissiveness in an attempt to recreate an idealized Lost era when things were Good.
Heading into that is why Fox News was so popular with conservative audiences: They pandered while claiming to be unbiased.
Alright. Last two things, I promise.
We’re going to take them at once because they’re the two extremes of good faith and bad faith. Many people get into conspiracy culture out of a sincere desire to understand the world around them. They’re making the best sense of the world they can under constraints.
IE: Information asymmetry, limited trust, and all the other stuff we talked about last week.
The last group are actively trying to spread harm. They don’t care what people believe as long as it pushes them away from their enemies and into their camp.
This is the world of disinformation and misinformation.
Let’s close this session with a short digression to Sartre from his essay Anti-Semite and Jew:
“Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.”
Lying can be an act of power. A cudgel you use to rally around a cause. To build a radicalized ingroup who will do violence to “protect” themselves proactively.
An outcome that we should be aware can happen and warned against.
The reason this topic is so important is because even if you start off rejecting mainstream ideas correctly, it’s easy to pick up new ones solely on their sharing your rejection.
So even well-founded understanding can become delusional easily.
Changing beliefs takes energy and you can easily build up momentum that can carry you far afield of reality.
It’s a big ocean out here and the beach where most people are is far safer (though not safe) than much of it.
That’s why you should learn to swim. Maybe pick up SCUBA if you’re inclined.
Here’s what I’d like to hear from you:
Are there any ideas in this essay you’d like to read more about?
What was a time you can recognize some of these biases and motivated reasoning acting in your own life?
Alright, I’m out.
See you next week.
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