Normality and a Taxonomy of Weirdness [Trenchant Edges]

A quick light day

Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, a dailyish newsletter where we plumb the fringes to see what might be worth learning from them.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 34 seconds. Contains 1315 words

I’m Stephen, slowly climbing out of law week’s funk and trying to get something easy out rather than trying to finish the big post I’ve been procrastinating on. That way at least I’m not getting out of the habit of finishing something every day.

What I want to do most of this week is sharpen our focus on UFOs, so far we’ve been kinda meandering around the topic. And I’d like our investigations to be a bit more structured than that.

What are we looking for here? What do we want to know? How can we find it out?

By the nature of how we’re going about looking, we can’t really point at finding out the secret truth of the UFO phenomena here. to do that we’d need to provoke our own contact with it and even if successful it’d end up as inconclusive as everyone else’s.

Going back to our first post on critical thinking and UFOs, we’re kinda here for UFOs as an example of the extreme outlier. Less about the strange things that sometimes appear in the sky and more about the ways of interpreting them.

How can we better understand the strange things in our own world?

Let us take a moment and consider the different kinds of weirdness.

Normality and a Taxonomy of Weirdness

What is normal?

One way to conceptualize it is by using my most hated statistical model, the Bell Curve or “normal” distribution.

You get a bell curve for certain kinds of information sets which are subject to intuitive randomness. Human height, for example, is pretty much a bell curve.

With the most likely parts of a sample or set at the top, you get a pretty good picture of what usually happens.

If we instead consider, say, Film box office returns instead of height, we find a more counter-intuitive graph. Unlike most physical characteristics, film earnings are a more winner-take-all game so we’ve got James Cameron’s Avatar making just shy of $3,000,000,000 in a world where the average box office return is 10-20 million.

150x the average.

The equivalent of the tallest person being 837ft 6in tall, instead of Robert Wadlow’s 8ft 11in.

So, depending on the domain, both of these kinds of randomness are well within normalcy.

There are a few big problems with this model, which statisticians love slapping on everything and tweaking results to fit it better. Most of those are technical issues not really important for us today.

But the biggest problem with it is very relevant: It creates false certainty about what will happen. By focusing on the most common outcomes, it hides weirder ones.

We’re not talking about slight outliers here, but stuff that doesn’t make sense within a bell curve at all.

Because of its flaws, we’ll be using the bell curve as our metaphor for normalcy.

But what about weirdness?

Let’s take our cue from Erik Davis and Church of the Subgenius founder Ivan Stang and think of the really interesting stuff as High Weirdness.

Which makes the pulp fiction, pop culture, and stoner talk version more like Low Weirdness. That’s where we’ll find stuff like the X-files, Twin Peaks, Gravity Falls, and most books about esoteric ways to get superpowers and the like.

Low Weirdness is fun ghost stories to tell around the campfire. Told well, they can be exceedingly creepy. The only lasting bout of nightmares I’ve ever had was after watching an episode of the 90s Outer Limits about shapeshifting alien invaders called Sand Kings. Great stuff, don’t show to children.

A lot of Low Weirdness intersects with other kinds of pulp fiction: Romance, Crime, even Superheroes. It’s all kinda mixed together in the milieu of cheap paperbacks and low culture. It’s largely unsupervised, so there are often real gems hidden in the muck.

Low weirdness isn’t bad as much as it is plentiful and unstructured. It’s not trying to make a larger point or be significant. It’s just stoners and the like chatting.

If you start trying to package together enough low weirdness with some reasonable-sounding explanations and faux structure, you get middle weirdness. This is where cults, self-help communities, multilevel marketing companies, organized crime, and religions live.

These tend to be a bit paranoid about outsiders and “the mainstream” because they need an explanation for why everyone hasn’t already joined up or why evil still exists when they’ve found a magic cure.

Middle weirdness is usually handwaved off as group hallucination or psychosis, but they do sometimes run into higher circles.

In a way, most of our current big world religions started with high weirdness that’s decayed over time: Yeshua Bin Josef coming back from the dead, Moses getting rules from a burning bush, Muhammad's receiving verses from the angel Jibrīl/Gabriel, Buddha’s awakening, and so on.

The centuries of normalcy for most of the adherents have calcified those miracles into mere myth rather than living revelation.

A good lesson for anyone chasing this kind of dragon: Today’s world-shattering epiphany is tomorrow’s polite dinner anecdote.

Man cannot live on revelation alone.

With that ominous tone set, we can finally discuss High Weirdness.

High Weirdness is, by definition, a liminal experience. That is, it occurs on the fringes and borders between two things, ideas, or places.

It’s both familiar and strange. Somewhat references existing tropes, but rarely in an obvious way.

Robert Johnson, the famous blues singer, didn’t sell his soul to the devil for blues fame in New Orleans or Memphis, but at some country crossroads in Mississippi. And if you’ve ever been to a Mississippi dirt crossroads at sundown, you can see why it’d be hard to rule the devil out there.

We’ve been focused on two kinds of High Weirdness in this newsletter:

  1. The millenarian visionary flash of Terence and Dennis Mckenna in 1971

  2. The quieter weirdness built from Marshal McLuhan’s attempts to work out how technologies change perception.

What these have in common is the sense of the uncanny. That mix of strangeness and familiarity I mentioned earlier.

Both McKenna and McLuhan found a breadcrumb trail of oddness and followed it down.

And whether either brought back anything of value, the important thing is the journey.

This brings us to one of the hallmarks of this kind of weirdness: The recognition of being changed in a way that’s difficult to explain.

Think about Dennis McKenna disavowing his theories about what the experiment at La Chorrera would do and why, but not the experiment and its consequences itself.

A distinction between Middle and High Weirdness that’s worth knowing just because it’s helpful going to the “marketplace of ideas”. Middle weirdness advocates will often try and make themselves appear as special/chosen/possessing knowledge you cannot have or double-check.

High Weirdness, though, has a way of suggesting ways to try and repeat it if you’re brave or foolish enough.

The knowledge isn’t so much exclusive as it’s weird and perhaps dangerous to retrieve.

But such are liminal places. They have to be explored one by one and for yourself, if you want their secrets.

As always there’s a Moby Dick Quote for this. From Chapter 55, Of the Monsterous Pictures of Whales.

For all these reasons, then, any way you may look at it, you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which much remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness. So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.