We would all like to believe that most folks are rational; that people generally follow a decision-making process involving carefully thinking a problem through, assessing evidence, arriving at a thoughtful, informed judgment. I’d like to think that something like objectivity is possible. And I do think that when we follow some kind of sensible, rational process, we get better results than if we just follow our gut. Maybe. But we also have prejudices and cultural predispositions; we have our own ‘monstrous partialities’ (to quote Roger Williams.)
But then there are ideas, conclusions, determinations, theories that some folks believe in despite essentially ALL evidence. There are ideas out there that are just flat nuts. And what I’ve learned is that when people we know–friends even–believe in certain nonsensical theories, there’s no shifting them. They simply will not listen to evidence. Ever. My son gave me a book for Father’s Day; Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? Great book, really enjoyed it. It reminded me a bit of Stephen Greenblatt’s writings on the Shakespeare authorship question, a kind of scholar’s embarrassment over having to address such a nonsensical issue. There is as much evidence that Jesus never existed as there is for the idea that Shakespeare’s plays were written by someone other than William Shakespeare, glover’s son from Stratford. That is to say, there is no evidence whatever for either proposition. And there is an overwhelming consensus among serious scholars who have spent their lives studying either question that, Jesus existed, and that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Here’s Ehrman: “Anyone who chooses to believe something contrary to evidence that an overwhelming majority of people find overwhelmingly convincing–whether it involves the fact of the Holocaust, the landing on the moon, the assassination of Presidents, or even a presidential place of birth–will not be convinced. Simply will not be convinced.”
I’m not sure anyone’s immune, either. A few years ago, for example, I was having an insomniac night alone with late night TV and I saw a special someone had made about the moon landings. It was called something like: “The Moon landings: did they really happen?” That wasn’t the actual title, of course. Anyway, that was its argument–NASA, to justify their federal funding, perpetrated this massive fraud on the American public. All the Neil Armstrong “one small step” stuff was done in a movie studio. It never happened. There’s even a mainstream movie based on it: Capricorn One, back in ’77 (this particular falderol is of ancient vintage). Starred Brenda Vaccaro, Sam Waterston was in it . . . and O.J. Simpson. Anyway, I’ll confess, for about ten seconds, watching this stupid TV show (it was late, I was tired), I found myself wondering, gosh, could it be . . . is it possible. . . ? But no. Neil Armstrong really did land on the moon. Sorry: he did.
Of course, BTW, there was a mainstream movie based on it. Most of the really popular conspiracy theories have movies based on them: JFK, The DaVinci Code, Anonymous. Movies do paranoid nonsense well, from Knowing to, well, Conspiracy Theory.
Why do people believe in nonsense? Check out Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Hofstadter’s great book was written in 1964, before the Tea Party, before Birthers, before Truthers (the guys who think Bush orchestrated 9/11), but boy does it seem prescient. I like Wikipedia’s summary. In part it comes from a rejection of expertise, from a kind of proud rejection of pointy-headed intellectuals with all their fancy degrees and big words. It’s fun to think you know something nobody else knows, that you, personally, have Figured Things Out. And of course it’s self-perpetuating. If you’re an Oxfordian, you spend a lot of time on Oxfordian websites, for example. If you’re a libertarian, it’s easy to find libertarian economists, people who reject Keynes, who think the New Deal didn’t work. And when you read only one kind of book, only one kind of article, when you visit only one kind of website, it’s easy to feel confirmed in your beliefs, buttressed against all those unthinking masses you haven’t studied as you’ve studied. You’re learned to conflate “evidence” with actual evidence.
It makes life more exciting, less mundane. It feels good, to be in the know. And it feels good to feel smarter than anyone else. It feels good to give in to the crazy.