Analyzing crazy beliefs

Recently there’s been a renewed attempt in the liberal / scientific blogosphere to figure out what’s up with all the crazy social / political claims that keep erupting — about creationism, Obama, health care, global warming, etc. A new and I think potentially major step forward in this analysis has just been posted by Mike the Mad Biologist, building on two excellent posts by Slactivist (False witnesses, False witnesses 2). This analysis is the first one I’ve seen that makes me feel like I understand most of the craziness we are seeing today (and have seen in some form for many decades), and have at least a hope of figuring out how it will evolve, how we should respond, etc.

The basic point is that the crazy stories (death panels, global warming conspiracies, Obama’s birth, etc. etc.) aren’t really “believed” as we understand that term, at least not by their most vigorous proponents. We use “belief” to mean ideas that are part of an overall picture that we intend to be coherent, to help guide our actions in the world (including in the lab if we are scientists), etc.

Instead, these crazy “beliefs” are really a way of recruiting emotional and social support, declaring membership in a group, etc. So “believers” can’t be persuaded that the “beliefs” are “wrong” just because they are incoherent, lead to obviously wrong conclusions that the “believers” won’t adopt, etc. A strenuous attempt to persuade believers on pragmatic grounds just confirms you are not one of their crowd, can’t be recruited, and are probably one of the enemy. The post “False witnesses” referenced above has a very good discussion of this in some detail. It is worth reading because it is hard to imagine this state of mind (at least I find it hard) until you see it laid out in very specific terms.

I don’t want to say the crazy stories aren’t “really” beliefs — though I’m not sure saying they are crazy beliefs is any nicer. Instead, let’s call the first kind of belief (aiming at coherence and effectiveness) “pragmatic”. We can call the second kind (aiming at recruiting or maintaining support) “participatory” beliefs. (I’m sure there are harmless and even charming participatory beliefs, as well as these crazy ones.) Realistically we all have both kinds, the question is which kind are dominant in any given area, how we react when they are challenged, etc.

Properties of pragmatic vs. participatory beliefs
Slacktivist usefully summarizes his expectations and how he found these extreme participatory beliefs actually work:
I was operating under a set of false assumptions [viewing these as pragmatic beliefs]. Among these:
  1. I assumed that the people who claimed to believe [a particular crazy story] really did believe such a thing.
  2. I assumed that they were passing on this rumor in good faith — that they were misinforming others only because they had, themselves, been misinformed.
  3. I assumed that they would respect, or care about, or at least be willing to consider, the actual facts of the matter.
  4. Because the people spreading this rumor claimed to be horrified/angry about its allegations, I assumed that they would be happy/relieved to learn that these allegations were, indisputably, not true.

All of those assumptions proved to be false. All of them. This was at first bewildering, then disappointing, and then, the more I thought about it, appalling — so appalling that I was reluctant to accept that it could really be the case.

But it is the case. Let’s go through that list again. The following are all true of the people spreading the [crazy story]:

  1. They didn’t really believe it themselves [using the "pragmatic definition of belief].
  2. They were passing it along with the intent of misinforming others. Deliberately.
  3. They did not respect, or care about, the actual facts of the matter, except to the extent that they viewed such facts with hostility.
  4. Being told that the Bad Thing they were purportedly upset about wasn’t real only made them more upset. Proof that the [crazy story wasn't true] made them defensive and very, very angry.

Rather than saying the people he was talking to “didn’t really believe it themselves” and intended to misinform others, I’d say that they didn’t care about the pragmatic dimension at all, and so didn’t consider their recruiting to be misinformation. Quite possibly they didn’t expect those they were trying to recruit to interpret the rumor as a pragmatic fact.

This analysis has a lot going for it, much of it discussed rather well in these posts. Obviously participatory disagreements will be more like turf wars than practical discussions. As Mike says in the first post below, “part of the reason [for global warming denialism] is the ever-present desire to punch a hippie in the face” but he thinks that is a different issue. No, it is the same issue — hippies are cultural icons who stand for a different set of participatory beliefs incompatible with the main crazy participatory beliefs. (Obviously for this analysis it doesn’t matter if hippies really do have those beliefs or if hippies even exist.)

The members of the tribes that tell these crazy stories fear they can’t recruit hippies (and in fact fear that hippies are dangerously capable of seducing their own weakly committed members). Punching them in the face is their sincerest form of acknowledgement.

I think this analysis is a good guide to anticipating likely future scenarios, and to judging the effectiveness of possible actions. The worst scenarios are very bad, and while not highly likely I think they are credible. The 20th century leaves us with many examples of participatory “cults” that generated massive death, suffering, and social destruction (military cultures in Europe and Japan, Nazis, Soviet Communists, Maoists, Khymer Rouge, and so forth).

What’s the role of religion?
None of these posts focus on religion per se (though the crazy beliefs they talk about are especially relevant to evangelicals). And certainly some major participatory cults have been very hostile to religion (e.g. the Khymer Rouge, Maoism, etc.) — I suppose viewing it as competition.

However I think just about all organized religion depends on participatory beliefs (some forms of buddhism may be exceptions). Even if a believer is otherwise rational, their religion says it is OK for them to have beliefs that are basically incoherent (or carefully not evaluated for consistency), that aren’t effective in guiding action (or aren’t evaluated in terms of effectiveness), etc. Evangelical religions, furthermore, are defined by recruiting others to their participatory beliefs — that’s what evangelism is.

One of our constraints is that liberals have a participatory belief (or meta-belief) in pragmatic belief. We want to debate at the level of pragmatic beliefs (what is coherent, what will work) and avoid tribalism. Thus liberals can seem weak when they are attacked in social turf wars at the level of participatory belief. I guess this liberal participatory belief is partly historical, in that the liberal coalition (meta-tribe) was largely founded on the rejection of religious wars and the valorization of pragmatic choices relative to participatory beliefs, and partly structural, in that the liberal coalition still depends largely on uniting groups with partially incompatible participatory beliefs (liberal protestants, liberal catholics, liberal jews, liberal non-religious, liberal muslims, etc.).

We don’t anyway want to respond to tribal attacks by organizing tribal counter-attacks — that just tends to pull everything down to the tribal level and would make our problems a lot worse. So as an initial response, the rejection of participatory, tribal responses by the liberal coalition is correct. However we can’t just respond with pragmatic arguments because that doesn’t work against participatory attacks. We have to actually take on the participatory attacks and defeat them — we just have to find ways of doing it that are better than fighting them on their own participatory terms.

5 Responses to “Analyzing crazy beliefs”

  1. December 13th, 2009 | 6:37 pm

    For this kind of person, there simply exists no world of objective reality about which one can pose propositions called “facts” that must be either “true” or “false”, and whose status as such can be discerned by consideration of something called “evidence”. It essentially represents a deep-seated visceral rejection of the Enlightenment.

  2. Jed
    December 13th, 2009 | 7:27 pm

    Totally agree about “deep-seated visceral rejection of the enlightenment” — good description.

    I’m ambivalent about “no world of objective reality”. These folks often seem to manage pretty well in some pragmatic domains — for example some of them run companies, not just by posturing and getting favors (like George Bush) but by actually making good decisions. Less competent ones can probably drive in traffic, make change in a store, etc. So somehow they make pragmatic decisions that depend on some respect for “objective reality”.

    On the other hand I don’t want to give them too much credit. I’m tempted to believe that they pick and choose where to rely on “objective reality”, and where to take a radical constructivist posture, while of course denying they are doing any such thing.

    Obviously I don’t yet understand how to draw the right lines here.

  3. Brian Rudzevich
    April 28th, 2010 | 5:13 am

    “part of the reason [for global warming denialism] is the ever-present desire to punch a hippie in the face”. LOL :) I followed you here jed, from our shared books in Library Thing – hope you don’t mind. (I was intrigued that you rated The 3rd Chimpanzee higher than Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Social Evolution.)

    Having read the above, and being a global warming skeptic from way back, and seeing that you and yours are trying to understand a person like me, someone with ‘crazy beliefs,’ perhaps I can enlighten you. Or perhaps as something from a crazy-belief person, you will simply delete this response. Here goes anyway.

    I am a scientific person – I have a Master’s in Physics. I am for saving the environment. Pollution is bad, and should be controlled in some manner. What I and other scientific people like myself can’t stand, what we go ‘crazy’ about, is the abuse of science in the name of global warming. Childish hyperbole regarding the rise of oceans, the imminent extinction of penguins and polar bears is irritating, especially when it’s given a scientificish patina. But the gross sins of manipulating data into the hockey stick graph, asserting that change in climate is unnatural, and cherry-picking tree ring data, crosses the scientific line and then some. Lies like that are deeply offensive to those of us who revere Science. If the globe is warming, then use real science to show it. No real scientist would ever start off his argument by saying “the debate is over.” Only P.R. people use that tactic.

  4. Jed
    April 28th, 2010 | 10:26 am

    Thanks for your comment, Brian. While one of posts I reference did mention global warming denialism, none of them really discussed that in any depth. I don’t think questioning the consensus on global warming is inherently crazy. However for example a strong conviction that all the scientists who do believe in global warming are in some big conspiracy to hide the truth would be crazy.

    There’s a spectrum of beliefs from normal debate to starkly crazy. The posts mainly analyze the belief that P&G was involved in satanic cults, which I’d call starkly crazy. On the other end, a belief that the tree ring data wasn’t properly analyzed and a desire to get the data and analyze it better or differently could be “wrong” in some sense but is pretty much inherently not crazy, since it will tend to get worked out in debate.

    I guess my touchstone is the underlying process. I’d say the process is trending toward the crazy end if it is strongly directed toward creating or maintaining epistemic closure (a hot topic recently, see Jim Manzi for a recent post on epistemic closure and global warming denialism, or google the phrase for a huge and interesting discussion). Conversely I’d say the process is trending toward the sane end if it leads to constructive engagement between those who disagree, and produces debate based on independently checkable, relevant information. Of course any real discussion will have multiple currents but usually it isn’t too hard to tell what direction things are flowing in a given case.

    The global warming debate specifically involves some pretty crazy currents, and also a lot of pretty sane currents. Your comments seem to be referencing specific data related issues that I guess will (or at least can) be hashed out over time, so I’d tend to say they are not pulling us toward the crazy.

  5. March 8th, 2012 | 4:43 am

    Jed, you say: “We want to debate at the level of pragmatic beliefs (what is coherent, what will work) and avoid tribalism”. What I’ve found is that this perspective turns out to define yet another participatory tribe, aka liberals. There are a set of ‘politically correct’ beliefs, some of which you have alluded to. It turns out that some of these beliefs happen to be factually wrong. And when I’ve tried to discuss these with what seem to be well-informed liberals, I get a non-rational response much like I would get from a Fundamentalist Christian if I were to contest scripture.

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