The Paradoxically Fierce Blind Defense of Untenable Positions.
Quick! How do you know the earth is not flat?
If you’re like most people, the question seems absurd. Everyone knows the earth is not flat, you think. Why should I have to prove that? It’s silly.
You’re so sure that the earth is round that you probably do not have a ready answer. You might know enough about astronomy or general science to put together a fairly convincing case, but unless you’re an elementary school teacher, or have family members who belong to the “Flat Earth Society” you will likely have to construct an answer “on the fly.”
Although you might be “annoyed” at having to produce a rationale for something that “everyone knows” it is unlikely you will get downright enraged. If someone challenges you, you’ll likely just shake your head and walk away. Or, you might try to convince them that the earth is round.
You likely haven’t given much thought to how to “prove” that the earth is round; at least not since you were a kid. But there’s another and more insidious reason why you cannot “rattle off” a defense of the “earth is round” thesis.
There’s no money to be made. Not only science, but commerce is premised on the fact that the earth is round. Since (nearly) everyone already knows the earth is round, no-one is being paid to make disturbing videos that seem to “prove” the earth is round. No-one has a troll farm somewhere paying people to post things on facebook or twitter to push the position that the earth is round.
Let’s take another example. Imagine that you’re walking down the street one day and you look up from your iPhone long enough to notice a man who appears to be trying to walk through a brick wall. He bangs into it; backs up a few steps and walks into it again.
You were just about to beat your personal best in Candy Crush, but you sigh and ask the man, “What are you doing?”
“What does it look like? I’m walking through this wall.”
The scenes from the Harry Potter movies where magical folks get to the Hogwarts Express via walking through the wall to get to platform 9 3/4 flash onto your internal TV. But you realize that is a movie about a magical world. Every instance you can come up with where someone walks through a wall is a cartoon or superhero. Perhaps this is where the guy got the idea. But here he is trying it out in real life. But he does’t just try it out once. Here he goes again. You don’t know how long he’s been doing this, but you’ve seen three trials, all with the same, and quite predictable result.
You realize that if he keeps walking into the brick wall, he will eventually be injured. Moreover, a person who is so clearly self-destructive might do other, and even worse, self-destructive things. Would it be possible to talk them out of this behavior with logic or facts? That seems doubtful. After all, assuming they didn’t just pop up on the street from a completely different universe where walking through brick walls works, he’ll have already had plenty of opportunities to learn about the world.
The more absurd the false beliefs are, the more vigorously people will defend them. You’ve spent no time practicing arguments about why the earth is round or why you can’t walk through brick walls. On the other hand, someone who does believe in these things will have had many occasions when those beliefs were challenged. Nonetheless, they won’t be very successful in convincing others that, say, the earth is flat. But every time they try to make that sale, it will convince the person who constructs and voices such arguments, even more deeply that the earth is flat. So, even though they might tell this story 100 times and every single person remains unconvinced, by thinking that they have to “stand up for themselves” they will try out any sort of non-sense to bolster their position. And, if there were serious money to be made by convincing some people that the earth is flat, you can bet there would be a never-ending series of propaganda offerings to push in that direction. And, while most people will continue to believe the earth is round, occasionally someone will hear enough crap to really begin to wonder.
Now, let’s go back to our original flat-earther who has just failed to convince one hundred people that the earth is flat — but at the same time, he (let’s say it’s a he named Milhaus) has practiced convincing himself 100 times. And now, a miracle occurs. Milhaus happens to run into Doubting Dolly who has heard or read screes promoting flat earth to the extent that she now experiences a certain amount of doubt. The two of them strike up an excited conversation in which each one reinforces the beliefs of the other. Mihaus is thrilled! Imagine! He’s been scoffed at as ridiculous 100 times. But now, right here, he finds an acolyte — someone who now shares his beliefs. The chances that Doubting Dolly will find such screes depends a lot on whether there is any extrinsic reward for writing and promulgating such screes. Flat Earth conspiracy theories don’t lend themselves to making money off such lies.
Other currently popular lies, on the other hand are promoted initially by people with vested narrowly selfish interests. But once enough “Milhaus”-types get converted, these falsehoods, however bizarre, get repeated over and over. For instance, the oil company oligarchs have known for years that their business model is seriously damaging human lives, changing climate, and putting much of life at risk. What do they do? They spend millions creating and promulgating false narratives.
Ironically, then, people who hold untenable, counter-factual positions often are more practiced at their arguments than people who simply put forth the truth. Moreover, they not only are more practiced, they are also more emotionally involved. The average person who belongs to the “Flat Earth Society” has hugely more of their identity wrapped up in the idea of a flat earth than the average person has their identity wrapped up in the idea of a round earth. Of course, there are no valid arguments for a flat earth, for walking through a brick wall, or for interpreting the Constitution as saying that the President should be treated as a dictator. As a result, proponents of such things tend to scream and pound the table a lot.
The screaming and table pounding is not just out of frustration for not having any valid arguments. For people suffering from PTSD, or who have been in abusive relationships, or grew up in an abusive household, yelling and screaming and pounding the table reminds them of terror and a remembrance that the only way to avoid pain is to make daddy happy. Oh, let’s find out what Pappa Putin wants and give it to him! Maybe we’ll get lucky and he won’t end up treating American citizens as badly as he’s treated his own countrymen. Maybe. But don’t count on it.