Monday, January 4, 2021

Why Do Some People Believe Just Anything?

"Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers."

One's faith in the press is always challenged when they publish an article about something you know about, or even about you. For example, I excoriated the New Yorker for making an amateur mistake, confusing copyrights with trademarks, and claiming that they were "registered by the Secretary of State" - it made no difference to the overall story, although the overall story was one of a series done by the New Yorker around that time, lauding Las Vegas as some sort of ritzy upscale destination resort.  Oddly enough (or not-so-oddly) at around the same time, they had huge advertising "inserts" for Las Vegas.   Yes, the media is full of whores.

Of course, this doesn't mean you should disbelieve everything they publish, only that perhaps their renown "fact-checkers" have since retired or maybe were laid-off to save some money.  It just means you have to be skeptical of things.  But that being said, it does't mean  one should be skeptical of all "mainstream media" and then uncritically accept anything from some obscure conspiracy-theory website - as seems to be the norm for a startling number of people today.

Why is this?   Why do we believe what we believe?

Again, reality is what it is, and while we each interpret and view reality from different angles, we are all indeed looking at the same thing.   This idea that perception is relative and therefore we all live in different realities is sophomoric - the sort of thing college students think is "deep" after a few bong hits.  While we all perceive things from different angles, it pays to understand that your perception is colored by your experiences and expect that, sometimes, your perceptions may be wrong and be willing to change your perceptions when they no longer jibe with reality.

As I noted before, reality is what it is, and the more one tries to deny reality and live in an alternate world of warped perception, the worse things get.  It is like a rubber-band being pulled-back further and further.  When it finally snaps back, it will really hurt - a lot.   But eventually, it snaps back, as reality can only be denied for so long.

Entire countries can live in denial of reality, as we saw in World War II, but only for a few years.  In retrospect, one wonders what the Japanese were thinking - their perception was that their tiny island nation could take over Asia and the Pacific. Germans believed, en massse that a one-man dictatorship would lead them to world domination, even as that one man seemed, well, unstable.   In a few short years, people were saying, "what the hell were we thinking?" - but of course, even today, there are still a few rabid believers.

It is interesting this phone call Donald Trump made to our Secretary of State (and ten other people, apparently) where he droned on for an hour about well-debunked conspiracy theories. His pitch was that he "heard some rumors" and that was in and of itself enough to overturn an election. What was odd was that our Secretary of State (and his lawyer) said they believed in the actual numbers. I was a little disappointed he used the word "belief" rather than say, "these are the real numbers."

Perception is based on experience.  Living in Georgia and having voted here many times, my experience colors my views.   The new voting machines are just printers that print out a paper ballot.  When you voted with the old machines, you pressed buttons and hoped that your vote was counted.  Since the vote was electronic, the idea that the machines could be "hacked" or otherwise modified at least seemed within the realm of possibility.

But this time around, a paper ballot was printed out and it basically matched the paper ballots you could mail-in if you requested one.  You can look at your paper ballot and confirm it is correct before handing it in.  The paper ballots were then scanned by a machine to total the votes.  Well, OK, you say, the totaller could be altered or spoofed somehow to alter the vote, right?   Again, within the realm of possibility, but not probability.  And the laws of probability also color our perception - or at least they should.

Conspiracy theories in general are improbable as they require the sworn allegiance of a number of players, any one of which could "blow the whistle" on the whole thing and expose the conspiracy.  Organized crime suffers from this problem.  Despite the "code of silence" or omerta that is talked about in crime novels or Mafia movies, we see regularly, a parade of "rats" and "stool pigeons" who "rat out" the mob to avoid lengthy prison sentences.   This doesn't mean organized crime has been eliminated, only that is an ongoing whack-a-mole to stamp it out.  As each generation of crime bosses is prosecuted and jailed, a new generation or gang moves up.

Now think about that for a second - the penalty for "spilling the beans" in organized crime is death - and not a very pleasant death at that.  But even with that threat, the various organized crime groups have struggled to keep their operations secret and struggled to keep members from turning State's evidence.

The probability of someone perpetrating a conspiracy is very low - and gets lower the longer the conspiracy is in effect.  With each passing day, month, and year, the odds of the whole thing being exposed approach 1:1 - which is why conspiracy theories are a bunch of hooey.

So the probability that someone could hack all the vote tallying machines is very low - it would be exposed in short order.   But not only that, in Georgia, by law, they had a hand recount of those paper ballots.  So even if the tallying machines were "hacked" this hand recount would have shown a huge discrepancy in the vote count.

The problem with arguing with conspiracy theory people is that they always trump (sorry, pun) any logical argument with a greater conspiracy.  So they would just say, "Well the hand recount was part of the conspiracy, too!"   Of course, if that was true, you'd have to get hundreds, nay thousands of people to agree to conspire in this recount and somehow get the count of the paper ballots to match that of the supposedly "hacked" tallying machines.   This becomes less and less probable.

Now, in addition to the vote, and the hand recount, there was a second machine recount, paid for by the Trump campaign.   It too, showed no discrepancy in the vote tally.   So the Trump campaign - while still maintaining its earlier conspiracy theories - argued a new one, namely that the mail-in ballots were fraudulent due to signature discrepancies.  So now the FBI comes in and checks the signatures - a fourth recount and investigation into the Georgia election, and finds nothing.

So of course, the conspiracy theory people argue that the FBI is in on it too!  We now have a conspiracy with tens of thousands of actors, none of which have spilled the beans. Well, we have I think, one person who claims they used to work for Dominion Voting Systems, and their claim is they saw "something funny" but weren't very specific beyond that. It is akin to UFO sightings - always from some drunken redneck who claims we was abducted and "anally probed" or something, accompanied by a fuzzy photograph of a hubcap from a 1957 Hudson, that had been thrown in the air and photographed with a Brownie camera.

But again, the the conspiracy theorist, this just proves the theory!They are trying to discredit the witnesses!  Everyone is in on it!   Or, perhaps, someone has a martyr complex or is severely mentally ill.  Yes, there is a direct connection between conspiracy theories and mental illness.  I have a relative, as I mentioned before, who is existing on a cocktail of beer, pot, anti-depressants, and anti-psychotic medications.  He hears voices.   He also believes in UFOs and spends countless hours online "proving" they exist.  He isn't crazy, he's a UFO researcher!   Because reading shit on Facebook is "research" - right?

Getting back to our election, in order to believe it was "fraudulent" you'd have to believe that thousands upon thousands of people are involved in this "fraud" and none have come forward, even with the offer of a million dollars from the State of Texas for proof of fraud - the money has never been collected.   We are talking about a conspiracy of thousands of vote counters, local election officials, voters, poll watchers, and so on and so forth - plus the FBI itself, and presumably the Georgia Bureau of Investigation as well.  But that's not the end of it.

Because these same conspiracy theorists - including Donald Trump - believe our Republican Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, and a host of other elected Republican Officials who are all Trump Supporters are all in on it too! Like, sure, that could happen because.... why? What would motivate a Republican to lose an election?   Whats more, why would they "fix" an election for President and not "fix" the down-ballot races as well?  These are the very same people accused of "voter suppression" to flip races for Republicans.  Why would they change sides today?

It is all so improbable as to be farcical. My experience in working for the US Government is that government employees, on a good day, have a hard time conspiring to make a pot of coffee.  I am not taking a piss on government employees, but traditionally, a cushy government job was not what a real "go-getter" would seek out. Government employment stifles initiative, which is replaced by rules and procedures.   Think about your local DMV.  Nice folks there, and they try hard to do their best.  But it can be a stifling place to work or do business - it is all forms and procedures.

These are the sorts of people who are masterminding these vast conspiracies?   The improbability of this is staggering.

But others have no problem believing this - and a host of other conspiracies or just shitty ideas.  Anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, moon-landing deniers, chemtrails, MLM schemes, Robin-hood "investors", Bitcoin nuts, gold bugs - whatever seems possible and plausible this week. The problem today is that bad ideas look the same as good ideas, thanks to the Internet.   Back in the 1960's these sort of shitty ideas were around, but they looked shabby. The John Birch Society promulgated conspiracy theories about how fluoride in the water was turning America communist. But some flimsy mimeographed pamphlet or self-published book looked pretty sketchy next to a crisply printed daily newspaper or a high-production-value evening newscast.

Today, well, you can put together a video on your computer with all sorts of special effects.  Anyone can put up a website or a blogsite, or do a "podcast" making all sorts of wild claims, and they look as "legit" as anything from the evening news or a renown institution. We have a new egalitarianism in ideas - anyone can "Tweet" a response to the President of the United States himself.  We have fallen into a rabbit-hole where all ideas have equal currency and equal validity.  And sadly, most people don't have the ability to distinguish between what seems probable and improbable.

I started this blog entry with the phrase "Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers!" which isn't meant to say you should believe nothing.  Nor does it mean that one should believe everything published in alternative online media instead.   Just because the New Yorker or The Washington Post get the details wrong sometimes - or interject opinion into news doesn't mean that they are wrong all of the time.

Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are pretty much wrong 99% of the time - if not more.  Your own personal experience should teach you that.  You should know by now that airplane engines generate water vapor as an exhaust byproduct - and have since the dawn of the airplane.  Yet there are a group of people who somehow believe - against all common sense - that contrails from jet engines are "new" and part of a nefarious plot to sterilize humanity, and not just a movie-maker's nightmare when trying to film a western against contrail-stained skies.  You should figure that the probability of such a wide-spread conspiracy - involving tens of thousands of pilots, engineers, maintenance technicians, airplane manufacturers, etc. is pretty infinitesimal.  And besides, if there was some "conspiracy" to poison the masses, there are far easier and more effective ways to do it besides spreading chemicals in the upper atmosphere.  It just makes no freaking sense - yet some people believe.

You would think that once these things were debunked that was that.   MLM schemes were exposed as frauds back in the days of Joe Friday.   So why do people try to sell  "essential oils" today?   Because a new generation of idiots has replaced the previous generation.  Sadly, human nature doesn't work like Science or Engineering, where each generation of Scientists and Engineers builds upon the experiences and mistakes of the previous generation, to advance further.  Ordinary humans, it seems, have to beat their heads against the wall, again and again, for all eternity.

Like I said, trying to argue with a conspiracy theorist is an exercise in futility.  If you point out something that disagrees with their worldview, they simply fall back and punt - whatever you said is part of the conspiracy itself, and failing that, you are part of the conspiracy too!   They stretch and stretch the conspiracy further and further in their minds, and eventually it will snap-back, in a very bad way.  Such folks are never very happy, and in fact, mentally ill, as I noted before.  It is sad, but you cannot save them.

And I suspect in the coming months, you may see a "snap-back" in the mind of Donald Trump (which may just snap, period) and many - but not all - of his followers.  Eventually, the bulk of people come to their senses.  You just have to hope that World War III doesn't break out before that happens.