Paranoia

Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t follow that people aren’t plotting against you. Or that they are. An old joke, and an apt observation in class yesterday.

I’m always surprised to encounter otherwise-sensible people who harbor a deep dark suspicion that others may be in cahoots against them, conspiring to steal their stuff or suppress their knowledge or otherwise manipulate their minds and behaviors and spoil their fun.

Well, let me qualify that: discounting corporations, advertizers, sales clerks, politicians…

But through the years students have shocked me with their sympathy for conspiracy-thinking about 9.11, the Holocaust, global warming, Neil Armstrong, the president’s nativity, you name it. And yesterday, in the midst of a serious and thoughtful discussion of effective leadership, one of the brightest students I know dropped hints that the Bilderbergers may be up to something. He stopped short of alleging an out-and-out plot to rule the world, but noted ominously that their gatherings are private and “by invitation.”

I first heard of the Bilderberg group back in childhood, from people who’d been infected by the vile racist paranoia of John Birch. They tended also to mention the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commision, etc. [Jon Ronson on Bilderberg]

Why do smart people believe weird things? I think Michael Shermer‘s still got the best answer to that: “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” And oh, what strained beliefs they smartly defend.

I met a politician who told me that he believes the fluoridation of water is the greatest scam ever perpetrated on the public. Others have regaled me for hours with their breathless tales of who really killed JFK, RFK, MLK, Jr., Jimmy Hoffa and Princess Diana, along with the nefarious goings on of the Federal Reserve, the New World Order, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, Yale University’s secret society Skull and Bones, the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers and the Learned Elders of Zion. It would take Madison Square Garden to hold them all for a world-domination meeting.

But “the fact that politicians sometimes lie or that corporations occasionally cheat does not mean that every event is the result of a tortuous conspiracy. Most of the time stuff just happens, and our brains connect the dots into meaningful patterns.” The Conspiracy Theory Detector is a smart corrective for the false patterns we’ve concocted. So is Carl’s caution: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

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