Crankish Thinking

by Mark English

The term ‘conspiracy theory’, though it no doubt serves a useful purpose when used in carefully-considered ways, is most often used in polemical contexts simply as a derogatory descriptor. I want to set down a few ideas on the problem of deciding which ideas in the political realm (and, by extension, which sources) are too crankish (or nutty) to be bothered with, and which are not.

Of course, there can be no simple formula for making these sorts of decisions. It is a matter of judgment, and the point of these notes is simply to suggest certain possible general guidelines or heuristics.

The background to my thinking relates to a well-known psychological phenomenon: the tendency to over-project agency, to see things which happen around us (especially things which impinge on our well-being) as being willed and directed by intelligent agents (rather than being accidental or unintended). This idea underpins most of what I am saying here.

Just as natural events are sometimes seen (literally) as “acts of God”, so economic, social and political events are often interpreted in terms of deliberate and (usually secretly) coordinated actions on the part of a group of powerful individuals.

Literary and online examples are all too easy to find. But let me mention a couple of real encounters from my past. Both involved very intelligent and professionally-successful men. One was a well-regarded cardiologist, the father of a high school acquaintance of mine. For some reason, I was visiting the boy’s home one evening with members of my family and the doctor, a large Irishman with massive hands and bushy eyebrows, drew me aside for a confidential discussion. He had never met me before,  but he wanted to warn me about “the Masons”. Which he proceeded to do, without preliminaries and in some detail.

The other example was an uncle of mine who engaged me in a similar confidential discussion not long before his death. From his youth, he had been highly political – pacifistic and left-wing. He worked as a journalist before qualifying and working (until retirement) as an accountant. He was a music lover and an excellent chess player. But what he told me in that confidential chat was utter nonsense (along the lines of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion).

An irony here is that after my uncle’s death details came to light concerning his (and my) Jewish ancestors. But such knowledge would probably not have bothered him. He would probably have taken a line similar to that taken by the notorious Charles Coughlin who divided Jews into the convenient categories of “good Jews” and “bad Jews”. Coughlin’s good Jews were religious Jews and his bad Jews were irreligious or atheistic. Presumably, he didn’t count converts to Christianity as Jews at all, though non-religious Jews were deemed still to be Jews. (This, of course, is quite in line with the attitudes of many religious Jews.)

For all his intelligence and good qualities, there is no denying that my uncle had crankish tendencies (and not just in relation to the matters under discussion). For him the fiction-based fantasies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion reflected an actual reality, and elite Jews not only had a plan to control the world, they actually had the power and resources to carry it out. They were carrying it out.

It seems to me that the idea that world affairs are being orchestrated by one specific group is a crucial indicator of crankish thinking. Clearly, this involves a radical simplification and distortion of what is an irreducibly complex reality.

A paradox lurks here. If things are so simple, why do others not see it? But another common psychological illusion – the tendency to have excessive confidence in one’s own powers of judgment – at once dissolves the paradox and boosts the ego. Others do not see aright (the conspiracy theorist argues) because of the extreme deviousness of the conspirators, which is further obscured by a compliant mass media. Only a small minority of perceptive observers can see through all this.

There is no doubt that national and international political and economic elites exist and communicate extensively and influence the course of events. And sometimes they coordinate their activities on a global scale. Central bank and other government-sponsored interventions in financial markets over the last ten years have been highly coordinated. There is abundant evidence for this (largely secretive) coordination of activity.

But the crankish conspiracy theorist – falling prey to the tendency of the human mind to over-project agency, to scapegoat and to grasp at simplistic solutions to complicated problems – goes well beyond the evidence, and claims that the network of elite and politically and economically powerful groups is both far more organized and far more unified in terms of motivations than in fact it is – or even could be from a rational point of view.

In a way it is not surprising – given the dramatic failure of publicly-funded formal education in Western countries – that the old, discredited myths associated with Western anti-Semitism are not only persisting, but gaining traction. And not just in the West.

In various published accounts of the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood, Paul Berman has made the point that the movement incorporated not only Western political ideas into its brand of Islam, but also elements of Western anti-Semitism – specifically the tendency to demonize Jews and impute to them (black) magical powers. (In fact, this could be seen as a natural extension of the tendency to over-project agency, as pre-modern forms of thought do not draw a clear distinction between natural and supernatural faculties and powers.)

The witch-obsessions and witch hunts and trials of early modern Europe illustrate how supernatural or magical powers are often imputed to imagined enemies. In Western folklore, witches are always credited with magical powers. In like manner, the most extreme forms of anti-Semitism impute – implicitly or explicitly – dark supernatural powers to Jews.

Jews themselves may occasionally (in various ways) play into this general stereotype – or be perceived to do so. For example, Saul Alinsky mentions Lucifer in one of the epigraphs for his influential book, Rules for Radicals: “Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins – or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom – Lucifer.”

This sentence has been much discussed. My only observation is that Alinsky’s allusion to Lucifer seems not to be Jewish in spirit so much as Romantic.

If I am not mistaken, Alinsky’s Lucifer owes more to the tradition from which Gustave Doré drew his creative vision than to medieval or Renaissance sources.

16 Comments »

  1. I have been fascinated with the mind of the conspiracy theorists for many years. I see a continuity of eschatology in their leanings. I actually pity the stress they put themselves under, to live with the weight of that knowledge (even though I agree with you that it is absurd).
    I’d be interested to know what some of you opinions on some of the really whacked-out conspiracies are, people like Corey Goode (who talks about being groomed from a young age to be an ambassador for Earth in the space confederacy that secretly exists, which he talks about fluently, as if it is common knowledge; he can apparently read minds or some nonsense) or there’s Al Bielek who was a survivor of a CIA program to make battle ships disappear but which they actually send into the future, his memory, like Goode was erased, but the memories returned. Bielek is fascinating because he claims to have been returned to an infant state & raised by another family.
    I would really like to know your thoughts on this. I am not a wacko. But I believe this very absurd phenomena should not just be shamed but talked about, it is very peculiar.

    I think Alinsky’s sentence comes out of the tradition of Milton’s Satan, which inspired the Romantics, especially Blake (who it may be argued was not in fact a Romantic). The tacitly noble Satan of Milton appears so because of the dictatorial character of his God. His Satan encourages knowledge, his God commands ignorance & obedience.

    Like

  2. I guess what keeps me from falling for conspiracy theories is my sense that people are more or less the same everywhere, that there aren’t especially good or especially evil mass populations of people, in your example, the masons and the Jews. I find it hard to believe that even groups of people or movements or political parties which I disagree with or even detest are capable of successfully carrying out complex large-scale and long-term secret plots. Conspiracies are hard to carry out, without some insider revealing the secret, and when people try to convince me that George Bush, not a public figure whom I admire in the least, ordered the 9-11 terrorist attacks, I reply that someone in the conspiracy would have revealed the secret beforehand, either out of human decency or to sell the story for millions of dollars to all major media networks. Conspiracies of small groups, such as the 9-11 terrorists, can function, but not one involving more than, say, 15 or 20 people. A good rule of thumb is that Jesus had 12 disciples and one ratted on him.

    Like

  3. danielpaulmarshall

    “I’d be interested to know what some of your opinions on some of the really whacked-out conspiracies are, people like Corey Goode (who talks about being groomed from a young age to be an ambassador for Earth in the space confederacy that secretly exists, which he talks about fluently, as if it is common knowledge; he can apparently read minds or some nonsense) or there’s Al Bielek who was a survivor of a CIA program to make battle ships disappear but which they actually send into the future, his memory, like Goode was erased, but the memories returned. Bielek is fascinating because he claims to have been returned to an infant state & raised by another family… I would really like to know your thoughts on this. I am not a wacko. But I believe this very absurd phenomena should not just be shamed but talked about, it is very peculiar.”

    I don’t know these cases but they seem similar to alien abduction cases I am familiar with. I recall making a passing (and dismissive) reference to such claims in a tutorial. An older student calmly announced that she had been abducted, and there was an awkward silence. Obviously something odd is going on in these people’s brains.

    Whitley Strieber wrote a number of books purportedly about his experiences, but I’m undecided about his sincerity. He was already a well-known writer of fantasies like The Hunger (which was made into a movie directed by Tony Scott and starring Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon and David Bowie). Parallels have been noted between his purported experiences and some of his previous fictional work. (He explains this by saying that unconscious early experiences influenced his fiction.)

    From Wikipedia: “Whitley Strieber has repeatedly expressed frustration that his experiences have been taken as “alien contact” when he does not actually know what they were. Strieber has reported anomalous childhood experiences and suggested that he may have suffered some sort of early interference by intelligence or military agencies.

    “He was extensively tested for temporal lobe epilepsy and other brain abnormalities at his own request, but his brain was found to be functioning normally…”

    He has recently collaborated with Jeffrey J. Kripal, a professor of philosophy and religious thought at Rice University who has written about Eastern and Western esoteric traditions.

    Just to be clear, I see Strieber’s stuff as totally nutty.

    I guess I am more interested in the borderline between the crankish and the plausible rather than views which are obviously delusions of some kind. I agree with you that the latter are interesting, but in a different way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the reply. I just want to reiterate that I find these interesting, not true or plausible.
      I forgot to mention David Icke, he’s made a lot of money writing books of highly questionable wacko-lit.
      I am sure the slink over to fiction is common sense to these people, or there may be an argument that there is no line to slink over, there “reality” is a fiction to us at least, but what it is to them is what makes it interesting to people like us.

      Like

  4. s. wallerstein

    “I find it hard to believe that even groups of people or movements or political parties which I disagree with or even detest are capable of successfully carrying out complex large-scale and long-term secret plots.”

    But if the conspirators are deemed to have extraordinary powers, natural or supernatural, it seems more plausible.

    “Conspiracies are hard to carry out, without some insider revealing the secret…

    I take your point, but most conspiracy theories are retrospective. The supposed secret *has* been revealed but it has not been believed or taken seriously by the general public. Sure, conspiracy theorists are not usually insiders, but they often claim insiders as sources. And a standard line is that insiders who look like they are going to speak out or have spoken are murdered (along Mafia lines).

    “Conspiracies of small groups, such as the 9-11 terrorists, can function, but not one involving more than, say, 15 or 20 people.”

    9/11 is an interesting example. In this case we have a dramatic and coordinated event (or set of events) which – unlike the Kennedy assassination, say – could not possibly have been carried out without a lot of joint planning and cooperation. I wouldn’t want to put put a specific limit on the number of people who might be involved in a successful conspiracy however. For one thing, there are ways (often used in espionage contexts) of limiting the knowledge of individual participants to their specific role within the broader plan. Only a few people at the top of the pyramid know the whole plan.

    Your reference to Judas is rhetorical but that story is more closely related to my themes than it might seem at first sight. In the 2nd century, Irenaeus, arguing against Gnosticism, referred to a Greek-language Gospel of Judas which he called a fictitious history (fake news?). We have a portion of an old Coptic text which had been translated from an earlier Greek text, probably the one Irenaeus was referring to. In this gnostic gospel, Judas is the hero, the special disciple. The Gospel of Judas presents itself as an account of a secret revelation that Jesus made verbally to Judas Iscariot. Jesus favors Judas over the other disciples.

    Even within canonical versions of the Judas story, there is disagreement. Is “handing over” necessarily “betrayal”? Etc.. Judas can be seen as playing a part in a grand and predetermined scheme. But, for these Gnostics, Judas was the only disciple who understood what was really going on.

    The fact that this (gnostic) narrative lost out in the end to the canonical texts could also plausibly be seen as having a bearing on subsequent anti-Semitism – partly because Judas has often been seen as symbolizing the Jewish people, and partly because the gnostics rejected the soteriological framework which supported – and still supports – anti-Semitic views amongst Christians.

    Like

    • I believe that the classical psychoanalytical explanation of conspiracy theories, at least of anti-semitic ones, is that they are projective mechanisms, that the anti-semite projects his unconscious hostile and aggressive impulses onto Jews, thus convincing him or herself that they have pure motivations. That’s the theory that is developed (I’m simplifying a bit) in Theodor Adorno’s study of the fascist personality, The Authoritarian Personality. It seems plausible, but like all psychoanalytic theories is hard to prove. Adorno and the other authors of the study did correlate fascist attitudes with certain personality traits through the use of questionnaires and personal interviews.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Mark,

    Thanks for the enjoyable essay.
    I don’t think you accomplished the goal you set out for yourself—namely, setting out some parameters for determing whether some bit of thought is “crankish.” It seems to me that “seeing agency when its not there” is a vague and trivial way of delineating overly- conspiriatorial thinking

    I have been thinking along similiar lines as you about what qualifies as “woowoo” for us as opposed ot just being new, unknown, and mysterious. I am taking the term “woowoo” here from Michael Pollen, who, when describing the difference between certain forms of meditation and guided psychadelic meditation, called the former too “woowoo” for him, as opposed to the latter. No further comment was giving on how we delineate the “woowoo” from the serious. Its seems your project is focused on this question but Im not sure that The work is done.

    Im curious though, what guidelines or intuitions or whatever else do people use in their own lives to delineate sense from nonsense (in the realm of political theorizing and beyond)?

    Like

  6. This comes up generally in psychiatry. Given the rates of actual infidelity, paranoid individuals could be right about their spouse just by chance alone – the emotional intensity (the feature that always strikes me) and the justification of the belief is necessary to work out if delusion is present. There must be a Gettier case here somewhere.

    Like

  7. JE

    I think that you are misconstruing both my goal and my claims.

    You write: “I don’t think you accomplished the goal you set out for yourself—namely, setting out some parameters for determing whether some bit of thought is “crankish.” ”

    I am just presenting two examples of intelligent men having very odd ideas and setting out a few thoughts on what is involved here. I made the point that I don’t believe that you can ever have a formula to distinguish between the marginally-plausible and the hopelessly implausible. There are degrees of plausibility; sometimes something that looks implausible on its face may be the case. We don’t want to waste time following up every outlandish claim. On the other hand, our political and social biases inevitably distort our judgments.

    As I made clear, how we approach these matters is always going to be a matter of judgment. A large part of the conspiracy theorist’s problem is the overemphasis on a certain kind of (superficial) rationality.

    There are definitely answers to questions about the truth or falsity of specific conspiracy theories but it’s quite possible that many general questions about conspiracy-theory-type thinking are not answerable (i.e. are ill-conceived).

    “It seems to me that “seeing agency when it’s not there” is a vague and trivial way of delineating overly- conspiratorial thinking.”

    The agency-projection notion is presented as *background* to my thinking. It is associated with the tendency to underplay the role of muddle and accident and unintended consequences in human affairs and I think it is definitely relevant to conspiracy theories, though many other factors are also involved. I suggested that the tendency to impute special powers to the targeted groups (which is a feature of many conspiracy theories) could be seen as an extension of the agency-projection idea. (There is a parallel here with certain hunter-gatherers who impute unrealistically high levels of intelligence and awareness to their animal adversaries.) I also mentioned scapegoating, the tendency to rush to simplistic conclusions and the ego-enhancing notion of having secret knowledge.

    “I have been thinking along similiar lines as you about what qualifies as “woowoo” for us as opposed to just being new, unknown, and mysterious. I am taking the term “woowoo” here from Michael Pollen, who, when describing the difference between certain forms of meditation and guided psychedelic meditation, called the former too “woowoo” for him, as opposed to the latter. No further comment was given on how we delineate the “woowoo” from the serious. Its seems your project is focused on this question but I’m not sure that the work is done.”

    My project?? This is a short essay. The mode is literary/journalistic. It’s not “work” (at least in the sense that you mean it). But I’m deadly serious in what I am saying.

    Woo, in my mind, relates to dubious religious claims and pseudo-science. The “agency” question certainly relates to religious thinking.

    “I’m curious though, what guidelines or intuitions or whatever else do people use in their own lives to delineate sense from nonsense (in the realm of political theorizing and beyond)?”

    Well, this is an empirical question. I suspect that in most cases decisions are made more or less unconsciously, and on the basis of trust in certain sources (in the case of politics, based on ideological orientation), and compatibility with basic ideas and values.

    Like

  8. s. wallerstein

    I don’t know that Adorno and his colleagues can be said to represent a “classical” psychoanalytical perspective, but I haven’t read The Authoritarian Personality.

    I am put off by the Kantian and Hegelian elements in Adorno’s thinking.

    Like

    • No Kant or Hegel or even Marx in the Authoritarian Personality. A lot of Freud. The study was carried out by Adorno and others at the University of California, Berkeley shortly after World War 2. Lots of footnotes from sociology, psychology and psychoanalysis.

      Like

  9. Hi Mark

    Interesting subject. I note that philosophers have taken it up in a big way, with 269 entries on PhilPapers. Just the titles there are intriguing.

    https://philpapers.org/s/conspiracy

    My amateur view is that intelligent and educated people can get trapped into conspiratorial thinking as follows. They subscribe at first naively to proposition X (the conspiracy). But they then come to hold that position in a way that makes X immune from refutation, because any potential counter-evidence is seen as coming from a source that X deems to be not just dubious but more like damnable (such as the wiles of the Devil or counter-revolutionary tendencies, etc). Any positive evidence for X is deemed to be not just evidence but confirmation of the true and the good. Once inside such a system, it is very difficult to break out, because much more is involved than reason and evidence. Both misplaced loyalty and a twisted kind of logic holds us captive in the system.

    Alan

    Like

  10. davidlduffy

    A psychiatrist’s focus is very different from mine. I am talking about well-functioning people who have nutty ideas, not the sort of person who needs medical treatment. In other words there is delusion and delusion. The point about emotional intensity is interesting, however – especially in the light of current US politics.

    Like

  11. Alan

    “[I]ntelligent and educated people can get trapped into conspiratorial thinking as follows. They subscribe at first naively to proposition X (the conspiracy). But they then come to hold that position in a way that makes X immune from refutation, because any potential counter-evidence is seen as coming from a source that X deems to be not just dubious but more like damnable (such as the wiles of the Devil or counter-revolutionary tendencies, etc). Any positive evidence for X is deemed to be not just evidence but confirmation of the true and the good. Once inside such a system, it is very difficult to break out, because much more is involved than reason and evidence. Both misplaced loyalty and a twisted kind of logic holds us captive in the system.”

    I certainly agree that much more is involved than reason and evidence. Your account focuses on justification and reinforcement of a previously assumed position.

    But what gets people into this trap in the first place? I don’t think it’s just a case of subscribing naively to a proposition. With anti-Semitism, for instance, it’s more like a narrative or set of narratives than a proposition, with various possible layers or aspects (religious, economic, social, political).

    Or take the original witch-delusions. It was something deep in the culture. There was trouble and the causes were unknown or not understood. The temptation is great to latch on to an easily understandable explanation, especially when it also provides an agent who can be blamed and dealt with.

    Our natural tendency to see purpose and agency where there is just the complex workings of nature or the normal muddle of social, political and economic life helps explain how these ideas get traction in the first place.

    Like

  12. The naive entry point could be fear of strangers, or something like that, which normal interaction will usually overcome. But I agree there is much more than my story would explain.

    I once knew an anthropologist who went to rural Turkey to study the social aftermath of an earthquake. The project failed because the locals saw earthquakes as fated (Inshallah) and therefore not matters worth thinking about, and so, they decided, the alien anthropologist must be a spy. What else could she be?

    Like

    • “The naive entry point could be fear of strangers, or something like that, which normal interaction will usually overcome.”

      Tribal (in-group, out-group) thinking is relevant, certainly. It would apply to witches *and* to anti-Semitism (and much else). But “fear of strangers” would not apply to the witch cases (as I understand them). The “witches” were established (albeit unpopular) members of the community. In this case, “normal interaction” (in conjunction with false or delusional thinking about cause and agency) actually precipitated or exacerbated the problem.

      My interest here is more specific than distrust or fear of strangers, or in-group thinking. I am concerned with delusional narratives about hostile forces.

      Like