The Explanation

If you’ve ever wondered how smart people can get suckered into religion or conspiracy theories, here’s the answer.

I’m just an ape in a post-religion, post-authority, post-trust society looking for a large man to organize my community and tell me who the enemies are.

I am bearded and not balding, which hampers my ability to identify with one of the characters in the cartoon.


  1. raven says

    It is what the DSM IV said.

    If you believe counterfactual absurdities that no one else believes, you are suffering from delusions and are a loon.

    If your counterfactual absurd beliefs are shared with a group of people, then that is religion and these days, a political party, and many ideologies.
    This is considered normal.
    It is problematical to classify half the population as crazy.

  2. says

    I tell people diagnostic criteria are natural human behaviors in a specifically negative context and that they share the underlying behavior. Medical cooties, but medicine doesn’t help when a lot of natural parts of experience are treated as “broken” instead of natural parts of human experience.

  3. says

    I’ve labeled some of the group oriented irrational thoughts I have sometimes “conspiracy brain”. It’s human. I managed to get a handle of the instinct. Others let the instinct guide them without error checking processes, or bad ones, and with justifications for avoiding said error correction. And they form groups.
    Groups of irrational people with bad error checking have lots of vulnerabilities.

  4. Matt G says

    raven@1- If you hear voices in your head, you’re experiencing auditory hallucinations (and possibly schizophrenic), but if you hear God’s voice, you’re just religious.

  5. birgerjohansson says

    Matt G @ 6
    And yet, god’s voice consistently lines up with the wishes of the listener*…

    *The koran. And the book of mormon.

  6. tacitus says

    Conspiracy theories (and pseudoscience) provide people with a shortcut to knowledge. That the knowledge is typically total nonsense is irrelevant to those who gain it, because its purpose is to give them a sense of empowerment and superiority over the “poor saps” who are (supposedly) blind to what they alone can see.

    Conspiracy theories tap into the same pattern seeking pathways of the brain we have used to our advantage over the last few hundreds of thousands of years. People prefer attribute events to agency over random chance, and whereas we used to blame adverse outcomes to vengeful gods, demons, and spirits, conspiracy theories allow the blame to be placed squarely on the machinations of evil men.

    Conspiracy theories also a convenient way for people abdicate responsibility for righting wrongs. The ultimate culprit in these conspiracies is always a “big bad” that is far beyond any hope of any ordinary person doing anything about it — be it the New World Order, the United Nations, multinational corporations, or even trans-dimensional shape-shifting reptilian aliens (a David Icke special).

    So they can feel smart and superior at having figured out what’s going on behind the curtain yet abdicate any responsibility for doing something — anything — to stop it, since it’s all futile anyway. At best they can claim they have fulfilled their responsibility by informing others, thus passing the buck, and nothing ever changes for the better.

  7. John Morales says

    I reckon PZ made a little joke there, by titling this post “The Explanation” instead of “The explanation”.

    (Of course, I might be indulging in apophenia, but I am familiar with his capitalisation style)

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