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Crank magnetism


LGM commenter Joe recently posted this aphorism in a thread about RFK Jr. and his running mate:

 It’s a very short jump from believing kale smoothies are a cure for cancer to denying the Holocaust happened.

It’s increasingly obvious in our degenerate age that this is true, but why should this be the case?

Other LGM commenters have alerted me to the concept of “crank magnetism,” a formulation that’s less than 20 years old:

The physiologist and blogger Mark Hoofnagle, writing in the Denialism blog in 2007, coined the term “crank magnetism” to describe the propensity of cranks to hold multiple irrational, unsupported, and/or ludicrous beliefs that are often unrelated to one another, referring to William Dembski endorsing both a Holocaust denier and one of Peter Duesberg‘s non-HIV weird theories.

Some possible explanations:

(1) Oppositional defiance disorder. Some people reject authority for the same reason they’re still mad at Mommy because she tried to them clean their rooms. BTW a huge element in the I’ll vote for a woman just not that woman phenomenon found all across the ideological spectrum, but most strikingly on the left, is due to this. (h/t Karen Cassandra of Texas).

(2) Rejecting expertise as a matter of course is very liberating for anyone who wants to hold beliefs not because they’re true, but because they are satisfying for other reasons. It allows one to play intellectual games on the easy setting, especially with the (related) rise of “conspiracism,” that is, conspiracy theory that doesn’t even bother with any actual theory, instead invoking the fact that, as Donald Trump is always saying, “a lot of people are saying.”

(3) A deep source of satisfaction for many people is the thought that they are Galileo, that is, a world historical genius, overcoming the entire intellectual edifice of an age through brave truth-telling in the face of authoritative beliefs that happen to be wrong. The thought that 99,999 out of 100,000 times people who believe that they are Galileo are completely wrong about that would be very unpleasant, so it tends to be avoided.

(4) People who happen to be exceptionally talented in one area (for example, Aaron Rodgers, Kanye West, James Woods) are prone to believe that their exceptional talent translates into other, completely unrelated areas. One also sees this among non-celebrity professionals: Engineers are apparently especially vulnerable to things like Flat Earth theories, plus you have the whole Yale Law School professors are experts on absolutely everything thing, etc.

(5) A cautionary tale for public intellectuals/academics is someone like Naomi Wolf. The trajectory here is to begin by making trenchant counter-cultural insights, and get lots of deserved attention for doing so, only to become subsequently addicted to that praise and attention. This leads to constantly intensifying attempts to come up with further such iconoclastic insights, which in the nature of such things is increasingly difficult to do. This leads to intellectual overstretch, and warranted criticism in its wake. This can then lead to a kind of reflexive contrarianism, where the person interprets their marginalization to malign political and cultural forces, as opposed to being wrong all the time.

(6) There’s a a close relationship between all this and the forces at the core of populist right wing authoritarianism trending off in our time into actual revenant fascism:

To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside. In the U.S., a prominent instance of the plot obsession is to be found in Pat Robertson’s The New World Order, but, as we have recently seen, there are many others.

Umberto Eco, 1996

(7) The Internet and social media have greatly facilitated all these trends, since YouTube videos have replaced cranking out mimeographs in Mom’s basement, and can get potentially millions of views, as opposed to the dozens of views these theories got when they were attached to telephone polls with duct tape.

(8) Very rich people tend to think they’re very rich because they’re smarter than everyone else, not because they’re exceptionally lucky, or exceptionally good at seducing people who were already very rich themselves. In a plutocratic age, in which money is basically God, those with great amounts of it are naturally prone to believe themselves part of an esoteric elect, that sees through the follies of conventional wisdom.

(9) Some cultural purveyors of eclectic crankery are clearly bullshitters, in the Frankfurt school sense that they don’t believe or not believe anything they’re saying, but are just on the grift. Obvious examples are Donald Trump and Alex Jones. On the other hand, we all tend to become what we pretend to be.

This list isn’t intended to be comprehensive, as there’s something happening here, and what it is ain’t exactly clear.

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