Received Wisdom

A thread starter:

One recurring theme of mine is stuff that looks like conspiracy to conspiracy theorists – the coast guy, anyone – is a symptom of having no model or accepted language to account for a felt problem. With the received wisdom of western, objective (scientific) rationality in the dominant culture – feelings don’t get a look in, so people are left with inventing implausible but rational-looking reasoning.

[The whole McGilchrist and Solms line of work is about this. Not to mention a zillion other philosophers and psychologists since time immemorial. By excellent evolutionary design our (left) brains are “Baloney Generators”.]

Anyway started a Twitter thread that will probably go ignored, but I wanted to capture.

Starts with the first post of a thread (into which I interjected):

And the real world example fuelling the current furore:
#Boris and #Covid

Definitions of necessary and essential are limited to those that look rational.


And I couldn’t resist this one. More right wing people and channels find this stuff easier to criticise, and conspiratise, although as a social- liberal-democrat and “free-thinker”, I completely disagree with their reasoning.

Ain’t “science” wonderful?” is the right rhetorical question though:

Like the law, often “science is an ass”.

5 thoughts on “Received Wisdom”

  1. We’re in agreement that conspiracy theories are a symptom of “a deep unease deep unease with the dominant model of causal rationality.” But when Matthew Sweet thinks of them as “getting a gerbil to explain the Taniyama Shimura conjecture,”I think he misses the point. They are not an alternative rational explanation, arising from the same model. It is better to think of them in terms of myths, rather than theories. “The oppressive deep state that secretly controls everything” is a metaphor for the dominant model of external causality. The argument over causality takes on a mythical shape as a battle between good and evil. Nor is this myth entirely empty.

  2. Yes, I wasn’t agreeing with or criticising Matthew Sweet either way. It’s just with his particular role in the media he’s the sort of person it would be worth having an intelligent conversation with.

    And yes, “the dominant model of external causality” is a fair way of putting it. Thanks.

  3. I agree with the idea of a widespread gel need to be more emotionally engaged, but is there not also a (at least partial) social (ultimately evolutionary) explanation for the lure of conspiracism?

    This is the need to belong, to express affinity. In pre-industrial societies, this was a given – the tribe, the religion, etc. Now many must choose imagined communities of co-believers, marked off from the out-group, the ‘them’ by a core belief. This core belief is also a barrier to entrance and a badge of belonging. It must, almost of necessity, be something that flies in the face of most ordinary checkable empirical claims.

    There must, I think, almost certainly be some dynamic like this co-occurring to some degree.

  4. Sure the explanation IS co-evolutionary and quite straightforward as you suggest, but the environment is a (major) part of what guides that evolution. (Systems thinking provides good models for the internal & external drivers for evolving systems.)

    So whatever positive reason for that “tribal” evolution it’s not necessarily positive in our times – a changed environment – one of massively connected ubiquitously fast comms, and one with a dominant (objective) model of what makes for good reasoning. In (literally) tribal times we would have been much more connected to our feelings and to the natural environment / the pace of the seasons, for example.

  5. To Mark Hammond’s comment, I’d add hat the need for belonging is common to all of us. There is a group that favours checkable empirical claims, and its members like to belong, and mark themselves off from other groups by certain core beliefs, such as the idea that the universe is mechanical and our notions of free will and self-determination are illusory, that talk of “love” and “caring” is woolly-eyed nonsense and we should be driven purely by self-interest, and that sort of thing.

    This group, like others, wants to approach questions of human justice, and it brings its own methodology. Other groups take a different approach to the same questions. The checkable-empirical-claim group has certainly enjoyed astounding success in certain areas of human endeavour, such as technology, but its authority in other areas, such as politics or economics, is disputed by other groups as over-reaching.

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