I’ve always been fascinated by why people believe weird things, particularly the totally illogical ones. I delved into this world when I researched my 2012 blog posts, and there seemed to be a pattern behind a lot of the crazy beliefs, particularly in the way they’re constructed.
Based on this I’ve made my own equation for nonsense. I’ve seen that the more successful illogical beliefs tend to have a number of common features, and the more of these features they can fit into one crazy story, the more people will believe the story and defend it passionately.
I’ve tried to capture this in my equation (don’t get excited, there isn’t any maths), and I’ve used it to make my own insane myth.
Some people might say that I believe in some pretty crazy ideas too, like the existence of alien life, or that one-day we’ll be able to create conscious artificial intelligence. But for me, these ideas are supported by serious scientific theories and trends based on empirical evidence. Sure, there’s a leap of faith involved, but an informed leap.
For this equation I’m looking at the ideas that have no real proof, the ideas that flout scientific knowledge and even good-old common sense, but still manage to become extremely popular.
So here’s the equation:
N = P x T x S x E x Z
OK, that looks a bit boring, here are the words:
The power of nonsense (N) = popularity (P) x thrill-factor (T) x superficial-complexity (S) x endorsement (E) x zeitgeist (Z)
P = popularity – it seems to me that the more people believe in an idea, the stronger that idea becomes. It doesn’t matter how crazy the idea may be. A simple example of this is the common misconception that the Great Wall of China can be seen from space. This isn’t true. Of course it isn’t, the Great Wall is very long, but it’s also very thin, like 2 or 3 meters across, and you wouldn’t be able to see something this thin from space. It’d be like being able to see a really long worm from the top of the Empire States building, it wouldn’t matter how long the worm would be, it’d be too thin. Yet loads of people believe this. Why? Partly because they’ve heard everyone else say it.
This is further reinforced if the idea has support from a variety of different sources, if the crazy idea is seen on TV, in papers, on blogs and on YouTube then it must be true. In marketing this is called 360° marketing, you try and hit your target consumers on as many ‘touch points’ as possible.
This seems to be the case with the 2012 myth. It’s everywhere; in books, on the TV, in films, all over the internet, and I think for many people this gives the idea legitimacy, something like “if so many people are talking about it there must be something in it”.
There may be some science behind this too. I saw in a recent, and rather depressing study, that 80% of people are more likely to believe in an idea if they know its popular with other people, even if they’re given strong evidence that the idea is nonsense. It seems that popularity is much more important than evidence. (I’m trying to find the reference for this, I’ve lost it.)
T = thrill-factor – it also appears to be the case that the more magical, exciting and even scary an idea is, the more popular it will be. This is really evident in the end-of-the-world beliefs and the crazy alien stories.
The idea that aliens exist, have visited our planet, have shaped our evolution, built pyramids, lived in Atlantis, and possibly run a shadowy global government is fun, and surprisingly popular, David Icke can attest to that. Whereas stories about the end-of-the-world would be pretty scary if you believed in them, and there have even been reports of people considering suicide and killing their families rather than face the 2012 apocalypse.
But this helps. Everyday life can be pretty boring and routine. Most people’s jobs suck a good % of the time, and most of us live a pretty routine existence, broken by the occasional vacation or massive cocaine binge. Crazy and scary beliefs’ add some spice and a touch of danger to a prosaic and dull life. A vacation from a humdrum existence (although also a vacation from reality).
S = superficial-complexity – this is an odd one. Whenever scientists try and communicate complex ideas to normal people, they usually try to make them as simple as possible, they don’t mention the maths and they try to use everyday analogies to make the ideas more approachable.
But a lot of the purveyors of nonsense actually seem to make their ideas more complex, and this complexity appears to be appealing. But it’s all about the right kind of complexity though. Scientific ideas usually have one complex nugget, one tough equation or mind-bending idea to comprehend, this is deep-complexity. But crazy ideas use a different kind of complexity, they use superficial-complexity.
A superficially-complex idea is one that mixes lots of simple ideas together in a strange and usually illogical pattern to create a mesmerising web of ideas. 2012 and alien sites do this particularly well; Nibiru is an alien planet, named by the ancient Sumerians, but its also referred to in the Bible, and it’s inhabited by an alien race called the Nephilim, but they’re also called the Anunnaki, and they’re the same as the alien race who govern the New World Order, and Nibiru is also an asteroid, called Eris, but sometimes it’s a star etc etc.
Loads of websites read just like this, with a torrent of inconsistent ideas, peppered with circumstantial evidence and referencing obscure sources. You’d have a panic attack if you tried to make sense of it. But for many people, this seems to be a good thing. Maybe people are impressed by the sheer number of ideas and don’t seem to mind that none of it makes any sense? Maybe the fact that each idea is simple to understand is enough, and they feel that they probably don’t understand the whole because you have to devote time, or have to be an ‘expert’ to really get the big picture.
E = endorsement – every good marketing manager knows that the right endorsement is key to making a new product a success (I wasn’t even a very good marketing manager, and I knew that). In consumer goods marketing you usually want either an expert or a celebrity to endorse your product, and the same seems to be the case with crazy ideas.
Lots of the people who make money from nonsense try very hard to appear as credible experts. Think of all those vitamin pill scammers and ‘nutritional experts’ selling their latest fad diets and ‘detox’ products, they usually appear in white-coats surrounded by laboratory equipment, despite having no science qualifications. Dr. Gillian McKeith is the best example. She isn’t actually a doctor, she just pretends to be, she even bought a PhD from one of those dodgy unaccredited American colleges (a bit like buying one of those fake IDs out of the back of Maxim magazine).
And I’m sure celebrity endorsement also helps for nonsense too. Oprah Winfrey is the Queen of this, she champions all kinds of stupid ideas, from miracle cures to psychics, and it seems to be very persuasive for lots of people.
But for crazy stories there’s an even more powerful endorsement, ancient hidden knowledge. This is the idea that ancient civilizations had knowledge that we’ve forgotten today, the notion that we’ve lost touch with nature and spirituality through living in our modern society, surrounded by iPhones and robot-butlers (what you haven’t got one?). 2012 is a great example of this, its based on the idea that the ancient Maya had a better understanding of the secret workings of the Universe than we do, and you could argue the same is true for religion, sources like the Bible can be seen to hand-down ancient secret knowledge to those who are willing to study it today.
It’s not true though. I’m sure we may have lost knowledge from past civilizations, but mostly practical knowledge that we don’t need anymore, like how to best hunt and track wild animals, and how to kill them with pointy sticks. But we know far more about how our planet and the Universe work than ever before, thanks to science and technology, not magic and mysticism.
Z = zeitgeist – this means ‘spirit of the times’, basically the popular ideas, beliefs and people that define the world we’re currently living in.
In 2011 the zeitgeist is made up of things like global warming, the world recession, mass uprising in the Arabian world, natural disasters and Lady Gaga. If an idea can tie into the zeitgeist it’ll be more popular, as it’ll resonate with the ideas already in people’s heads.
One of the reasons I think the 2012 myth has become so popular is that if compliments a number of ideas in the zeitgeist, such as fear of natural disasters, conspiracy theories and mistrust of authority, and a feeling of guilt that we’ve caused so much damage to our planet, that we deserve to be wiped out.
Based on this equation I thought I’d make up my own crazy idea, here goes…
The Ordovices were an ancient Celtic tribe of druids; they were sophisticated astronomers, capable of predicting the movements of the planets and stars well into the future. As druids they were also in touch with the natural world, proud worshippers of Gaia, they had knowledge of the rhythms of nature that we’ve lost today.
In an ancient druidic text, recently uncovered by a rogue expert, the Ordovices predicted that on the Summer Solstice 2013 a disaster will strike the Earth, a huge solar storm will hit our atmosphere, showering our planet’s damaged ecosystems with radioactive particles. As our biosphere struggles to cope, a new species will rapidly evolve, set free from the usual restraining mechanisms of a healthy ecosystem, a race of zombie ladybugs will arise, and will descend upon humanity as a plague of swarming flying insectoid-piranhas. The ladybugs will decimate human populations, killing billions and laying waste to our civilization. All this was known almost 2,000 years ago.
NASA has so far confirmed that the summer of 2013 will be the solar maximum of the solar cycle, and ecologists all over the world have confirmed that global ecosystems have reached their breaking-point, and preliminary reports of unusually large numbers of ladybugs have been spotted in the Amazon rainforest. But have you read about this in the media, or heard your politician’s plans to deal with it? You’ve heard nothing; it’s a conspiracy people.
But don’t worry, with just 24 payments of $450 you can receive all the vital zombie ladybug news from our crack-team of research scientists, via an extremely poor-quality, almost illiterate, rambling email newsletter.
You heard it here first folks.