I Ought to be a Woo: My Brain

This is the first post in what will probably be a long and rambling introspective series on how it’s a miracle* that I ended up as skeptical as I am. First up: how my brain works.

Yesterday I was listening to a “Doctor Who” audio drama on my iPod and thinking a little about continuity–not “Doctor Who” continuity, even…I think I was considering something about Kryptonite for some reason. Anyway, my years in various sorts of fandom have taught me that I’m very good at rationalizing things. Give me any continuity error, quibbling (“Han was bluffing Obi-Wan; obviously a parsec is a unit of distance. As he showed with the Death Star communicator, he’s not always good at bluffing”) or monumental (“Due to the traumatic regeneration, which took place on Earth instead of in the TARDIS, the Doctor took on some terrestrial biological characteristics for his Eighth Incarnation; he’s ‘half-human’ on the side of his mother–Mother Earth”) and I can smooth it out with some post-hocking. I don’t even have to try particularly hard, except when I start applying this kind of thinking outside of fiction.

Moreover, I’m pretty good at drawing connections between otherwise disparate things. It makes compare/contrast essays really easy, and I imagine it’s a large part of why I’m so fascinated with Joseph Campbell. Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn off. I find myself sometimes assigning thematic significance to things that happen in my life. I often hear new bands or see movies and begin describing it in terms of other bands or films–for instance, when I was riding with a friend yesterday, I described the band he was listening to as “Wall of Voodoo meets Tom Waits.” I then promptly felt like an asshole hipster and wanted to shoot myself. But that kind of thing happens all the time; I look at Xander from “Buffy” and can’t help thinking he must be Bruce Campbell’s secret love child, or I watch a preview for “P.S. I Love You” and think that it’s “Saw” as a love story. My brain is forever drawing connections.

As anyone who’s had any experience in the Skeptosphere already knows, post-hoc rationalization and connection-drawing are foundational to a variety of different types of magical thinking and woodom.

Post-hoc rationalizations require two things: first, an assumption of the truth, and second, an inconsistency between that assumption and observation. In fandom, that might look something like this:
Assumption: The “Star Wars” series is coherent and without contradiction.
Inconsistency: Princess Leia says in “Return of the Jedi” that she remembered her birth mother, who was “beautiful, kind but sad.” But we see in “Revenge of the Sith” that Padme Amidala dies in childbirth; how could Leia possibly remember that?
Post-Hoc Rationalization: Leia is Force-sensitive, and so her memories are influenced by telepathic impressions she received of her mother pre- and immediately post-natal.

See how it works? You start with your pre-existing worldview, and then iron out any inconsistencies with easy hand-waving explanations, ignoring totally the simpler, more parsimonious explanation that your initial assumptions may be flawed. For instance:
Assumption: God exists and answers prayers from His followers.
Inconsistency: Not all believers’ prayers get answered.
Post-Hoc Rationalization: They weren’t praying/believing right.

Or how about:
Assumption: Sylvia Browne has psychic powers.
Inconsistency: She told this lady that “the reason why you didn’t find him [her late husband’s body] is because he’s in water.” But the woman’s husband was a firefighter who died in the World Trade Center, not “in water.”
Post-Hoc Rationalization: Well, Sylvia was getting the water impression from the water used by the firefighters to put out the fire. The spirits, you see, they’re hard to hear, and maybe he didn’t die in the tower at all, or…

Did someone say World Trade Center? Why, I do believe that brings us to “drawing connections” (see how I drew that one? Not yet? Oh, well, wait a minute). Without the tendency to draw connections between otherwise unrelated things, there would be no conspiracy theories (get it now?), and alternative medicine types would have a much harder time hocking their wares. Connection drawing requires, in most cases, a great deal of cherry-picking, an affinity for analogies, and a tendency to inflate “connection” into “causal relationship.” It’s a boon for English majors, because it allows us to do things like literary interpretation and analysis, and pretend to have some degree of certainty.

As an example, I recently had to write a research paper on Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” One of the ideas I had was that the vampires in Dracula (especially the Count himself) are 19th-century anti-Catholic caricatures. There’s the easy bits, like the fact that Stoker was an Anglican and the whole blood-drinking thing (since Catholics believe in real, not symbolic, transubstantiation). Our protagonists are largely Church of England, and are rather blasé about their faith; Jonathan Harker thinks that the Eastern Europeans he encounters are silly and superstitious, and he tries to refuse the Rosary one woman gives him. The vampires are all cowed and harmed Catholic iconography–the Host, crucifixes, etc.–which are used by our protagonists like magical spells. Only the vampires (and the “superstitious” characters) recognize any power in the icons, for everyone else, they are meaningless. This is a reference to the common characterization of Catholicism as witchcraft (and perhaps to Medieval Catholicism, where the illiterate laity incorporated those same Catholic icons in their old pagan magic rituals).

See, I could have built a pretty decent paper around that thesis, even though I recognize that it’s probably utter bullshit. I doubt that Stoker wrote his book as an anti-Catholic polemic, and if he did, then I doubt many of his readers would have gotten it. And to make the case, I have to ignore the fact that the most lauded character in the book is the obviously Catholic Abraham Van Helsing, or the various other details that don’t support (or actively contradict) my thesis. But I can cherry-pick details all day long, maybe do some quote-mining, and get a good essay out of it.

The same kind of thing is necessary for alternative medicine, astrology, or any other woo that posits a cause-effect relationship between otherwise unconnected objects. And conspiracy theories thrive on this. The phrase “do you think that’s [the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts/the government’s reluctance to release details about purported UFOs/the crash of Flight 93/the ‘expulsion’ of these ID advocates from academia/etc.] a coincidence?” is testament to that. I could offer up an example here, to match my term paper paragraph, but I’m sure you get the picture.

These are natural human drives. We are built to make connections; our ability to infer causal relationships and plan accordingly is one of the biggest survival advantages we have–it just doesn’t have a great deal of precision. And we crave explanations for things, any explanations, even ones that are pure guesswork, because that’s still more satisfying than not knowing.

When we combine these tendencies, to draw connections and iron out inconsistencies, we end up with neat, emotionally-satisfying narratives. In narrative storytelling, events must be connected or significant somehow. Everything fits together in a neat package, usually with some kind of moral center. There’s a climax and a resolution, and all the loose ends are tied up in a way that provides fulfillment and closure. We understand that kind of story; what we have a hard time grasping is reality, where things aren’t all connected and symbolic and leading to some emotionally-gratifying conclusion.

Maybe it’s hubris or shame or something that causes me to think that I’m somehow abnormal in having these connection-building and rationalizing drives in overdrive. Maybe I’m not that much different from anyone else. But it still seems amazing that I could become skeptical–heck, that anyone could become skeptical, with these cards stacked against them.

I think the first step is becoming aware of the common faults of human thought. In order to overcome the tendency toward erroneous thinking, you have to know that there’s something to overcome. It always comes back to education, doesn’t it?

That seems like enough rambling for now, but I’ll come back to this topic periodically.

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