Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Demographics of Credulity

It will no doubt surprise many readers to learn that much information available on the internet is false. You haven't already won 10 million euros; that nice lady in Nigeria has no inheritance to share; those pills won't make your waist any smaller or your fill-in-blank any larger.

Most of us know these things, of course. So you might assume that the only people who wire the funds or buy the pills are mentally defective, in the usual obvious ways. You know the poor type: bad hygiene, worse grammar. And yet the facts are apparently otherwise.

Years ago, we had a colleague and dear friend, much older than ourselves, who routinely forwarded to us electronic messages filled with truly alarming news. Much of it was about politics -- how many Democratic congressmen were Communists and so forth. Plenty was about religion, such as Madayln Murray O'Hare's campaign against Touched by an Angel. And a good bit was about how gay people are ruining Christianity for the rest of us. (Did you know that a pastor can be sued for not marrying every gay person he or she meets? It must be true, because I read it in a chain letter.)

At first, we wrote our lonely pal long, research-laden notes. Eventually, we just started sending him the relevant links to Snopes.com, since almost every single thing he sent us was debunked there. The funny thing is that he knew this; our friend wasn't stupid. He just liked to forward emails.

The other funny thing -- and a good deal funnier -- was this. Although a very traditional high-churchman, our friend wasn't especially conservative in his politics. Rather the opposite. But nearly everything he sent reflected a right-of-center perspective. We were never sure why. Maybe this was a reflection of who his friends were, or maybe of which friends liked to forward their mail to him.

But consider this. Long about 1999 or 2000, we were sitting in an undercroft before Mass, waiting for our cue to enter. Beside us was an altar boy, and beside him another colleague -- this one quite distinctly conservative in his social and political views. And as we listened, Father (let's call him) Arbogast explained to Junior the origin of some familiar phrases. You know the list: "Dirt poor" because poor homes had no floors; "raining cats and dogs" because those animals slept in the thatched roof, and tumbled out in a storm; "saved by the bell" and "dead ringer" are all about premature burial.

Father Arbogast wasn't joking. He was showing off. And let's be clear, he wasn't a mental defective -- he was and remains a bright guy and a capable minister. But here he was, trying to impress a kid by showing off a collection of completely spurious "facts."

We listened in silent horror. These things were all false. We knew they were false, because (when Arbogast sent us the email) we had done the five minutes of research required to be sure. We knew they were false -- but what could we do? Correct the old blowhard in front of a child? Ruin our relationship with Fr. Arbogast and his with the altar boy?

We kept a tactful silence, but ground our teeth.

And then it happened again. A few months later, on vacation, we ducked into a lovely little Episcopal church in a place you've never heard of it. The service was Rite 1, which pleased us no end; it was read in that self-consciously bad way which is the mark of the true Anglo-Catholic. The sermon was okay. Just. At coffee hour, we sat with a local and her grandson, and were joined for a while by the rector, a fat man in early middle age who quickly revealed his right-of-ours social views. Not that those views dominated his time at our table -- on the contrary.

Most of the time he spent with us was devoted to an avuncular chat with the boy. About cats and dogs and thatched roofs and rainstorms. And dead ringers and what the heck all else. The vein in our neck throbbed violently, but the fact is that we were on vacation, passing through a place we would never be again. It wasn't our place to swoop in like an avenging angel of truth and then disappear into the whispering forest. (Although, come to think of it, that would have been really cool). So, again, we sucked it up.

But you know what? It never ends. Just yesterday, our colleague Mr. Slope mentioned on one of those social-networking doohickeys that the most popular page on his parish website was one that details the "true meaning" of a beloved song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. Apparently, it's a secret Papist code to catechize young people. Which, of course, it's not.

The neat thing about social networking on the web is that it allows instant correction of bogus "data." And what do you know, somebody -- Our Beloved Godfather, as it happens -- directed Mr Slope's attention to the Snopes debunkerizing page.

Then, duly chastened, Mr Slope replied that he would quickly remove the page, lest its flights of fancy delude the faithful. Right? Isn't that what he said? Actually no. He said, more or less, "Harumph! I'm an historian, and I know that Snopes is always buggered on history. So I'll look into it." And maybe he will. And maybe he should have before posting the damned thing on this website. (Although, in fairness, the creator of this bunkum swears by it, without producing a shred of evidence. And Slope's site has another page which admits that there's no actual evidence, while claiming it's a true story anyway. Make of that what you will.)

So here is what we are wondering: Are socially conservative clergymen in middle age all dunderheads? Do they simply believe everything they read? Do they buy the pills and wire the money and do all the other halfwitted things that internet suggests they might? Frankly, we doubt it. The people we have been describing may lack judgment, but they don't lack intellect.

What we suspect is that they listen, very attentively, to their friends -- and very little to anybody else. At a certain point in life, they simply decide that the usual sources of information -- newspapers, television, the water-cooler -- cannot be trusted (which is probably true), but that their like-minded friends can be (which is probably not). And so they begin listening to fewer and fewer voices, but believing more and more readily what those voices say.

Doesn't everybody do this? Well, yes and no. There is, to be very sure, a fringe of extreme leftists who share their paranoid theories with each other, and believe it all. (Which reminds us that we need to de-friend Father Baltikus. The guy's a nutjob. A Chomskian nutjob.) But so far as we can tell from an examination of our own in-box, and the general tenor of the Snopes collection, we suspect that the rightist equivalent is larger and/or proportionately more active. By a mile. And more to the point, none of the people we have described is a true extremist. One was, on non-theological matters, notably liberal. But all were isolated -- not by necessity, but by choice -- from most of their colleagues and, it seems, from much of the world around them.

We suppose it is nothing more than a variation of Hofstadter's "paranoid style in American politics." But in just that sense, those silly stories about cats and dogs become a window into something a bit unnerving: the way socially and intellectually isolated people become prey to fantasies and delusions.


PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

The last election cycle proved that people will believe anything. And how is it that I believe the opposite with no more proof than "they" have.

Not related, but thought you could look at this: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/collections/special/columns/news_cut/archive/2010/11/wisconsin_jeweler_urges_diamon.shtml

What is true is that this actually is on the local TV stations. You can't take it with you, so you might as well spend the money here on earth before you get snatched away. Hmmm, does that mean that the owner of that store thinks he won't be raptured????

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

I had to suffer through a solemn reading of that stupid Twelve Days of Christmas drivel every year at my son's annual Catholic School Christmas concert. I, too, (being the only Lutheran in the whole place) remained silent (except for the snarky comments uttered barely under my breath).