One of the unnecessary tragedies arising from the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol was the shooting death of Ashli Babbitt, a documented QAnon conspiracy theorist. Ms. Babbitt was the first to enter through a glass door into the secured House Speaker’s Lobby, which had been smashed by her fellow insurgents. Capitol police assigned to protect the U.S. “line of succession” shot her dead.
As our mothers would say, it is all fun and games until someone puts an eye out. A sad and frustrating lesson about human frailty.
To drag back a frequent theme of this blog, Ms. Babbitt’s brain “made a probabilistic bet” based on an aberrant version of “The Truth” and she paid for that bad bet with her life. I have often referenced here looking at how our brain does volition (i.e., “free will” or “choice”) based on an interpretation of the work of neuroscientists Karl Friston and Daniel Dennett. These researchers and others see the brain as always gathering information through our senses, adding in past memories of similar situations, and making either an electrochemical-induced zig or zag from the attacking lion, in a process that looks a lot like Bayesian probability. In short, a bet. If we bet on the zig when we should have zagged, the lion wins, and our sub-optimal decision-making genes do not propagate to the next generation.
Billions of years of brain evolution in a nutshell. If your parents were not able to reproduce due to making bad decisions too early in life, then you won’t either.
Betting we can drive the car
We make these “bets” every day when we get into our automobiles. Driving is a complex set of “zig or zag” assumptions based on the behavior of other drivers plus our own driving skill. Sometimes, however, our decision-making ability gets corrupted. Alcohol consumption increases our perception of driving competence at the same time it slows down our reaction speeds. “Bad bets” regarding alcohol result in many thousands of unnecessary traffic deaths annually.
Psychologists and social scientists get into the act to help us discover why conspiracy theories like QAnon screw up our reasoning abilities so badly that we are willing to throw away our careers or even die, as did Ms. Babbitt, for an objectively “false reality.”
There is a lot of research on this subject that we can’t get into here, but before “meme was a meme” on the social internet, the word meme itself was defined in 1975 as a kind of “brain virus” by Richard Dawkins in his classic text, The Selfish Gene. Susan Blackmore later fleshed out the concept much more in her book about brain function called The Meme Machine.
A meme, in its original conception, is any socially transmitted construct or idea that both embeds into people’s brains to “take over” some significant conscious thought, and then replicates among a population. A meme can range from something as simple as a musical “earworm” stuck in your head to a major conspiracy theory (sometimes called a “memeplex”). For memes to be “successful” they need, according to Dawkins and Blackmore, three characteristics: (1) high fidelity replication, (2) high levels of fecundity (speedy replication) and (3) longevity (staying power in the recipient brain).
Memes in this original sense remain controversial as a sufficient explanation for the mass takeover of human brains like the QAnon or “massive election fraud” or “computer chip in a vaccine” conspiracy theories. My position here is simply that something takes over the minds of otherwise rational people and makes them do really stupid things, even to the point of betting their own lives on a bad risk outcome.
Some research tries to focus on other characteristics that make people susceptible to the mass hypnosis of bad conspiracy theories. Several of the news stories about the aforementioned Ashli Babbitt try to find explanation in an apparent series of personal and financial failures, both during and after her military service, that perhaps influenced the frantic “selfie” video that she posted on social media on her way to Washington D.C. and her “first through the smashed window” behavior. And yet, many of the people at the Capitol on January 6 did not look or sound that crazy.
Scientific reality can be a bitch
My personal bias towards an explanation for conspiracy susceptibility tends toward the common denial of science and mathematics as measuring sticks for “real truth” versus “fake truth.” Both of these fields engender a measure of “critical thinking” that often helps discern fact from fantasy. It is not a perfect correlation. Some brilliant scientists have been known to “go off the deep end” on crackpot theories as well.
I have written multiple posts here over the past year on two related subjects. On purported election fraud, the numbers (plus more than 60 legal challenges laughed out of court) clearly indicate that the 7+ million vote margin between the two presidential candidates in 2020 was indeed “real enough” for a Biden victory, and that mail-in ballots are often more auditable than in-person voting machines.
Even the disputed votes in the “swing states” were more a question of the order of counting and right-wing distress over expanded voting options for Democratic-leaning minorities (psst: it’s always about race) than about the numbers themselves. If “the people” means the majority of voters in the United States, then “the people” have clearly spoken here by a 7 million vote margin. Basic math.
For my second common topic, the coronavirus pandemic has launched a similar rise in crazy conspiracy theories. While many tragic deaths have occurred where people have taken all reasonable precautions against this amazingly fecund virus, we are also seeing far too many “Darwin Award” nominees. We daily read of the regrets of family members who infected their more vulnerable parents and siblings at unmasked parties and other “super-spreader” social events.
Early in this infestation I made the mathematically-appropriate analogy to “driving drunk in Coronavirus World.” Most of the time, statistically, drunk drivers will make it home safely after a night of drinking, and that very result emboldens them for the next night. And so it continues until the probabilities catch up with them. Risky coronavirus behavior acts exactly the same way. You might be able to ride your luck, but you are placing a very bad bet on your life. The probabilities are not in your favor.
I have not dealt with “Religious Truth” in this post. In the minds of many “true believers,” their conception of religious truth trumps all other measures, including science and math, and it helps to explain their risk-taking behavior on all of these subjects. That discussion will need to wait for a subsequent post. Stay tuned.
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- Bad habits and the Bayesian brain
- Politics informed by math #4 – Grand conspiracies
- Kids, can you say Fecundity?
- Driving drunk in Coronavirus World
- Probability, uncertainty and inanity with the coronavirus
Prior More in the queue…