Fri Mar 14th, 2008 at 11:13:58 AM EST
One of the questions that I have been bouncing around in my head (and bouncing off other people) for a while is the question of whether ET - that being us, the contributors and commenters - really might resemble a religious sect to an extent that I would find... troubling.
I think that the best way to examine this proposition would be to consider the content and character of this site with special attention to the warning signs I normally use when I try to evaluate whether a web page, book or other resource is a source of insight into the subject mentioned in the title - or solely an insight into the mind of the author.
And doing so does, in fact, raise a number of red flags:
- We make a number of bold claims regarding economics. In fact,
a large number of [some] contributors are [even go as far as to] frequently say ing essentially that conventional academic economics is so much bollocks. Attempting to deconstruct an entire field of science - and economics is usually considered as such despite the protests here and elsewhere that it is not - is a fairly major flag for crankery.
- We claim that most of the rest of the world live with a false consciousness. Claiming that the rest of the world is delusional and that only your own small group sees the Truth(TM) is another bad sign.
Very few of us are actual qualified economists, yet much of our writing concerns itself with economics. While ET has more than its fair share of physicists, engineers and other numerate people, general numeracy does not necessarily enable a person to discern (or deconstruct) the subtleties of a discipline that is not his own. Nor is it, by itself, evidence of sanity, as the numerous Creationist engineers and mathmaticians prove. [I have since been informed that this is in fact false - a relatively high number of the regular contributers have some economic background, although not necessarily academic (academic background being in any case not a prerequisite for being right)]
- Many of us react negatively - often strongly so - when the suggestion that ET might constitute a "church" is raised, even when the suggestion is unintended - witness the way a trivial etymological digression turned into a full-blown threadjack in Sven Triloqvist's Quality of Life diary. Of course, almost any group of like-minded people would balk at being called a church for the simple reason that religion has come to be associated with superstition, dogma and god-given authority (an association that is not entirely unjustified, but let's leave that for another day). Nevertheless, there is a certain... insistence that makes a little flag go up in my mind. One might almost call it a fervour :-P
Having said this, I don't think we're a cult. I do think, however, that it is a discussion that must be raised - and possibly a discussion that must be re-visited once in a while. If you will follow me below the fold, I will explain my reasoning regarding these two points.
[EDIT: Fold originally here. For more visually appealing layout, fold was moved upwards. - Jake]
First, regarding the non-cult nature of ET, I come to this conclusion because there are a great number of symptoms of cultish thinking that are conspicuously absent from "mainstream ET" discourse:
- There seem to be very few persecution complexes. While we do regularly complain about tendentious reporting from belief tanks and various newspapers and magazines, these claims are usually substantiated by a detailed and coherent analysis of the outlet in question. This is something you won't see on your run-of-the-mill crank website, where persecution is claimed on the sole basis that the rest of the world dismisses the crank(s).
- There is considerable (and outspoken) ideological diversity on ET, even on the subject(s) that give cause to the greatest concerns about crankery. This stands in sharp contrast to places like Uncommon Descent, CureZone or Telic Thoughts, where ideological conformity is the norm.
- There is a lack of crank magnetism. Even relatively obscure crank blogs attract a plethora of highly interesting crackpots and other curious fellow-travellers. In a gathering of creationists (and/or cdesign proponentists), you'll usually find at least a couple of people who deny the germ theory of disease, a couple of alt-med enthusiasts, a relativity theory denier or two and not infrequently various stripes of historical revisionists. The examples are legio, as anyone who has spent significant time on the internet can testify. But ET is mostly free of the above forms of crankery - we have one or two 9/11 troofers and a handful or so people who seem a bit more enthusiastic about "alternative medicine" than the clinical evidence really justifies, but that seems to be about it. As far as auxiliary crankery goes, this is hardly worth mentioning.
- When claims of a technical nature are made, they are substantiated on request. And the math usually makes sense (or is at least not transparent nonsense). The former is almost never seen among cranks, and the latter is completely unheard of. This is a fairly important point, because math serves a very unambiguous function when it is forwarded to support a hypothesis: It illuminates the proposed hypothesis and puts it in a form that may be analysed and critiqued by proponents and detractors alike. By contrast, math in the service of crankery exists solely to confuse and dazzle the reader so that any concrete claims become harder to identify and critique (or to obscure the fact that there are no claims - as is the case with cdesign proponentism).
Why, then, do I raise the question of ET's supposed cultishness if I have already (albeit tentatively) concluded that it is a mirage?
To an extent, it is to reassure myself that I have not gone (more) insane. The non-ET media I consume - to borrow a line from one contributor's sig - seem to uniformly believe that wage increases cause inflation, that Bliar would make a great President Of The EU(TM), that the politicians who dragged us into Vietraq are statesmen, rather than insane or malicious criminals, that there is no such thing as involuntary unemployment and that the subprime crisis is an isolated (and relatively minor) problem rather than a consequence of an underlying flaw in Modern Capitalism(TM).
In other words, either I have gone mad or the Danish newsies have.
The other, less personal, reason that I bring up this issue is that if and when such a thing as the Progressive Movement starts getting a profile in politics and public life, we will start to attract cranks through the crank magnetism mentioned above.
Even if we are not cranks ourselves, it is virtually guaranteed that any new political movement - and especially one such as ours that holds much of current conventional wisdom to be complete rubbish - will look appealing to people who are (in their own imagination) defending themselves from the persecution of similar hidebound orthodoxies. And I don't think that you need to go into tin-foil hat territory to surmise that our political opponents will seek to reinforce that picture. That is, after all, what I would do in their place.
Thus, it seems prudent to consider these warning signs; we wouldn't want to attract cranks any more than we would want to turn into cranks.