Everyone’s a Conspiracy Theorist, now

We live in interesting times. The internet was supposed to usher in an era of increased knowledge, understanding, and maybe even human harmony. Instead it has turned us all into conspiracy theorists.

Don’t get hoity-toity and claim that it’s only those Bad Guys over on the other side of the aisle who believe in conspiracies. The Left believes that the country is run by a secret cabal of heterosexual white men whose tentacles reach into every aspect of life, from prenatal care to television to incarceration. As conspiracies go, this one is well-established and believed to some degree by nearly everyone on the Left; millions of dollars have been funneled into university research departments for the purpose of “uncovering” more evidence of this secret cabal’s universal reach.

The Right’s beliefs are far more heterogenous–unlike the left, they struggle to pick a single enemy to blame and focus all of their attacks on–but right now they are united in their belief that Democrats cheated and stole the election. This right-wing conspiracy is nearly identical to the left-wing conspiracy of 4 years ago that Russia stole the election. If any leftists are reading this, I hope you realize now just how dumb your Putin conspiracies sounded and I hope you sincerely regret the billions of taxpayer dollars you guys spent investigating that nonsense. There are people struggling to pay rent and buy food, you know.


To be clear, just because something is a conspiracy doesn’t make it wrong. People have conspired in the past; people will conspire in the future. Sometimes there genuinely is something going on. Most of the time, though, people aren’t conspiring in the way we typically use the word. People look out for themselves. They make backroom deals; they protect their turf. They grift and graft and try to cover up incompetence. Things aren’t done in “secret” so much as “most people don’t have time to keep track of all of the boring details.”

Unfortunately, if you yourself do not know much about a field, it is rather difficult to distinguish between someone who actually knows a lot about that field and someone who merely sounds like they know about that field. If you have any expertise in any field, you have probably noticed both people who think they know a lot about your field when they actually don’t and also people who believe these fakers. Many normal people simply can’t distinguish between actual expertise and things that sound like expertise.

The situation only gets worse when the popular view of a field is already incorrect. Take, for an historical example, heliocentrism versus geocentrism. If you were an ordinary person in Gallileo’s age, you’d know in your bones that geocentrism was obviously correct. Things don’t move unless you push them, and what’s going around pushing the Earth? You’ve moved–you walked and run, ridden horses and ridden in carts–and you know what movement feels like. It feels like an earthquake, which clearly doesn’t happen every day. Any idiot can look up at the sky and notice that the clouds, sun, moon, planets, and stars all clearly go around the Earth. This is all common sense. The idea that some ivory-tower mathematicians have invented a “new math” (lolwut) and used it to determine that the Earth is secretly moving but you can’t feel it because *handwaves* “You only feel acceleration and deceleration, not steady movement, I have never ridden on a horse,” is clearly just nerds making stuff up.

From the inside, any particular worldview provides detailed and accurate explanations of the universe around it, and from the outside, looks silly. Why did it rain? Well, because we did a rain dance / because the Crocodile God was angry / because energy from the sun sucked water from the ocean into the air as invisible water, and then a low pressure zone in Canada made the air flow over to your neighborhood and as the air moved uphill, it lost the ability to hold up the water and it formed into clouds and rained. Why didn’t it rain again today? You did the rain dance wrong / your sacrifice to the Crocodile God made him happy / Canada warmed up.

My mother has recently become very enthusiastic about Qanon. I don’t consider this a problem–she’s bored because of Covid and it gives her something to do–but it is fascinating to watch which ideas she finds credible and which ones she doesn’t. Of course, most conspiracies contain, at their hearts, some grain of truth. Does the Vatican have a pedophile problem? Well, yes. Is the Roman Catholic Church something like a huge international network of powerful pedophiles working together to protect each other from prosecution? Well, that’s not exactly the first definition I’d give of it, but I can see how someone who was abused by a priest as a child might see it that way. Did the Pope hack the US election in order to get Trump out of office before he shuts down the Vatican’s Satanic international child trafficking ring? I have serious doubts.

Good luck disabusing a Qanon fan of their favorite conspiracy theories: Q is internally consistent enough to provide explanations for all observed phenomena, and before you start, you’ll have to do a bunch of research on your own to figure out which of their claims are actually true and which aren’t supported by the evidence. Then you’ll have to come up with a good explanation for “why all of these seemingly trustworthy people are lying” and a bunch of alternative explanations for all of the pro-Q evidence, at which point you are trying to convince your friend that there exists a secret conspiracy of people on the internet who completely fabricated this entire Qanon thing for years and tricked her into believing it for no discernable reason other than “the lols” or maybe ad revenue, at which point you sound like the crazy conspiracy theorist.

And the exact same is true on the Left. Just try to convince them that there is not actually a great big conspiracy of white men trying to oppress them and you’ll get an endless stream of “what about this” and “you’re wrong about this minor point” and “here’s a psych study that was conducted by totally unbiased researchers that proves babies are racist.”

Bizarre effect of the internet: everyone now believes in conspiracies.

The Mainline Paradox: Memetics and Liberal Christian Collapse

Warning: Just a theory

I wanted a graph that went back further in time, but this is what I found.
Courtesy of Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”

Liberal Christian denominations (ie, Mainline Protestants) are caught in a paradox: even though they have increasingly defined themselves as open to everyone, their membership roles keep decreasing. It’s as if the more people they let in, the fewer people show up.

[insert Groucho Marx cartoon about not wanting to belong to the set of all clubs that would have him.]

Recent data from Minnesota highlights the precipitous decline:

Mainline Protestant churches have been hit the hardest. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in Minnesota has lost almost 200,000 members since 2000 and about 150 churches. A third of the remaining 1,050 churches have fewer than 50 members. The United Methodist Church, the second largest Protestant denomination in Minnesota, has shuttered 65 churches since 2000.

Catholic membership statewide has held steady, but the number of churches fell from 720 in 2000 to 639 last year, according to official Catholic directories.”

Note the timeframe: we’re not talking about change over the course of a century. The Presbyterian church of Minnesota has lost 42% of its members since 2000.

Meanwhile, membership is basically holding steady at conservative denominations that practically define themselves by whom they don’t let in. Evangelicals and fundamentalists are not hemorrhaging nearly as badly as their more welcoming brethren.

Among Mainline Protestants, the only denomination that’s basically holding steady is the American Baptist Church, which has gained black souls as it has lost white ones.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church has more than doubled in size.

Interestingly, a conservative spin-off of the Presbyterian church is doing fine, and the notorious Southern Baptists are doing fine. [source for denomination data.]

The Amish, who are practically their own ethnic group due to only marrying other Amish, have been nearly doubling their population every 20 years, and that’s even with a significant number of children leaving each generation. Of course, the Amish have plenty of children.

Of course, one of the biggest factors in the decline of liberal denominations is fertility–the Amish have a lot more kids than Mainline Protestants.

But why have the Mainlines, with their open and tolerant ideologies and welcoming attitude toward nearly everyone, not attracted more members as society in general has moved leftward on many issues? If you have read Dumbing of Age for as long as I have, then you are well aware of the main character, Joyce’s, rejection of the particular brand of conservative Christianity she was raised and homeschooled in over the issue of homosexuality, and her subsequent search for a more liberal church (which has so far involved freaking out at an Episcopalian service because it smacked of papistry.)

Why are Presbyterians failing to attract the Joyces of the world?

I propose this is because functionally religious identity is about group identity, and a group identity that hinges on “openness to outsiders” is not a functional group identity.

Now you might be saying, “Wait, I thought religious identity had to do with what you think God, or ethics, or how the world was created. People give some sort of rational thought to their beliefs, and then pick the church that best suits them.”

No. I don’t think anyone ever said, “Hey, the religion where you can’t eat pigs sounds much more rational than the religion where you can’t eat cows.” Nor did anyone logically think that the religions with animal sacrifice sounded more logical than the one where the feces of priests are holy, or where alien ghosts are causing all of your problems. (Basically, every religion that isn’t whatever you happen to practice is full of totally illogical beliefs.)

This is why conversations between atheists and theists are so boring. Atheists try to explain that religion doesn’t make sense, and theists try to explain that religion is about faith, not logic.

The nation of Pakistan is 96.4% Muslim, and it didn’t get that way because everyone in Pakistan spontaneously decided when they were about 16 years old that they all agreed that Islam was the only true religion. Israel is 74.7% Jewish, not because all of the Jews logically examined all of the world’s religion and then spontaneously agreed that Judaism was the best one. No; most of the world’s Muslims are Muslim because their parents were Muslim. Most of the world’s Jews were born to other Jews. Most Christians were born to Christians, and so on.

Multi-religious states exist, but within those states, people tend to marry within their own religion or abandon religion altogether, for religion is ethnicity.

3,000 years ago, this would have been an unexceptional statement. The People of the Crocodile God worshiped crocodiles and were certain those folks over there worshiped the Snake God were up to no good. Note that they didn’t deny the existence of the Snake God; they just didn’t worship it.

Our ancestral memetic environment was very different from our modern one because most people couldn’t travel far and mass media didn’t exist. As a result, people tended to only interact with their own group; outsiders were demonized and war was frequent. To be part of a tribe was to worship the tribe’s totems or ancestral deities. In an uncertain world where wind and rain, life and death were mysteries in the hands of capricious deities, to not worship the tribal gods was akin to saying you did not care whether your brothers lived or died.

Indeed, the big issue Rome had with Christians and Jews was less that they worshiped some strange god with weird food rules and transubstantiation–the empire had a pretty inclusive attitude of adopting new deities as it encountered them–but that Christians and Jews refused to adopt the empires deities into their pantheon. More to the point, they refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods, which the Romans believed would bring the wrath of the gods on them and showed very poor civic spirit. As Tertullian complained in the second century:

They think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, “Away with the Christians to the lions!

Monotheism of course triumphed over paganism by taking over the empire itself. The conquering of pagans and thus their gods happened on a small scale within Judea, then on a large scale with Rome and Mecca. The big religions now expanded past pure ethnic lines, but still functioned for ordinary people as ethnic identities due to the lack of long-distance travel–Christians, for example, were members of “Christendom,” which stood in contrast with the pagan, barbarian, and non-Christian hordes–places which, of course, the average christian never saw.

But modern technology has drastically changed our memetic environment. Today you can hop in a car or plane and within hours be hundreds or thousands of miles away–distances your ancestors would have taken months to walk. You can pick up your phone and talk to a friend on the other side of the planet, or read headlines detailing the spread of disease in a foreign country. (I have written extensively about this change in the memes category.)

In the ancestral memetic environment, almost everyone you talked to and got information from was either your immediate family or lived in your community. As a result, memes that promote the survival of you, your family, your community, and your genes tend to dominate. Memes that promote the survival of strangers don’t do as well.

In our modern memetic environment, most of the people you talk to and get information from are strangers. You get movie recommendations from strangers on Rotten Tomatoes; you learn about new business ideas from the reporters at Forbes or Wired or The Wall Street Journal; you get parenting advice from a nanny on TV and medical advice from WebMD. You no longer raise barns or herd goats with your brothers, cousins, and extended family, but work in a cubicle farm with a hundred people who probably aren’t even 5th cousins.

As a result, the modern memetic environment favors the horizontal (rather than vertical, ie from parent to child,) meme transfer. This environment favors the spread of memes that prioritize the interests of strangers, simply because so many of the people you are talking to and interacting with are strangers.

The liberal churches–in particular, the Mainline Protestants–have worked hard to signal openness to others, because this is how horizontal morality works. (The group identity of people who define themselves as open to others thus has as its group it’s defined against as “people who aren’t open to others.”) But if religion itself is about group identity, then a group identity of “let’s be open to others and not have a strong group identity” is going to leave people unenthusiastic about attending liberal churches.

Group identity used to be more intuitive for people, again, because they mostly interacted with members of their own group. Modern religious identity for most Christians is no longer explicitly ethnic (not if you want a place in polite society,) so the “outgroup” has switched gay people, who are such a small percent of the population (2-3%) that they’re effectively a symbolic issue for most parishioners. Unlike those dastardly followers of the Snake God, homosexuals have never made their own army, invaded a neighboring tribe’s territory, massacred all of the women and carried off the men.

(This is, in my opinion, a very silly rock to build one’s church on. Certainly churches for the first 1,900 years of Christianity didn’t make this a major, defining point of what makes them different from their competitors. Jesus himself didn’t say a whole lot about gay people.)

And getting back to fertility, people with stronger group identities–such as people whose religions tell them they should have a group identity and it is good to have a group identity that excludes those [evil outgroup people] tend to have more children, who are the literal future of the church.

Summary version: Religion is about group identity, but the modern memetic environment, ie liberalism, is anti-group identity. Churches that try to set themselves up in opposition to group identity therefore fail. But since ethnic identity is no longer in fashion, conservative religious groups now define themselves in opposition to homosexuals, a somewhat symbolic opposition considering that homosexuals have never constituted a military threat to anyone’s ethnic group.

The Empathy Trap

People think memetic viruses are just going to ask politely about infecting you, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses: “Hello, can I talk to you today about the importance of WWIII with Russia?”

No. Mind-viruses are not polite. They USE you. They use your empathy and compassion to make you feel like a shit person for rejecting them. They throw dying children in your face and demand that you start a war to save them.

They hijack your sense of yourself as a good person.

I call this the empathy trap.

For example:

Why did this take Stone Cold’s breath away? Why is it shocking?

It’s a basically true statement– the 3/5ths compromise originated in 1783 and was still around in 1789, when the 2nd Amendment was proposed–but soare “California became the 31st American state when I was deemed 3/5ths of a person,” “Napoleon invaded Russia when I was deemed 3/5ths of a person” and “The New York Times was founded, the safety elevator was invented, Massachusetts passed the nation’s first child employment laws, the first telegrams were sent, and Jane Eyre was published when I was deemed 3/5ths of a person.”

A lot happened between 1783 and 1861.

As unpleasant as the 3/5ths compromise is to think back on, we should remember that it was not passed because proponents thought black people only counted as “3/5ths of a person,” but because they didn’t want slave owners using census counts of non-voting slaves to get more votes for their states in the federal government. The 3/5ths compromise actually reduced the power of the slave-owning states relative to the non-slave owning states, in exchange for a break on taxes.

So this isn’t shocking because it’s factually true (I can come up with a whole list of equally true but unshocking statements) nor because the 3/5ths compromise was evil.

Perhaps it is shocking because it points out how old the 2nd Amendment is? But there are many other equally old–or older–things we find completely mundane. Mozart was writing operas in the 1790s; US copyright law began in the 1790s; Edward Jenner developed his smallpox vaccine in 1796; Benjamin Franklin invented the “swim fin” or flippers back in 1717. I don’t think anyone’s throwing out their flippers just because the concept is older than the entire country.

No; it’s shocking because “I was deemed 3/5ths of a person” appeals immediately to your sense of empathy.

Do you respond, “That doesn’t matter”?

“What do you mean, it doesn’t matter that I was considered only 3/5ths of a person? That matters a lot to me.”

“Oh, no, of course, I didn’t mean that it doesn’t matter like that, of course I understand that matters to you–”

Now you’re totally off-topic.

In order to see that this is a non sequitor, you first have to step back from the emotion. Push it aside, if you must. Yes, slavery was evil, but what does it have to do with the 2nd Amendment? Nothing. Reject the frame.

Mitochondrial memes are passed down from your parents and other trusted members of your family and community. You don’t typically have to be convinced of them; children tend to just believe their parents. That’s why you believed all of that business about Santa Claus. Meme viruses, by contrast, come from the wider community, typically strangers. Meme viruses have to convince you to adopt them, which can be quite a bit harder. This is why so many people follow their parents’ religion, and so few people convert to new religions as adults. Most religious transmission is basically mitochondrial–even if the Jehovah’s Witnesses show up at your doorstep fairly often.

To spread faster and more effectively, therefore, meme viruses have to convince you to lower your defenses and let them spread. They convince you that believing and spreading them is part of being a good person. They demand that if you really care about issue X, then you must also care about issue W, Y, and Z. “If you want to fight racism, you also have to go vegan, because all systems of oppression are intersectionally linked,” argues the vegan. “If you love Jesus, you must support capitalism because those godless commies hate Jesus.” Jesus probably also supported socialism and veganism, depending on whom you ask. “This photo of Kim Kardashian balancing a wine glass on her ass is problematic because once someone took a picture of a black woman in the same pose and that was racist.” “Al Qaeda launched an attack on 9-11, therefore we need to topple Saddam Hussein.” “A Serbian anarchist shot some Austro-Hungarian arch duke, therefore we need to have WWI.” “Assad used chemical weapons, therefore the US needs to go to war with Russia.”

Once you are sensitive to this method of framing, you’ll notice it fairly often.



The Value of Viral Memes

Note: “Memes” on this blog is used as it is in the field of memetics, representing units of ideas that are passed from person to person, not in the sense of “funny cat pictures on the internet.”

“Mitochondrial memes” are memes that are passed vertically from parent to child, like “it’s important to eat your dinner before desert” or “brush your teeth twice a day or your teeth will rot out.”

“Meme viruses” (I try to avoid the confusing phrase, “viral memes,”) are memes that are transmitted horizontally through society, like chain letters and TV news.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time warning about some of the potential negative results of meme viruses, but today I’d like to discuss one of their greatest strengths: you can transmit them to other people without using them yourself.

Let’s start with genetics. It is very easy to quickly evolve in a particular direction if a variety of relevant traits already exist in a population. For example, humans already vary in height, so if you wanted to, say, make everyone on Earth shorter, you would just have to stop all of the tall people from reproducing. The short people would create the next generation, and it would be short.

But getting the adult human height below 3″ tall requires not just existing, normal human height variation, but exploiting random mutations. These are rare and the people who have them normally incur huge reductions in fitness, as they often have problems with bone growth, intelligence, and giving birth.

Most random mutations simply result in an organism’s death. Very few are useful, and those that are have to beat out all of the other local genetic combinations to actually stick around.

Suppose you happen to be born with a very lucky genetic trait: a rare mutation that lets you survive more easily in an arctic environment.

But you were born in Sudan.

Your genetic trait could be really useful if you could somehow give it away to someone in Siberia, but no, you are stuck in Sudan and you are really hot all of the time and then you die of heatstroke.

With the evolution of complex thought, humans (near alone among animals) developed the ability to go beyond mere genetic abilities, instincts, and impulses, and impart stores of knowledge to the next generation. Humanity has been accumulating mitochondrial memes for millions of years, ever since the first human showed another human how to wield fire and create stone tools. (Note: the use of fire and stone tools predates the emergence of homo Sapiens by a long while, but not the Homo genus.)

But mitochondrial memes, to get passed on, need to offer some immediate benefit to their holders. Humans are smart enough–and the utility of information unpredictable enough–that we can hold some not obviously useful or absurd ideas, but the bulk of our efforts have to go toward information that helps us survive.

(By definition, mitochondrial memes aren’t written down; they have to be remembered.)

If an idea doesn’t offer some benefit to its holder, it is likely to be quickly forgotten–even if it could be very useful to someone else.

Suppose one day you happen to have a brilliant new idea for how to keep warm in a very cold environment–but you live in Sudan. If you can’t tell your idea to anyone who lives somewhere cold, your idea will never be useful. It will die with you.

But introduce writing, and ideas of no use to their holder can be recorded and transmitted to people who can use them. For example, in 1502, Leonardo da Vinci designed a 720-foot (220 m) bridge for Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II of Constantinople. The sultan never built Leonardo’s bridge, but in 2001, a bridge based on his design was finally built in Norway. Leonardo’s ideas for flying machines, while also not immediately useful, inspired generations of future engineers.

Viral memes don’t have to be immediately useful to stick around. They can be written down, tucked into a book, and picked up again a hundred years later and a thousand miles away by someone who can use them. A person living in Sudan can invent a better way to stay warm, write it down, and send it to someone in Siberia–and someone in Siberia can invent a better way to stay cool, write it down, and send it back.

Original Morse Telegraph machine, circa 1835

Many modern scientific and technological advances are based on the contributions of not one or two or ten inventors, but thousands, each contributing their unpredictable part to the overall whole. Electricity, for example, was a mere curiosity when Thales of Miletus wrote about effects of rubbing amber to produce static electricity (the word “electricity” is actually derived from the Greek for “amber”;) between 1600 and 1800, scientists began studying electricity in a more systematic way, but it still wasn’t useful. It was only with the invention of the telegraph from many different electrical parts and systems, (first working model, 1816; first telegram sent in the US, 1838;) that electricity became useful. With the invention of electric lights and the electrical grids necessary to power them (1870s and 80s,) electricity moved into people’s homes.

The advent of meme viruses has thus given humanity two gifts: 1. People can use technology like books and the internet to store more information than we can naturally, like external hard-drives for our brains; and 2. we can preserve and transmit ideas that aren’t immediately useful to ourselves to people who can use them.

The Progressive Mind Virus Spreads to… India?

As ANI (Asian News International) reports on Twitter (h/t Rohit):

For those of you reading this in the future, after the 15 minutes of manufactured furor have subsided, #MarcyForOurLives is an anti-guns/pro-gun control movement in the US. Gun laws in India are notably much stricter than gun laws in the US, and yet–

The thing that looks like a mushroom is the internal part of a uterus; you can see the rest of the drawing faintly around it. As noted, this is completely backwards from the reality in India, where it is nearly impossible to buy a gun but abortions are extremely common and completely legal. So where did the marchers in Mumbai get this sign?

Well, it’s a meme, found on Twitter, instagram, t-shirts, and of course signs at pussyhat rallies in the US. It’s not even true in the US, but at least it kind of makes sense given our frequent debates over both guns and abortions. Certainly there are some people in the US who think abortions should be completely illegal. India, by contrast, is a nation where slowing the growth rate to prevent famine is a high priority and abortions are quite legal.

I am reminded of that time Michelle Obama tweeted #BringBackOurGirls in support of Nigerians kidnapped by Boko Haram:

This is the signature of a mind-virus: it makes you repeat things that make no sense in context. It makes you spread the virus even though it does not make logical sense for you, personally, to spread it. Michelle Obama is married to a man who controlled, at the time, the world’s largest military, including an enormous stockpile of nuclear weapons, and yet she was tweeting ineffective hashtags to be part of the #movement.

Likewise, the state of gun (and abortion) laws in India is nothing like their state in the US, yet Indians are getting sucked into spreading our viral memes.

Horizontal meme transfer–like social media–promotes the spread of memetic viruses.