Last week on the SGU we discussed the YouTube video of a woman who thinks that the rainbow effect she can see in her sprinkler is a government conspiracy. We treated the story primarily as the ravings of a scientifically illiterate woman who went-off half-cocked and made a YouTube video arrogantly displaying her ignorance to the world. But at the time we also briefly raised two other possibilities: is this satire, or is this woman mentally ill?
Occasionally we run across satire that can easily be confused for the real thing – because there is so much legitimate nonsense out there that is difficult to impossible to satirize. But we agreed this was unlikely in this case – there was not tell.
My primary concern was that the “crazy rainbow lady” was actually crazy – that we were watching a schizophrenic who gained access to a video camera and a computer (or who had help). My personal policy is simply to ignore anyone who I deem is most likely in this category. There is nothing to gain by confronting them. At best they could be a psychiatric case study (and I mean that seriously).
In this case I erred on the side of discussing the video because it had gone “viral” and our inbox had been flooded with requests to discuss it. Since then we have received some follow up e-mail pointing us to the YouTube channel of dbootsthediva, which certainly seems to be the same person as the rainbow video. The voice is very similar, the setting is similar (same sirens in the background) and the style is spot on. After watching a number of her videos I have formed the opinion that we are indeed dealing with someone who is undermedicated.
The pattern that emerges from these videos is pretty clear. She marvels at everyday natural phenomena and interprets them all as a government conspiracy. For example, she has noticed, perhaps for the first time in her life, that there is earthshine – that light reflected off the earth back at the moon illuminates that portion of the moon that is not directly lit by the sun. This effect is most prominent during crescent moons. She does not understand this phenomenon and so assumes that something nefarious is going on, and if something nefarious is afoot it must be the big dark evil government.
In another video she shows the digital snow on her TV and thinks it is strange how the wave patterns in the snow kinda look like other wave patterns she has seen. She also shows a low-res video of the sides of her house with the horizontal lines in the siding causing a moire pattern. She then shows the words, “this is not a moire pattern.” She came to this conclusion because she found what she thinks are anomalies in how the moire pattern looks – so “logically” it cannot be a moire pattern. Therefore it is energy directed by the government.
She also shows us a video of her house in order to demonstrate how he house is moving. Since everything in the frame (even distant objects) are moving together it appears that the camera just has a loose connection to the tripod. But she thinks this is “sound waves, pressure wave, frequency waves, and gravity waves” directed by (you guessed it) the government at her house to use her and her mother as “human guinea pigs.”
This is textbook. She actually is probably quite bright, although uneducated. She has many science terms at her fingertips. She tries to defend her conclusions with logic. But in every case she leaps to a maximally paranoid and bizarre conclusion. In addition, there is a personal element – the government is directing these energies specifically at her and forcing her to live in that house. Generally bright with paranoia, bizarre ideation, and ideas of reference – textbook.
But here is the dilemma for skeptics – we deal with “crazy” claims on a daily basis. If we excluded everyone from out critical analysis who showed features of a delusional disorder our scope would be considerably narrowed. Further, mental “disorders” occur on a spectrum. There are those who cannot function outside of an institution. There are others that have subtle tendencies to explain their world in paranoid themes, but are otherwise completely functional. And there is everything in between.
I strongly suspect, although I have not seen objective data, that many of the unscientific and bizarre claims skeptics confront attract those who are on this “reality-challenged” spectrum. The hardcore UFO community is silly with them.
In this case, the crazy rainbow lady is a HAARPist – she believes that HAARP (the High Frequency Active Auroral Research program) in Alaska is the evil government organization doing all these energy experiments. The HAARP conspiracy is a large community, at least on the internet.
What this means is that when skeptics confront organized conspiracy-mongering belief systems they will by necessity also be confronting some mentally ill individuals who were attracted to these belief systems. One of the unintended side consequences of the internet is that people whose bizarre paranoia would previously only be known to their family and their psychiatrist can now display them on YouTube, and link up with others to synchronize their delusions or latch onto organized delusions already in existence on the web.
On a side note – I do think that occasionally such cases are useful as examples of disordered thinking. What the crazy rainbow lady offers is a naked and obvious example of logical fallacies that many others commit in more subtle form. Teaching physicians will often call students into an exam room to witness an extreme example of some pathology. It is, admittedly, partly just to marvel at something freakish (like the scientists who gawked at the “elephant man” out of pure “scientific curiosity”) but legitimately to help them understand the pathological process in question, so as to better recognize its more subtle manifestations.
In the rainbow lady we see anomaly hunting, hyperactive pattern recognition, failure to satisfy Occam’s Razor, the improper use of scientific jargon, the premature dismissal of more mundane explanations for trivial and trumped-up reasons, and the failure to consider existing scientific explanations (probably due to ignorance of them). These are all features of sloppy thinking ubiquitous among the promoters of unscientific claims and beliefs.
They are just easier to detect in this case because they are more raw, but they are no different than the sloppy thinking from the likes of Richard Hoagland, Neal Adams, or Ray Comfort.