Feb 13 2018

New California Initiative – Crank Magnetism in Action

Being involved in skeptical activism for over two decades does provide some perspective. One phenomenon I have noticed is that most pseudosciences and weird belief systems are, at their core, the same. Sure, the details vary, but the underlying errors in logic and thinking are the same. Essentially people make the same mistakes over and over again.

This, in fact, was the original motivation for developing a list of common logical fallacies. We kept encountering the same poor logic time and again and wanted to address the underlying cognitive errors. This is why scientific skepticism is so heavily involved with metacognition – thinking about thinking. There are thousands of fake medical claims out there, for example. Debunking every one is an endless game of whack-a-mole. Better to understand and address the underlying flaw in logic and method that leads to all the medical nonsense.

More recently this phenomenon has been dubbed, “Crank magnetism.” This is the closely related notion that people who believe on type of pseudoscience tend to believe multiple types – they tend to attract each other. The cause of this seems obvious – if your method is flawed, you will achieve the same flawed results over and over.

There may also be different flavors of crank magnetism, although there is a lot of overlap also. For example, there are conspiracy theorists who believe every conspiracy, there are spiritual true-believers who are prone to believing anything mystical, and there are “nature is best” fanatics who are vulnerable to marketing anything as “natural” and fearmongering about “the chemikilz.”

A new ballot initiative in California (of course) is an excellent representation of this latter flavor of sloppy thinking. It combines a reverence for anything natural, an irrational fear of chemicals, and anti-corporate conspiracy thinking into the mother of all crank-magnetism orgies.  According to the state Attorney General:

REGULATES VARIOUS SUBSTANCES AND PRACTICES RELATED TO AGRICULTURE, CONSUMER PRODUCTS, AND HEALTH. INITIATIVE STATUTE. Prohibits genetically engineered plants and animals and over 300 listed substances from being used or released into the environment. Creates new state entity to regulate environmental activities, modify projects having pollution and radiation impacts, and test and approve substances before they can be introduced in California. Prohibits treatment of water with fluoride or chlorine. Regulates vaccine ingredients and eliminates vaccination as a prerequisite for attendance at schools and daycare facilities. Provides criminal and civil liability for violations, with no statute of limitations.

Basically this would put the inmates in charge of the asylum. The proponent of the measure, Cheriel Jensen, hopes to accomplish in one bill the wet dreams of anti-science activists over the last century. She has to collect the signatures of 365,880 registered voters (five percent of the total votes cast for Governor in the November 2014 general election) by August 6th in order to get on the ballot.

The most interesting aspect of the proposed bill is the blatant crank magnetism. It shows the overlap between the anti-vaccine movement, the anti-GMO movement, the anti-fluoridation movement, and the all-purpose toxin fearmongerers. They also throw in the more recent anti-smart meter conspiracy theorists. If it’s new and technological, they are against it.

Obviously not everyone who is anti-GMO is also anti-vaccine. But there is a large overlap. In a recent survey of belief in medical conspiracies, 49% of those surveyed believed in at least one. Meanwhile 18% believed in three or more – it is that 18% that we are talking about here.

There are also cultural reasons for overlap, not just underlying philosophy or cognitive style. People who watch Dr. Oz or other TV doctors were more likely to accept multiple medical conspiracies. This is the “Goop” phenomenon – reverence for the vague concept of “natural,” use of alternative treatments as empowering, and rejection of medical and scientific authority are now a “lifestyle.”

Social media also reinforces crank magnetism. If you watch YouTube videos questioning the safety of vaccines, anti-GMO videos are likely to appear on the right of your screen. The echochamber reinforces the underlying philosophy, not just the specific belief.

This is the power of narrative that I have discussed often here. What psychological research (and personal experience) have revealed is that people need a way to make sense of a complex and often scary world. We need an explanatory narrative. Most of the time we accept the explanatory narratives that are offered up by our culture – we internalize them, embrace them, and then spread them.

One goal of metacognition is to think about these explanatory narratives. Why do we believe them in the first place, what are their strengths and weaknesses, are there any better approaches out there?

So essentially what we are seeing with this ballot initiative is a manifestation of a particular explanatory narrative, one that tries to make sense of the modern technological world as a conspiracy of powerful companies, powerful enough to control or at least heavily influence the government that should be regulating them, who are poisoning the public through careless use of toxins and chemicals. Meanwhile a plucky band of rebels seeks to expose the truth using social media. In this world view, kinder gentler powerful companies are selling the public natural products, food, and cures. Science and scientists cannot be trusted (unless they find what you want to believe and confirm your conspiracies). Anything “chemical” is suspect, and the slightest suggestion that a chemical is harmful can be taken as iron-clad.

Meanwhile, anyone who would challenge this narrative is a troll and a shill working for the powerful companies. You can just assume that to be true, without needing any actual evidence.

If that is your explanatory narrative, then that is the filter through which you see the world, and social media will conveniently cocoon you in an echochamber that reinforces the narrative. Within that world view, it makes sense that vaccines are poison, fluoridation is a conspiracy, GMOs are dangerous, and smart meters are spying on us. If you are willing to dismiss the scientific consensus on one, why not all of them? You have your “alternative” experts giving you alternative facts to support your alternative beliefs.

It will be interesting to see how the ballot initiative does. It is, in a way, a survey on how prevalent this narrative is in California. I suspect the initiative will fail, because it simply goes way too far, and only the 18% hard core believers will go for it. But we will see. Recently history has not been kind to my optimism.

5 responses so far

5 thoughts on “New California Initiative – Crank Magnetism in Action”

  1. Nareed says:

    I’ve been thinking of an oblique approach to the problem: teaching cognition starting in elementary school, as a separate subject despite its obvious relationship to biology and philosophy.

    I’ve noticed as I read about the subject here and there over the years, I began to recognize and question my biases, as well as logical fallacies and, sometimes, false or incomplete assumptions. This leads to a clearer and more nuanced view of things in general, and complex subjects in particular.

    Most important, these biases, fallacies, etc. were things I was largely unaware of. perhaps, then, if we teach such things in school, people will recognize such flaws later in life.

  2. carlweathers4prez says:

    To pump the brakes on the California stuff, the push for signatures is a rehash of a push that didn’t obtain enough signatures to be put on the 2016 ballot. All something like that takes is one motivated crazy person to start it. And once news outlets to run with it as if it were a real possibility, we get a political version of a Twiticle.

  3. cloudskimmer says:

    Thank you for the warning; as a California resident I will be on the lookout for this. Long ago, signature gatherers were volunteers motivated by the particular issue. These days they are paid shills, usually by large companies, but I can’t think of any that would favor this initiative, nor do I think there will be enough volunteers to do the job. Many proposed initiatives are stopped by failing to qualify, and hopefully this one will never get onto the ballot.

  4. MaryM says:

    The crazy thing about this: it could work. It could get enough people with some kind of “Clean Environment” branding, if they don’t look any further. I know, it needs signatures. And even after that most people vote “no” on these initiatives.

    But here’s the problem: we have no lobby against it, really. When the GMO bill went on the merry-go-round, grocers and companies had a specific target. This is a bucket of nutty that requires public utilities, public health, companies, and–well, sane people, to align. How would that happen? Who would raise money to work against it? What kind of ad campaign could we run, and who pays for the creative and materials, airtime, whatever?

    Science and sanity just doesn’t have checkbook.

  5. goldmund52 says:

    Nareed: There is a recurring theme on this blog that lack of critical thinking skills is a threat to society.
    So the main project of skeptics is to identify “common logical fallacies” and teach people better cognitive skills to improve society.

    From the book The Enigma of Reason: “A biological mechanism described as an ill-adaption is more likely to be a misdescribed mechanism. Reason as standardly described is such a case. Psychologists claim to have shown that human reason is flawed. The idea that reason does its job quite poorly has become commonplace. Experiment after experiment has convinced psychologists and philosophers that people make egregious mistakes in reasoning. And it is not just that people reason poorly, it is that they are systematically biased.” In contrast to this the authors argue: “Reason… despite evidence to the contrary is well-adapted to its true function.” Reasoning evolved as a tool for social interaction. Its purpose is to improve social standing, not to lead to intrinsically better decisions. Which is why, according to the authors, programs for teaching critical thinking “have had weak effects.”

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