“How America lost its mind”

The Atlantic tries to explain in a long, interesting essay.  Here’s an excerpt.

Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. Some of my best friends are very religious, and others believe in dubious conspiracy theories. What’s problematic is going overboard—letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, all of us free to reinvent ourselves by imagination and will. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.

Much more than the other billion or so people in the developed world, we Americans believe—really believe—in the supernatural and the miraculous, in Satan on Earth, in reports of recent trips to and from heaven, and in a story of life’s instantaneous creation several thousand years ago.

We believe that the government and its co-conspirators are hiding all sorts of monstrous and shocking truths from us, concerning assassinations, extraterrestrials, the genesis of aids, the 9/11 attacks, the dangers of vaccines, and so much more.

And this was all true before we became familiar with the terms post-factual and post-truth, before we elected a president with an astoundingly open mind about conspiracy theories, what’s true and what’s false, the nature of reality.

We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland.

How widespread is this promiscuous devotion to the untrue? How many Americans now inhabit alternate realities? Any given survey of beliefs is only a sketch of what people in general really think. But reams of survey research from the past 20 years reveal a rough, useful census of American credulity and delusion. By my reckoning, the solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, don’t believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists, and just as many are sure of the existence of a personal God—not a vague force or universal spirit or higher power, but some guy. A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15 percent believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals,” and another 15 percent think that’s possible. A quarter of Americans believe in witches. Remarkably, the same fraction, or maybe less, believes that the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—the same proportion that believes U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

There’s much more at the link.

The most interesting – and worrying – thing about the article is the blind faith and non-evidence-based certainty with which each of these ‘belief groups’, to coin a phrase, believes in their particular credo.  You can’t argue with many of them, because no matter what evidence you advance, or what rational reasoning you deploy, they will stick their fingers in their ears, scream “LA-LA-LA-LA-I can’t hear you!”, and go on regardless.

Yes, this includes religion.  I have religious faith, as is obvious to anyone who’s read these pages for a long time . . . but I’ll be the first to admit that my faith may be based on falsehoods.  I have chosen to accept the Bible as the word of God, and Jesus Christ as a real, historical manifestation of God made man.  I base my life upon those principles and his teaching.  Nevertheless, if I refused to admit that I might be wrong, I’d be as ideologically dogmatic as a militant atheist who refuses to admit even the possibility of the existence of God in any form.  There are many things we can accept and believe, but not be able to scientifically prove.  We need to acknowledge that reality.  If we don’t, we make ourselves as guilty of the problem as anyone else.  Doing so does not mean we don’t continue to live according to our beliefs.  We simply accept that we’re fallible, too.

I’m not threatened by someone who doesn’t believe as I do.  I shall continue to be as open and friendly towards him as his conduct allows me to be, and not worry about things that divide us unless and/or until they become a real obstacle.  I trust that one day, my hope and faith in God will be rewarded in the hereafter.  If there isn’t one, I guess I’ll never know . . . but that won’t stop me believing, and hoping, and trusting.  That being the case, why should I deny the right to their own beliefs to anyone else?

The Atlantic’s essay is well worth reading in full, and pondering.  Where do we fall on the spectrum of belief-versus-fact?  I think we’ll all do well to consider that very carefully, and very honestly.  Blinkered vision and blinkered minds are a recipe for disaster, personally and nationally.



  1. The first thing I would say is that the author should take a course on the philosophy of science. The nature of what's provable and what's not provable, which is the essence of empirical science.

    The border between science and accepting beliefs without evidence is far mushier than they think. The essence of science is that it's falsifiable: that there's an experiment that can be done that demonstrates the theory is false. In the last month, climate scientists have been arguing that the climate models are not falsifiable, but that we should simply trust them. Is that science? Your financial analyst has to verify their computer models, but the climate scientist doesn't?

    Here's an example they'd never think of: string theory in particle physics. It turns out that to falsify the theory requires levels of energy that are simply beyond anything man can fabricate. I've read that you would need a particle accelerator like the giant Large Hadron Collider in Europe only scaled up to the size of a Galaxy. If a theory can't be tested, is that science or belief system?

    This person also apparently never considered the unprovable axioms that science is based on. They're reasonable, but if they're not provable, are they science? They also seem to have a particular hate for religion, and the writer seems to feel science and faith are antipodes; that there is either science or religion. Hogwash. Much better minds than this writer's have written volumes on this.

    Personally, I think the prevalence of things like 9/11 Conspiracy theories, alien visitations, Niburu the rogue planet that's going to kill us all, and such is not mass hysteria so much as that life is so good people have nothing else to worry about, so they make up stuff. I'll freely admit that's not scientific because it's not falsifiable.

    I could go on, but it's your blog, Peter!

  2. That was an interesting, inadvertent reveal reference to global warmening doubters. "We believe, and the doubters belong with Those People Over There."

  3. "Their extreme rationalism, by seeing through' all rational' motives, leaves
    them creatures of wholly irrational behaviour. If you will not obey the Tao, or else
    commit suicide, obedience to impulse (and therefore, in the long run, to mere
    'nature') is the only course left open.
    . . .
    But you cannot go on explaining away' for
    ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go
    on seeing through^ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something
    is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent,
    because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the
    garden too? It is no use trying to see through' first principles. If you see through
    everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an
    invisible world. To 'see through' all things is the same as not to see. "
    -C.S. Lewis the Abolition of Man

  4. They heap scorn upon religion, and call it reason.
    They spurn logic and ignore fact, and call it reason.
    They destroy thought, and call it reason.
    They corrupt education, and call it reason.

    And then they wonder what happened.

  5. I am not a scientist, only a humble engineer. It's always been my job to take the theory generated by scientists and turn it into reality. And when I'm handed a theory that sometimes gives one result and at other times the opposite I can only hand it back and say "nope, cannot build you a maybe machine."
    I believe in climate change, my own lying eyes tell me so, and historical records back that up. Is the current trend caused by mankind's actions? That would be a perfect subject for investigation, but since it's "settled" science we must not question proposals to take drastic, expensive, and potentially damaging actions to correct the situation. This, given that they have not created a model that produces consistent results when fed actual data, offends my engineer's soul.
    As for science and religion, I've never seen a conflict. Religion is the belief in a supreme being. Science is the study of how the heck did that being manage to do that. Whether you call it nature or God's will, the world is truly a wondrous place and the mechanisms that sustain it marvelous indeed.

  6. That was a pretty long list of beliefs that aren't mutually exclusive to each other nor what would supposedly be their antithesis.

  7. The writer of that article is just as irrational and blinkered as those he scorns.

    Speak not of the splinter in mine eye…..

  8. My personal beliefs and the blinkers they provide me, assist me in navigating, enjoying, and surviving the world each day. I am aware of their limitations and the limits they impose. And when met with a new concept, I from time to time reevaluate these items to reassess their value to my well being. I do not believe as my parents did, nor do I believe everything that all-powerful and no-it-all eighteen year old that graduated school with a diploma in my did. That fact tells me I have changed from within in response to outside influences rather than because of them. And I still find value in those blinkers, though their shape has changed.

    What offends me are the blinkers that the author of that article THINKS I wear, simply due to the label hung on me, because hearing my opinion is not as worthwhile as proselytizing their own faith. And that is what they hold, as others posting here have described in a variety of ways. When your 'reason' fails logic, what you have is faith. I am comfortable with both my reasons and my faith. And I am confused by they who are so uncomfortable with theirs, that they must attack mine.

    The Straw Man is strong with this writer, and the editors of the Atlantic.


  9. SiGraybeard:

    Calling it "string theory" is a misnomer, since it's an untestable hypothesis at best.

    Where science gets it right is by making new ideas pass a certain threshold of proof, and by building on each new testable idea to the next. As Uncle Lar points out, he can build stuff when it works over and over.

    But by focusing on the scientific aspects of the story we are missing the point–that our personal belief systems are interfering with rationality. It's an engineering problem, in a sense; we're caught up in trying to create a working world that fits our fanciful theories. "Creation Science" is the best example I can think of. There are entire libraries of research and repeated evidence that our planet started out as a bit of leftover gas and dust when the Sun formed, and that life somehow evolved. Exactly, concretely how, we can't say, and we never be able to say–but it works pretty damn well in explaining how things work now. Whereas there's really only one source of information about the Biblical creation some 6000 plus years ago, with no other evidence to support it.

    It isn't science. It isn't supposed to be science. Religious belief isn't the WHAT, it's the HOW. How do we relate, How do we behave, How do we do what is right, in this physical world full of stuff and other people. Evolution isn't about right and wrong. That's religion (and self-chosen systems of government). They can co-exist without destroying cancelling each other. They MUST.

  10. String theory is not even as good as mainstream religion. Mainstream religion originated before humans understood falsifiability as a component of proof (proof means best guess). Physicists proposing string theory don't have that excuse.

    Einstein said God does not roll dice, claiming that the apparently random quantum behavior is not random (random means 'I can't predict the outcome'). Einstein claims God's computer system which implements the universe as a simulation is not allowed to have a random number generator? Which physics experiment proved that?

    The best argument for God is that human can imagine building a computer powerful enough to simulate a human mind inside it. Within our lifetimes. See James Hogan and other SF authors for a book-length imagining. Here's a good one, free: https://qntm.org/ra

    I don't understand what this apparent container called 'the universe' is, what made it, or what's outside it. In the absence of a good answer, I believe 'I don't know the answer to that question'. I don't draw a sea monster in the blank space of that map. Why do modern people CHOOSE to believe things which they can tell aren't supported by evidence?

    Speaking of superstitions unsupported by evidence, Hobbes' book Leviathan claims the central justification for government is that humans will destroy each other unless restrained by a hierarchy. Being the central justification for government, I would expect this problem would have reoccurred hundreds or thousands of times, in all times and places, regardless of culture or race. With results even more horrific than the 260 million humans murdered by government in the 20th century. So perhaps government supporters could cite a few of these historical events which are the evidence Leviathan is based on?

  11. Uncle Lar,

    Engineers aren't lowly, and they are scientists. They applied scientists rather than basic scientists. Engineering is the other side of the coin from Physics. When theory is worked out that the results are predictable, we can design stuff to use that theory. Quantum Mechanics, for example, yields solid state physics which gives us semi-conductors such as transistors and Microprocessors.

    Don't ever put down Engineers as "lowly." Without them, nothing the Physicists produce would ever make it to market, and modern society would be impossible.

  12. What anyone believes is always going to be anecdotal.
    No two persons ever live the same kind of life or have the same kind of experiences.
    Even within the same environment the experience of two separate individuals will be affected by the different attitudes and prejudices those around them may have toward them, in which the experiences one individual has will be radically different from those of the other due to being treated and spoken to differently by those around them.
    Hence, each one's opinions of said environment may, likewise, also differ greatly as a result.

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