Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Back among the faithful...

Ugh...I was lucky enough to have gone through my UFO True Believer™ phase during a period of my youth in which I didn't have access to an internet enabled computer. I only had my beloved but very woo-woo neighbors and The X-Files to reinforce the silly UFO "research" I was filling my head with at the time, but modern True Believers™ have dozens of internet forums to supply them with all the insular reinforcements they need to get inextricably bound up in their fantasies. As I alluded to yesterday, I've been spending a large bit of my free time trolling the internet UFO pages for reactions to the Romanek "case" that recently began attracting so much attention, and I have to tell you that the world of the True Believer™ can get pretty bizarre.

The one-stop shop for conspiracy theories of all stripes is without a doubt AboveTopSecret.com, a collection of forums that plumb the depths of silliness and seriously discuss such things as the reality of vampires, text messages from the future, and (endlessly) the New World Order.* Many of these folks see signs of global intrigue everywhere. For example, I'm reading a post right now about how one of the songs on the soundtrack of the new "Grand Theft Auto" game is a "New World Order" song meant to brainwash the unwary. (The song is actually "One Vision" by Queen. It was released years ago on the CD "It's a Kind of Magic" and later on a greatest hits album.) Oh, and if you decide to poke around on there, it would pay to get used to the word "sheeple", as it pops up constantly as a pejorative term for anyone who subscribes to commonly held views on...well...anything.

Forums like Above Top Secret provide powerful reinforcement for people inclined to believe in these sorts of things. Unlike the old days, when you actually had to find people in your area that shared your beliefs on certain topics, nowadays you can hook up with hundreds of people on the internet that have ideas similar to your own. Combined with the fact that these forums tend to be insular and have a high turnaround time for skeptics (As another example of the insular quality of certain websites, I might note how quickly skeptics get bored with and leave Ray's blog.), this can create impression that a vast majority of people, or at least a majority of knowledgeable people, support the views being espoused there. Since most of the people on conspiracy forums already believe in at least some of the conspiracies being discussed, it can seem to believers like almost anyone who's ever heard about or discussed conspiracy X or conspiracy Y has come to accept it as real. After all, almost everyone who comes to the forum to discuss it already "knows" it's true!

There are powerful "out-group" forces at work as well. Conspiracy theorists, are, after all, "in the know". They feel that they possess insight that the public at large does not. Thus, any skeptic that appears to challenge them are part of a sinister out-group that is ill-informed at best or a malevolent agent of the conspiracy at worst. Meanwhile these malign attacks on the in-group serve to strengthen the bonds between "the good guys" as they circle the wagons against their foes.

As far as alien abductions and their ilk go, an entire modern mythology has grown up around them in the last few decades that works quite a bit like a feedback loop. There is a culturally accepted "script" for an abduction: paralysis, gray aliens with big black eyes, operating tables and fertility experiments, etc. Encounter stories that sync up with this scenario are reinforced within the UFO community because they "fit the mold", to the point that most modern alien abduction tales are indistinguishable from one another. There's another factor at play too. Most people who come to believe that aliens have been probing them in their sleep don't just wake up one morning secure in that knowledge. Instead, they have some sort of strange experience and, while looking for answers, encounter a psychologist or UFO researcher or some other authority figure who already knows the abduction script and is inclined to believe it. This authority figure will help the victim "recall" memories that fit the abduction script by asking leading questions and, essentially, molding a new set of experiences and memories for the victim that fits with the authority's preconceived idea of what happened.

For an interesting look at this phenomenon, I recommend this book by Susan Clancy. Carl Sagan also discusses this subject in Demon Haunted World, in which he interestingly compares the abduction myth with its sister modern myth, Satanic Ritual Abuse. Sagan wryly notes that alien abduction "specialists" rarely uncover instances of SRA, whereas SRA "specialists" almost never "discover" that their patients were abducted by aliens.

In any event, for an interesting immersion course on in-group reinforcement I dare you to spend a week or two hanging around at Above Top Secret or a similar forum. Life among the faithful is a strange thing indeed.

*The sinister Illuminati conspiracy, not the pro wrestling faction.


Jay said...

You brushed up against the fact that the UFO/conspiracy communities are structured very much like conservative religious communities - the "in-group", the "out-group", the tendency to filter events and experiences through the group-lens.

The dynamics are very much the same.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Yeah, that's an easy comparison to make. Ray's Blog and Above Top Secret both have a very similar feel to them if you hang around either one for very long.