Why do certain big ideas produce manias? Why do intelligent people allow themselves to be consumed by one big idea? Why do true believers become fanatical to the point where they believe that they hold a complete purchase on the truth? And, why do they want to impose their political program on everyone, regardless of what everyone else, the unenlightened masses, wants?
Because, in the end, ideological zealots feel most threatened by your freedom, your freedom to choose how to live your life.
Why is it, in other words, that zealots are so easily drawn to calls for tyranny? This morning Bret Stephens asked this question. Coming fast upon Bill Gates’s pronouncement that only socialism can save the world from climate change, it comes not a moment too soon. See my recent post about the Climate Change Mania.
And ask yourself this: what made Bill Gates think that he is an authority on climate science? What made him think that he could see the future and that his vision was scientific truth? What made him think that he should impose himself on the world? Was it because he’s richer than anyone else? Or was it because his foundation’s financial support for Common Core had produced such a rousing success?
Intellectual manias persist, regardless of the facts, because they offer membership in cults that are based on belief and conviction.
Nate Silver once remarked that some theories are idea-driven and that some are fact-driven. An idea driven theory begins with a narrative fiction. It's not about trying to discover the truth but to convince you that this narrative is true.
Believers will try to persuade you of the absolute truth of the narrative by cherry-picking "facts" that appear to make it look true. If you begin with an idea, Plato argued, facts will be reduced to appearances. They only have value if they make it appear that the narrative is true.
Those who promulgate idea-driven narratives will assert that there is no such thing as a fact that can disprove the idea. When a fact seems to disprove an idea its proponents will explain that this is only apparent, because their idea represents a higher truth. Generally, this truth amounts to the truth of desire. Being as you cannot be said to desire something that you really have, your desire is always detached from reality.
Zealots are attracted to such narratives because they no longer have to deal with uncertain outcomes. It's like a game of heads I win/tails you lose. They find great solace in playing with loaded dice.
If your thinking is fact-based or empirical, you do not begin with an idea or a narrative. You begin by collecting data. Then you formulate a hypothesis and run an experiment to test it. If the results prove the hypothesis, well and good. If they do not, you can dispose of the idea.
For this process to work, philosopher Karl Popper famously said, you must admit beforehand that some experimental results can disprove the hypothesis or falsify the theory.
And you must, physicist Richard Feynman added, report all of the results. You cannot do science if you cherry-pick the data you want to report.
When Popper developed his theory of falsifiability nearly seven decades ago, he was considering, among other things, whether Freudian psychoanalysis was a science. He concluded that it was not. He saw that the theory, as constructed by Freud did not admit to the possibility that any fact could disprove it. In a strange way Freud was inviting you to take it on faith.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes Popper:
… nothing could, even in principle, falsify psychoanalytic theories. These latter, Popper came to feel, have more in common with primitive myths than with genuine science. That is to say, he saw that what is apparently the chief source of strength of psychoanalysis, and the principal basis on which its claim to scientific status is grounded, viz. its capability to accommodate, and explain, every possible form of human behaviour, is in fact a critical weakness, for it entails that it is not, and could not be, genuinely predictive. Psychoanalytic theories by their nature are insufficiently precise to have negative implications, and so are immunised from experiential falsification.
All psychoanalysts know what Popper said. For decades now they have lived in a state of denial. They believe that when the facts seem to contradict their ideas, it’s a test of their faith. In Freudian psychoanalysis does not teach you to repress inconvenient truths, what good is it?
As you know, I wrote a book The Last Psychoanalyst to demonstrate the point. There I argued that psychoanalysis began as a pseudo-science and became a pseudo-religion.
For his part Stephens begins with the idea of the population explosion. It was concocted by noted entomologist Paul Ehrlich. In 1968 Ehrlich predicted that the earth’s population would soon overwhelm its resources. Given the imminent danger, women would have to be prevented from having too many children… by whatever means necessary.
This could easily give rise to a tyranny like China’s recently discarded one-child policy, but it might also lead people to glorify sexual behaviors that are contraceptively foolproof.
As for the facts of the case, Stephens refutes Ehrlich easily:
The idea of a population bomb was always preposterous: The world’s 7.3 billion people could fit into an area the size of Texas, with each person getting 1,000 square feet of personal space. Food has never been more abundant. As for resource scarcity, the fracking revolution reminds us that scarcity is not so much a threat to mankind as it is an opportunity for innovation.
Stephens explains that today's liberalism involves "would-be believers in search of a true faith." I would add that it involves people whose anomie has so completely detached them from their social moorings in their nations that they are desperately seeking a cult to belong to.
In Stephens' words:
Modern liberalism is best understood as a movement of would-be believers in search of true faith. For much of the 20th century it was faith in History, especially in its Marxist interpretation. Now it’s faith in the environment. Each is a comprehensive belief system, an instruction sheet on how to live, eat and reproduce, a story of how man fell and how he might be redeemed, a tale of impending crisis that’s also a moral crucible.
In short, a religion without God. I sometimes wonder whether the journalists now writing about the failure of the one-child policy ever note the similarities with today’s climate “crisis.” That the fears are largely the same. And the political prescriptions are almost identical. And the leaders of the movement are cut from the same cloth. And the confidence with which the alarmists prescribe radical cures, their intolerance for dissenting views, their insistence on “global solutions,” their disdain for democratic input or technological adaptations—that everything is just as it was when bell-bottoms were in vogue.
Apparently, everyone needs something to believe in. Having dispensed with the God of the Bible, today’s liberals are not merely looking for big ideas to worship, but they are looking for cult leaders, for great geniuses who can become the figureheads of new, inviting cults.