Current Events

Cults, Myths, and Conspiracies

On Tuesday, hundreds of Qanon supporters turned out in Dallas1, believing that John F. Kennedy Jr. would return from the dead and dance the batusi with Steve Buscemi.2

Spoiler alert: JFK Jr. didn’t show up. But the bigger picture is worrying.

I’m not the first person to realize that, for some Americans, political identity has been perverted into a cult, fed by a steady diet of vitriol and misinformation. There are plenty of articles, books, and essays exploring the cult mentality, and there’s no need to repeat them here.

So why am I writing this?

Because I found a fresh perspective on cult thinking from a book about a completely different subject. It’s “The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World” by David Deutsch, and it’s about how scientific advancement — in fact, human advancement — is driven by our need to explain things.3

In the first chapter, Deutsch looks at myth-making as a flawed method for explanation.

“… when their theory is refuted by experience, they do indeed switch to a new one; but, because their underlying explanations are bad, they can easily accommodate the new experience without changing the substance of the explanation. Without a good explanatory theory, they can simply reinterpret the omens, pick a new date, and make essentially the same prediction.”

“The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World” by David Deutsch

Deutsch was writing about how the Greeks used the myth about Hades, Persephone, and Demeter to explain why it gets cold in winter. But he could also be describing why people in Dallas won’t be dissuaded by hard evidence — JFK Jr. being a no-show — from showing up for the next cockamamie conspiracy event.

My takeaway: Cults and myths are built on the same foundation: inability to adjust one’s premise based on new evidence. But myth-makers centuries ago had no scientific framework for improving their explanations for things. Today, people do — but some are deliberately not doing to.

What happened to myths? The Enlightenment stripped them of their power, Deutsch said. 

“An entire political, moral, economic and intellectual culture — roughly what is now called ‘the West’ — grew around the values entailed by the quest for good explanations, such as tolerance of dissent, openness to change, distrust of dogmatism and authority, and the aspiration to progress both by individuals and for the culture as a whole.”

“The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World” by David Deutsch

What will happen to cult-like thinking? Let’s hope the ideals of the Enlightenment roar back with a vengeance. And soon.

1 Check out The Washington Post article. Here’s an excerpt:

Uscinski reviewed polling and found QAnon support is founded in anti-social personality traits and behaviors, like narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy.

The Washington Post

2 Actually, what they believed was more ridiculous.  

3 I’m oversimplifying quite a bit. Check out the book.