Monday, July 05, 2004

The Joy of Kookery

In an interesting post on the sociological* differences between Usenet and the blogosphere, P.Z. Myers makes an important point that I think is worth highlighting, especially in light of my recent comments on a certain anonymous racist obsessive.

Usenet is a medium that delights kooks—they are on an equal footing with everyone, and their one strength, an obsessive persistence, is rewarded. I've written before about my encounters with Ed Conrad, a lunatic who frequents the newsgroup talk.origins. His claims of finding fossilized human remains in Carboniferous coal beds has been thoroughly reviewed and dismissed, and he still persists. He's not unusual. Anyone who is familiar with usenet will know the names Archimedes Plutonium and Robert E. McElwaine. I recently received e-mail from a computer scientist in Germany, Tristan Miller, who is trying to cope with another kook, Arthur T. Murray, a.k.a. Mentifex, who infests the comp.* hierarchy and makes bizarre claims about artificial intelligence. (emphasis added)
Although P.Z. Myers was referring to Usenet in that sentence fragment I chose to highlight, I think that the point he makes is one that holds for the blogging world as well, though not in quite the same manner as it does for Usenet.

The essential idea is this - however much time and energy one might wish to devote to debunking the ideological hobbyhorses of kooks and cranks, the reality is that most of us have lives of our own to live, and when faced with the choice between devoting all our spare hours to refuting every last bit of nonsense some unbalanced individual insists on uttering, or tending to our own personal interests in the moments we have to ourselves, most of us will naturally go for the latter alternative. The crank who devotes his entire life to promoting his "theories" will always be able to outlast any attempts at setting him right, and it is those very qualities that make him** a crank - the stubbornness, the immunity to facts and reason, the bottomless, narrow fascination with his demented notions - that ensure that come rain or shine, he'll be there to raise the flag for his idee fixe however many times and however dramatically his nonsense is swatted down.

The irritating thing about the kook's singular persistence is that it can easily be mistaken for substance by those who don't know any better, and this is all the more an issue when the nonsense isn't as flagrant as the sort that the moon-landing deniers and hollow-earthers try to flog, but is instead in accord with longstanding prejudices that are widely-held by the population; one therefore not only has to work against the indefatigability of the unhinged obsessive, but also the widespread desire to believe in what he has to say. This is why biologists have such a hard time of time of it with creationists who wheel out the same empty arguments over and over again, and it is the exact same reason why shoddy efforts at "scholarship" like The Bell Curve register far better in the public consciousness than their refutations.

*I'm stuck for a better word to describe this at the moment, though I can't escape the feeling that one must exist.
**For some reason, where cranks are concerned, it virtually always is a "him" rather than a "her."