Ideologies stack

by Dorian Minors

June 15, 2024

Analects  |  Newsletter

Excerpt:

There’s a fairly well known observation that fringe or conspiracy theories ‘stack’. If I’m the kind of person who suspects we never landed on the moon, then others are much more likely to assume I harbour doubts about who shot JFK, or concern myself over the ‘real’ motives around the public health response to the Covid-19 pandemic. But really, all theories ‘stack’ in a similar kind of way. Mainstream ones too. What I think makes these stacks interesting is looking at just what motivates these different stacks. When we compare those motivations to our own, we can learn something valuable about ourselves. Then we can learn more by asking why different stacks look different. Let me show you what I mean.

Fringe theories always seem to cluster together. It seems weird, but mainstream theories also do, we just don't often examine them. Examining why different theory stacks arise reveals much about our biases, ideologies, and the influence of community-based knowledge.

There’s a fairly well known observation that fringe or conspiracy theories ‘stack’. If I’m the kind of person who suspects we never landed on the moon, then others are much more likely to assume I harbour doubts about who shot JFK, or concern myself over the ‘real’ motives around the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The point of this article isn’t to throw shade at people who might think this way. In fact, it’s to acknowledge that it’s not just fringe theories that stack. All theories ‘stack’ in a similar kind of way. It’s just that fringe theorists thought the mainstream one was a problem, and jumped to a new, less popular stack. What I think makes these stacks interesting is looking at just what motivates these different stacks. When we compare those motivations to our own, we can learn something valuable about ourselves. Then we can learn more by asking why different stacks look different. Let me show you what I mean.

Deconstructing fringe stacks

Let me talk about two stacks. I’ll call them fringe theories, because it conjures the right sorts of connotations—outside the norm thinkers, who are often looked down on. But to be clear, I’m not convinced that the amount of people orbiting these stacks really constitute a ‘fringe’. Nor, as will become clear, do I think looking down on them is the right reaction to have to any theory we’ve decided is fringe.

The first stack of fringe theories are those that motivate doomsday preppers. The second stack are those that motivate woo-woo people of the new agey/alternative medicine brand. Let me describe them both, because we find something very interesting when we compare them.

The prepping stack is a stack of theories that hover around some kind of near-imminent collapse.1 Society will collapse, or the economy, or more recently, the environment. The collapse could come about because of nuclear war, or natural disasters, or some kind of political conflict. It could be temporary or permanent. Total or partial. But some kind of collapse. As a result, these people spend a great deal of time collecting equipment and skills that will help them see out the collapse. They’ll prepare bags full of medical supplies and rations and tools. Perhaps different bags based on the different timescales of disaster. They’ll collect material at home, and start a vegetable garden. The quintessential prepper moves to some rural area, starts a permaculture farm, and builds a bunker. The very U.S.-centric brand of prepper collects a bunch of weapons to defend their land, or joins a militia.2

The woo-woo stack is a stack of theories that hover around the value of alternative medicine, and the idea that the medical establishment is fundamentally flawed.3 The medical establishment is flawed because it’s controlled by big pharma, or because it’s too focused on treating symptoms rather than causes, or because it’s too focused on the physical rather than the mental, or because it’s too focused on the individual rather than the community. The woo-woo people are interested in alternative medicine, which includes things like acupuncture, homeopathy, and herbal remedies. They’re also interested in things like meditation, yoga , and other spiritual practices. The quintessential woo-woo person will, absolutely, corner you about manifestation and energy.4

Two stacks, one source

Now, on the surface, these two stacks seem like a rather odd pairing, I agree. One is ordered and militaristic. One is loose and spiritual. One is about survival and defence, and the other is about energy sharing and healing. These are quite beautiful examples of two ‘stacks’ of fringe theories, with two very different characteristics.

But actually, when we explore the theories that motivate these features, we find that they point to something similar. Both are sort of oriented around a lack of trust in institutions. The preppers think the institutions of society aren’t set up to support them in a disaster. The woo-woo people think the institutions of medicine aren’t set up to support them in healing. Both see a brighter future in divorcing themselves from these institutions and adopting something more liberating. And indeed, though the manifestation is strikingly different, the similarities at the core are strikingly in accord, beyond the desire to move away from institutions. Both stacks are motivated by a sense of some kind of transformation. Both stacks are motivated by a desire to be self-sufficient. Both stacks are motivated by a desire to be in better touch with nature. Both stacks are motivated by a desire to be in better touch with their community.

This all, to me, invites the question of why these two stacks look so different. The simple answer is that they distrust different institutions. One is opposed to government, or society, or something. One is opposed more to modern medicine and the scientific method. But if you frequent the forums, you will find that actually they share many overlapping theories. There is, anecdotally anyway, a higher tendency to be anti-vaccine in prepping and woo-woo spaces than the mainstream, for example. Similarly, there appears to be more frequent mention of governmental and economic conspiracies in both woo-woo and survivalist spaces than the front page of Reddit.

We might dash those overlaps off as simply coincidental—times when preppers are forced to encounter government run vaccine programs for example, or when woo-woo people notice the hold pharma companies have over government policy. But I actually think something else is going on here.

I think the explanation I have in mind becomes more clear when we look at the other side of this coin—mainstream theories. Typically people just go to doctors when they have a medical problem. Typically people just trust their governments and societal institutions to do alright for them. But what has always been interesting to me about this typicality, is how quixotic it is.

Mainstream theories are just as weird

I have talked about this before with regard to the placebo effect. At the very start of that article I notice:

Would you be surprised to learn that we still don’t really know how paratetamol works? Or general anaesthetic? We accept all sorts of mystical effects from our drugs without particularly understanding them—just trusting our doctors … The question is, why do we do this with drugs, but not with other things? Why do we handwave away the benefits of off-piste and esoteric therapies when they work and we don’t know how, but we don’t treat drugs the same way?

Basically, the phrase “it’s ‘just’ a placebo effect” is used to wave away inconvenient findings that some alternative therapies work, because we don’t know how they work. But many of us frankly don’t know how any medicine works. And yet, we really love drugs:

In front of me lies a pack of cough drops. The most interesting thing about cough drops, to me, is that they are absolutely ubiquitous even though they don’t work. This pack of cough drops knows this. The active ingredient is hexylresorcinol, which is an antiseptic but is only useful for coughs because it is also an anaesthetic: your throat isn’t dirty, it’s inflamed. The drops don’t want to fix your cough—they want to make you numb …

These cough drops are a delightful illustration of our peculiar attitude towards drugs. On one hand, it tells us that we love drugs. We love drugs so much that cough drops sit side-by-side with the candy in the impulse purchase section of the supermarket. We love drugs so much that we’ll ignore the fact they don’t work. Or rather, they do work if they have painkillers in them, but we love drugs so much we’ll pay extra to have painkillers branded for our pain rather than resorting to more effective pain remedies like paracetamol and ibuprofen, sitting right next to the cough drops.

The drug thing is the weirdest attribute of mainstream theories, to me. But it’s not the only one. I’ve talked about how utterly bizarre our political loyalties can be, for example. Or how silly our scientism is. Or how ridiculous our various consumption of pop-non-fiction can be.

Basically, what I think is going on here is simply that we are valuing one kind of knowledge production—the idea that our institutions are out there carefully working out the answers to problems so that we don’t have to worry about them. Scientism, essentially. What I think is at the core of the prepper and woo-woo stacks is that they have rejected that notion because of exactly these kinds of silly outcomes.

What makes stacks differentiate

This then makes me wonder why the two stacks look so different. If the core is the same, why don’t they end up manifesting in the same behaviours?

I only really have an intuition here, but I suspect its something like cultural laziness. There are some usual suspects that play a role. We have cognitive biases like confirmation bias which make us seek out things that support our beliefs, and other biases like the fundamental attribution error which make us demonise others, and a need for psychological comfort in the form of consistent explanations for complex or troubling aspects of the world. All these things make us gravitate towards various attractor states. But this requires the attractor states to be there in the first place.

I suspect the major factor at play is something about the small world architecture of communities. We cluster ourselves in social networks, which cluster our beliefs correspondingly. Our trust in certain sources of information is then narrowed to those in those circles—the ones that make us feel understood and seen. As a net bonus, we get consistency in the worldview we are exposed to, which is nice and increasingly necessary in an increasingly fractured society. And since adopting that worldview better integrates us into our community, we adopt them and make that identity our identity.5

I think it’s not that prepping and woo-woo theory stacks are particularly good solutions to specific problems. I think the prepping and woo-woo theory stacks are just the most prevalent memes floating in the environment, and which handily capture a more general distaste for institutions. Take a woo-woo person and move them to Montana, and maybe they’d grow up prepper.

It’s worth pointing out that ‘fringe’ theories are often allowed to get far more wild than mainstream theories. Partly this is because mainstream theories are more populous and so become sclerotic. But also:

Much of this, I assume, is a question of power. Typically, conspiracy theorists are in a minority. They wield little power. This question of the balance of power is a fundamental contributor to emotions like anger, and hate. Those who concern themselves with things like ancient aliens or flat earths are often seen delivering angry diatribes on and offline. That underlying anger is almost certainly compounded by the fact that they are treated as deluded and they have little power to make change.

Fringe theories are just driven to further corners as a result, in a similar way, as I discuss in that article, as people who are too politically engaged.

But this explanation—the small world architecture of communities—also helps us understand why mainstream theories are often so weird.6 The attractor state that comes with the ideas floating around the people you associate with. It’s much easier to adopt them than to think too hard about them.

Everything is an ideology

I’ve written before at length these kinds of theories. I call them ideologies, because really, that’s what they are. Normally a synonym for a false belief, and just like many fringe theories, ideologies usually make us think of some distortion in our perception of reality that somehow masks the truth. But the point of many of my articles is that, really, ideologies are how the brain constructs the world for us—it maps relationships between things in the world that we find important. But in doing so, it has to sacrifice some truth.

This is, firstly, because we simply don’t have access to any kind of objective truth. Not with the brain as we understand it today, anyway. We can only perceive the world in terms of what’s important for humans. We don’t know what dark matter is, because it doesn’t matter to us. We can’t see ultraviolet because it wasn’t useful to us. I mean, despite the fact that we live 3-dimensional lives, we don’t even see in 3D.

Secondly, even if we could somehow get at an objective truth, as individual people, we would only ever be able to get at some tiny fraction of it. Our lives are only so long, we can only attend to so much stuff, and most of the time we’re too busy responding to stuff to really analyse its root truthiness. And so, our experiences and beliefs and backgrounds will shape how we interpret stuff, because it’s a good shorthand for all that truth we don’t have time to get to. We can’t escape our own subjectivity, and this is only exacerbated by our community affiliations.

And then, thirdly, ideologies build themselves. Here, I’ll just quote myself:

If we believe the poor are poor because of something they are doing, we might be less likely to help them. This action of ours helps keep our poor person poor. And if everyone feels like the poor should not be helped, we might bring into being laws and structures that stop us from helping them… [in theory] laws … which help those who help themselves, but … actually … the practice of not helping the poor who we observe doing whatever thing we think is making them poor. Now our poor person’s poorness is facilitated by our institution—an idea that became a thing. And of course, intervening on this cycle is far more difficult.

So it’s not that some patterns of thought and behaviour are based on distorted perceptions of reality. All of our patterns are—either because we are human, or because we only get the chance to experience some tiny sliver of the world as we go through our lives, or because we are actively constructing a new reality.

Outro

This is, more or less, the point of btrmt. So many of these ideologies—these theory stacks—are left unexamined by us. Mostly, it’s alright. But there’s a great deal of value to be had in taking the time to examine why we’re opposed to the stack someone else has. Is it because they’re crazy? Or is it because we’re lazy? Is it because we’ve decided to value the heavy scientism of the mainstream because it was just there? Or is it because we really believe scientism is the only valuable epistemology?

You’re gonna adopt a stack, and that’s a fact. But maybe you could put a little thought into it.


  1. Full disclosure, I absolutely have prepper tendencies. 

  2. I am less inclined towards this, though. 

  3. I do, I admit, have some woo-woo tendencies too. 

  4. Though they are somewhat less inclined toward weapons, I suspect. 

  5. There has got to be a sociologist out there who will tell me who talks about this. Or one of you fancy innoculation theory people. 

  6. Indeed, Wikipedia has an article that discusses common arguments of fringe theorists. If you replace it with any mainstream theory, you’ll notice the arguments are not particularly different, even if it’s well-evidenced. It’s not really the evidence that matters. 


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