Sunday, May 9, 2010

Conviction In Being Wrong

Most debates end up fairly inconclusive. Everybody argues, but nothing is really settled, and everybody comes back the next day for more. Some questions can't be settled in this matter- just about any question that is at its core subjective, or that nobody really has proof of one way or the other, is usually destined to be finished more or less where it started. How do you best end a soccer match that ends in a tie? Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Should the toilet paper roll go over or under? Aruba or St. Lucia? Ford or Chevy? DH or no DH? Are we really alone in the universe? What happens after we die? All arguments that are destined to live for another day.

But on THIS day, you've really stepped in it. Your argument that the Civil War ended in a tie went down in flames the second someone brought up Appomattox Court House. You've been proven objectively, conclusively, irrefutably wrong.

Now what?

For most of us, this isn't even a question. You admit defeat, admit you had your facts wrong, and adopt the new thing you learned.

But let's face it: unless you're predicting doom and the reality is flowers and maypoles, being proven wrong sucks. Everybody is wrong on something. But it's hard to take for some people. It's an admission that you're, well, wrong. You're imperfect. You're human. Some people can come to terms with that better than others, but it's never fun.

Some simply can't come to terms with it at all. They can't comprehend the fact that they might be wrong, or it may be too painful in whatever way for them to consider. They dig in. They look for progressively more feeble reasoning to entrench in their original viewpoint.

Surely, if you've argued on the Internet long enough, you are positive you have dealt with one of these people, although most are dismissed as trolls. And to be sure, some are- people that don't truly believe what they argue but are needlessly nonconstructive for whatever reason.

Do not dismiss, however, the possibility that... well, first off, don't dismiss the possibility that, in fact, you're the one who's wrong. But we'll set that aside and assume that you are actually right and the other guy is wrong. Do not dismiss the possibility that your opponent is simply unable to comprehend their own wrongness.

These people do exist, but to best display that, we can't use anything even remotely political. So let's go back to 1954, when Leon Festinger of the University of Minnesota caught wind of one of your periodic doomsday cults, called the Seekers, led by Chicago grandmother Dorothy Martin, who professed that on December 21, 1954, a series of natural disasters would kill most people on the planet.

Festinger wanted to be there to see what would happen when the world failed to end. His theory: the Seekers would just keep on believing, and in fact would believe even harder than before. He had a theory he called 'cognitive dissonance'. Yep. This is where that term comes from. As Festinger figured, if you've sunk enough emotionally and physically into a certain belief- if you've staked your job, your marriage, years and years of your life- on a certain belief, coming to the realization that you've bet all your money on the wrong horse is a tad on the 'emotionally shattering' side. You will do whatever you have to do to avoid it. So instead of obeying the law of sunk costs, admitting defeat, and starting to rebuild, you just dig in. In fact, you try and convert others into believing your already-proven-wrong theory. After all, if other people believe it, it must be true, right?



Festinger, of course, was dead on, or else you wouldn't recognize the phrase 'cognitive dissonance' today. Festinger- and a crew- had to first gain admittance to the Seekers, which they were only able to do through the invention of anecdotes supporting the cult's position.

Specifically, Martin- who Festinger renamed 'Marian Keech' for his resulting book When Prophecy Fails- claimed to have been receiving messages via "automatic writing" from the planet Clarion, warning of flooding and tidal waves that would raise sea levels and swallow up the Midwest. This would be a problem for Martin, who lived in Chicago, but at the appointed hour- midnight, December 21- UFO's from Clarion would arrive to carry the cult away. (Though Martin thought the UFO might show up early.)

As Alex Boese argues in his book Elephants On Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments, Festinger had already tainted the experiment at this point, as he was providing the supporting viewpoints that cognitive dissonance craves, and thus artificially confirming the hypothesis. As it would turn out, though, if Festinger hadn't, someone else would have, because as December 21 drew closer, Martin's home was targeted again and again by a series of people trying to prank her. Just about everybody who pulled a prank wound up going home happy, including the man who asked the cult to come look at his flooded bathroom, and the man who claimed to receive a message from "Captain Video From Outer Space".

A note: Captain Video- specifically, Captain Video and his Video Rangers- was a TV show at the time, famous for its low budget. At this particular point in time, it was in its seventh and final season. A major character was a robot named "I TOBOR", named such because they accidentally stenciled the name onto the costume backwards.

Come December 20, there's nothing left for the Seekers to do but sit around, remove all metal items from their person (metal would conduct heat aboard the UFO), and hold out until midnight.

Midnight comes. Nothing happens.

12:05 comes. Nothing happens. Someone notices a clock saying 11:55. Okay, maybe that clock's right and it's not really midnight yet.

12:10 comes, or as the other clock says, midnight. Still nothing. The flooding is supposed to start at 8 AM.

4:00 AM. Nothing. The Seekers are lost for an explanation. Martin starts to cry.

Right here is when Martin really could have used someone to try and snap her out of the whole thing, but the only people that could were running an experiment designed specifically around finding out what she did unassisted.

4:45 AM. Martin receives an automatic writing message. The explanation comes: the Seekers had spread so much light that the world was spared. Soon afterward, another message comes telling the Seekers to spread the word. Merry Christmas!

The rest of the day is spent throwing open the drapes to the media, who until now the cult had been shunning, to the point that on the release of When Prophecy Fails, even though Festinger had changed Martin's name, it wasn't too hard to figure out it was her. She would later change her name to Sister Thedra and spend time making progressively less specific doomsday predictions in Arizona, moving from Chicago on threats from the police of being committed to a psychiatric hospital, and later Peru.

One final note on Martin, by the way: prior to the entire episode, she had been involved with L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics movement, the forerunner to Scientology.

And we all know how hard they are to convince of anything.

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