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The Very Definition

In which I make an unsupported and surprising assertion.

(Posted 2016-12-06 13:40:08 -0500)

There’s an idiom in English: “half-baked”. It refers to an assertion supported by an argument or line of reasoning that is incomplete at best and missing at worst. The analogy is to some kind of baked good that has not fully finished baking, so that it’s unformed and gooey inside.

In geek circles, there is a term (believed to have first been coined by Isaac Asimov): “PBT”. It stands for “partially-baked theory”. In other words, it may not be exactly half-baked, but the amount of bakedness ranges from 0 to 1 ((\(0 \le b < 1\), where \(b\) refers to the measure of bakedness).

Having established this terminology, I’d like to propose a PBT of my own.

There are a lot of crazy theories on the Internet. The Moon Landing Hoax theory, the Chemtrails theory, the Illuminati/Hip-Hop Connection theory, the MK Ultra/Project Monarch Sex-Traffic theory, the list goes on. (If any of those don’t sound familiar, consider yourself lucky.) One that’s gotten a lot of attention lately is the “Pizzagate” conspiracy: the “theory” that Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant/ping pong emporium/bar/live music venue in Washington, DC, is the epicenter of a child sex trafficking ring with connections to John Podesta, chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and to Clinton herself. (See this article on the Spin web site for more info.)

Now, the theory is absurd on its face. Any real investigation will show (and has shown) that none of the claims has any basis in fact. But even without any investigating, if you come across a headline like “FBI Insider: Clinton Emails Linked To Political Pedophile Sex Ring”, virtual alarm bells should immediately go off in your rational brain. Certainly you should believe it without any proof.

But some people are doing just that. Not only do they take the stories at face value, they look for confirmation—and naturally find it, in a classic example of confirmation bias. The theory becomes self-sustaining in their minds, and only grows bigger.

But they don’t stop there. If no evidence is found, that is taken as evidence of a cover-up. If evidence to the contrary is found, it’s evidence of a “false flag” effort. If someone tries to dissuade them, that person is obviously a “shill” paid by “them” to try to quash the story. If news media investigates and finds no proof, or even finds something that disproves the theory completely, then they’re obviously “in on it.”

In short, not only will nothing convince them that they are wrong, but everything gets twisted into proving that they’re right.

Hence, my PBT. It comes in three parts:

1) A significant portion of the population is insane.

Despite popular belief, the definition of insanity has nothing to do with trying the same thing over and over. Psychology Today has an article on the subject that points out that “insanity” is a legal term and not a mental health one. The article quotes law.com as follows:

Insanity n. mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior.

Part 1 of my PBT is that this applies to conspiracy-theory “nuts” to a tee. It seems clear that the line between fantasy and reality has definitely become fuzzy for these people. And the recent “self-investigation” of Comet Ping-Pong by Edgar Welch shows that impulsive behavior can easily result.

(I would argue that “cannot conduct his/her affairs” is vague, and leaves open the possibility of someone who conducts his or her affairs quite well, but whose affairs have been markedly warped by his/her beliefs.)

Now, for Part Two:

2) This portion of the population has *always been insane. We just didn’t hear from them.*

It seems unlikely that these people only recently went off their rockers. So we are forced to conclude—however unsettling this idea is—that people like these have always been with us. They just didn’t have a platform to express their views (save for the occasional crank letter to the editor). And because insanity is inimical to having a social life, and having social contacts is usually a prerequisite for making money, few (if any) of the “insanitariat” were able to afford to self-publish their views. And even if they did, they were unlikely to attract an audience beyond their local geographic area.

But now, we have the Internet. Conspiracy forums. Online vanity presses. YouTube. Facebook. Twitter. There are any number of ways for someone to publish their views, not to tens of hundreds of people, but millions, even billions. And thanks to search engines, it’s easier than ever to search out people whose views reinforce your own.

Rule 34 states “if it exists, there is porn of it”. I’d argue that there’s a Rule 34a: if it exists, there are conspiracy theories about it.

Hence, Part 3:

3) The Internet is making sure these people never become sane.

If you believe X, and everyone around you believes Y, you’ll be under significant social pressure to conform and eventually believe Y like everyone else. But thanks to the Internet, you’re able to decide for yourself who is “around you”. You can build yourself a virtual echo chamber, where “everyone else” believes the same as you. Worse, if you start to have doubts, your echo-chamber social circle will being you back into the (insane) fold, and you’ll perform the same function for everyone else.

So, to summarize: we have a significant portion of the human population that is legally insane and not only is unlikely to become sane, but is being actively discouraged from becoming sane.

And if that’s not disturbing enough, consider a possible Part 4:

4) Nothing prevents these people from voting.

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