Raymond Skiles is a dumb guy. We both are. We both spent our early adults years trying to educate ourselves, in various ways, to catch up to those who were more engaged in school. Being a dumb guy was more a state of mind than an absolute characteristic for us, but we fought hard to escape that label. We shared so many characteristics at one point in our lives that some might call us similar, but in our quest for more knowledge, we fell prey to some bizarre ideas. At some point in our respective timelines, we diverged.
The differences that emerged between the two of us can be explained in one simple scenario. If a used car salesman approached us, on separate occasions, with his persuasive sales techniques, we would both enter into the transaction believing that we were smarter and better equipped than a person who chose to become a used car salesman. I don’t know if there was an incident, or an accumulation of moments that led to some clarity for me, but I realized that I wasn’t half as bright as I thought I was. I realized that while I might now know more than the average person does about James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and U.S. Presidents, that knowledge doesn’t do me any good the moment a guy in polyester leaps out from behind his balloons saying, “What do I have to do to get you into a car today?” I developed a technique that works for me. I run away.
Raymond Skiles, on the other hand, knows a thing or two about the techniques used car salesmen employ on unsuspecting customers. By reading alternative websites that warn potential clients about the tactics used car salesmen employ, Raymond believes he knows them, and that he can use that knowledge to defeat them at their game. “You just have to know who they are,” he says. “Once you know what he eats for breakfast, who he calls his family, and if he’s stepping out on his wife, you got him where he lives.”
Whereas I recognize the limits of my intelligence the moment I set foot on a car lot, Raymond considers it a challenge and a mark of his intelligence to outdo the salesman on his home turf. I might over-estimate the craftiness of the average used car salesman, but if they are half as skilled in the art of persuasion as I fear most of them are, they will learn who Raymond is and flip the focus of their negotiations to an arena Raymond finds more pleasing. They might even compliment Raymond’s intellect and the knowledge he has attained on their industry. They might take a more honest and direct approach in their negotiations, and Raymond might end up paying more for the car than he intended.
In the battle between unconventional thinking and following traditional or conventional norms, unconventional thinking is far more seductive. The purveyors of unconventional information seduce us with the idea that they have different knowledge, as it pertains to having more knowledge than those who did better with traditional knowledge in school than we “dumb guys” did. The seeds of this seduction sprout among “dumb guys” when we decide that anyone who believes what “they” tell us is a sucker.
When we hear conventional knowledge, we consider the source and frame it accordingly, and then we fact check it. When we hear unconventional ideas, however, we have an instinctive, emotional attachment to them. Some part of us wants these ideas to be so true that we put our skepticism aside to embrace them, another part of us believes that unconventional knowledge is the result of healthy skepticism and therefore thoroughly vetted.
Former dumb guys learn that we must make a concerted effort to avoid falling prey to the allure of unconventional information. Those of us who fall prey to this desire want to have more knowledge, and we learn, over time, that quantity does not always equal quality. There are only so many facts on a given issue, and most of them fall into constructs that are comparatively boring. Alternative, unconventional avenues are so intriguing and sexy because they make us feel intelligent for arriving at a different take on an issue that our peers haven’t considered before.
We’ve all witnessed the effect this can have on people. “Where did you hear that?” they ask us, after we drop what they consider a surprising level of intellect on them. “I’ve never heard that before.” The tone of their voice, and the slight bit of awe on their face, can prove so intoxicating to dumb guys who didn’t do well in school that we spend the rest of our lives chasing that dragon. Some of these arguments are worth pursuing, but in my experience, most of them provide nothing more than provocative distractions and obfuscations from the core argument.
Finding out, later, that many of my intoxicating, alternative theories, based on unconventional information were wrong, provided another break between Raymond’s way of thinking and mine, as I realized that I preferred being correct over provocative. Conventional information, reported by conventional outlets, is not always true either of course, but in my experience, their batting average is far superior to the alternative outlets. Some don’t put as much value in this results-oriented approach, and they tend to place greater value in avoiding the word naïve, a label attached to those of us who believe everything we’re told.
In our discussions on a wide variety of topics, Raymond and I also found many differences between how we arrive at a conclusion. We both seek primary source information, corroborating evidence, and perhaps some opinion pieces to bolster our conclusions. At some point, however, I am “easily satisfied” with my findings, whereas Raymond digs deeper. Raymond knows when the subject of a topic is a piece is crud, and Raymond knows how a piece of crud thinks. He seeks explanations that detail the piece of crud’s motives in a way Raymond can understand. In Raymond’s search for absolute objectivity, he accidentally trips over a critical line between objectivity and subjectivity. He finds subjective speculation regarding the motives of the piece of crud that fit with his theories on the subject in question, and he uses them to develop theories that end up mostly autobiographical.
Police officers, working a beat, have a modus operandi (M.O.) they bring to their job, “Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.” This is the ideal mindset for a law enforcement official to have while working a beat. Is this M.O. ideal for a consumer of news, an employee who learns information regarding their employer, or a friend listening to another friend tell a story?
A high profile media personality once suggested that skepticism of the press undermines their authority, but the vaunted role the press plays in our republic should require them to combat constant, intense scrutiny, skepticism, and cynicism that makes them uncomfortable. Members of the media should conduct themselves in a manner that welcomes that from their audience and defeats it with a performance that leads to a solid record they can point to whenever anyone questions them. Wouldn’t members of the media say the same thing of the subjects they cover?
There is a tipping point, however, when a healthy sense of skepticism creeps into a form of cynicism that believes “none of what I hear and half of what I see.” Such cynicism opens holes in the mind that allows other information to fill it.
As an individual who has always had an insatiable curiosity for the wide spectrum of thought regarding human behavior, I have had a number of friends introduce me to a wide array of alternative outlets. They introduce me to various definitions of human psychology through astrology, numerology, and witchcraft. Raymond Skiles introduced me to the idea that aliens from other planets could teach us a lot about ourselves.
Raymond provided me a collection of transmitted (or transmuted) messages that these superior beings sent to earthlings. As I read through the information he found, I found that the theme of these messages was that the bullet points of my philosophy were wrong. I found them somewhat humorous, but before I could entirely dismiss them, I learned that Raymond considered these messages proof that I was wrong. Although he didn’t say these words exactly, the import of his responses was that he could not understand how I could argue against statements made by superior life forms.
The first question this skeptic would love to ask authors of human psychology, by way of alien scripture, is why do we assume that aliens from another planet are of a superior intellect? The collective thought, in certain quarters of human authority, suggests that not only is there intelligent life out there, but they’re more intelligent than earthlings can conceive. Even though we have no concrete proof that life exists outside our planet, at this point in our space explorations, it would be foolish to think that the only lifeforms in the universe are those that live on Earth. If other lifeforms exist, however, we don’t know what form they take. (We assume they are humanoid in form and that they’re here for our water, but if they’re intelligent beyond our comprehension why haven’t they been able to develop a substitute for water, or an artificial way to preserve or increase their supply?) We also don’t know what concerns alien life forms have, or how they think, but we assume that all creatures have the same concerns. The one crucial nugget of information missing in these theories is that we know less than nothing about aliens. If we had some substantial proof that they exist, we could say we know nothing about them, but we don’t even know if they exist yet. With that in mind, any theories of alien intellectual superiority can only be rooted in the human inferiority complex.
What would be the point of worshiping a deity who had a level of intelligence equal to our own, and what would be the point of reporting on the transmissions from space if the aliens were not of a superior intellect who could teach us a lot about our way of life? My takeaway from this friend’s collection of transmitted (or transmuted) messages was that most of the alien transmissions, submitted for the reader’s pleasure, have an agenda that suspiciously aligns with the author of the work.
The next time an alien transmits a message that suggests humans are of equal or superior intellect, “We are in awe of the capabilities of your iPhone, and we have not found a way of replicating that technology in our labs,” will be the first time I take an alien transmission seriously. The next time an alien transmits a message that has something to do with a compliment regarding human technology in agricultural techniques, “We find the techniques developed by Monsanto awe-inspiring”, will be the first time I re-read an author’s interpretation of an alien transmission. One would think that a complex being would know that the best way to persuade another being is to surround criticisms with some compliments. Even if they have no emotions, in the manner most sci-fi movies depict them, it would only be logical for them to suggest that our life form managed to get some things right. What readers receive from aliens, instead, are warnings about our dystopian nature that suspiciously align with human politics.
“You’re problem is you have no room for if,” Raymond told me one day. “Numerous wonderful and beautiful people have brought us to where we are today by asking if questions, but you put a big old lid on if and lock it up.”
“I’ve cleared an entire warehouse out for if,” I said. “Give me an if!
“I’ll give you a what-if?” I continued. “What if I told you that there was incontrovertible proof that your favorite conspiracy theory was wrong? Let’s say they discovered previously unknown security tape that showed your favorite victim of the justice system pulling the trigger. I’m not saying he’s guilty, but have you ever considered that mind-blowing prospect before?”
The ifs and what ifs of unconventional information are so interesting that it’s challenging to read them and say, “They’re just wrong.” We pursue the angle, the speculative ideas regarding motive, and the idea that the purveyor of such knowledge is fighting against the man, or the status quo. Concerned parties watching such scenarios play out, might want to caution someone like Raymond from relying too much on these alternative sources of information. We might want to tell him that doing so could lead him to being vulnerable to half-truths and greater confusion.
When we try to caution them, however, they tell us that they’ve done massive amounts of research on this subject, and they say, “Most people don’t know the truth. I know I didn’t,” as Raymond does before he launching into one of his speculative theories. There are enough outlets of information out there now to feed the confirmation bias of any researcher. Decent writers have ideas about the world, some are insightful and meaningful, some are not. Writers gifted in the art of persuasion allow readers and researchers to believe they arrived at the idea themselves. The idea becomes theirs to the point that they develop a level of personal intimacy for it.
Once they arrive at the point that the idea is theirs, they evaluate “their” ideas in a manner similar to the approach a fan takes to an athlete. If a fan “knows” that an athlete is quality player on the fan’s team, they form a special bond with that athlete that is often difficult to shake. Even if that athlete proves to under perform for years that fan’s relationship will continue. Disciples of alternative knowledge have a similar relationship to purveyors of such information as they, too, often fail to focus on results. How many of their favorite outlets provide straight, verifiable points that pass peer review? How many of them can point to a verifiable track record of their assertions, as opposed to providing the anecdotal evidence that they promote? How many of their messages devolve into speculation regarding motives that no one can refute? How many of us are skeptical enough of the information that seems so right it has to be true?
Those of us who ascribed to unconventional thoughts at one point in our lives began to spot these plot holes for what they were, and we came to the uncomfortable conclusion that just because the information we hear is unconventional, alternative, and “what your father doesn’t want you to know” does not mean that they’re correct.
We enjoyed the offspring of the counterculture for what it was. We thought they were so hip that our interest in their theories led some programmers to identify and capitalize on the purveyors of unconventional thinking, until those thoughts seduced us into incorporating them into our conventional thinking on some matters.
Whether it is cultural, social, or any other venue of thought, some people derive definition by fighting against the status quo, but we could say that the status quo is an ever-shifting focus that can lead to so many converting to such thoughts that those thoughts could eventually become status quo, conventional.
I no longer buy a book of unconventional thinking, or befriend an unconventional thinker, with the hope of having them change my mind on a subject. If their ideas persuade me to change my mind, that’s gravy, but I have learned that such thoughts, are often best used to challenge my current worldview, and/or bolster my arguments as I attempt to defeat them. I do not then write this with the intent of changing anyone else’s mind. I do enjoy, however, taking the conventional standpoint and melding it with the unconventional to arrive at what I consider a hybrid of the truth that neither party has considered before.
He Used to Have a Mohawk
My lifelong fascination with these different modes of thinking moved me to write a piece called He Used to Have a Mohawk. In this piece, I document the conventional thoughts some might have regarding an individual who decided to have his hair cut in a thin strip on his head. At one point in the main character’s life, he grew an eight inch mohawk, and at another point he dyed it blue. Conventional thinking suggests that he might deserve any ostracizing he receives. Unconventional or non-traditional modes of thought observe that there’s nothing wrong with a person who decides to shave their head in such a manner. This line of thought asks the observer to accept the mohawk wearer for who he or she is as a person. It also suggests that the conventional observer might discover the limits of their preconceived notions or conventional thoughts of a person, by finding out that a person who leaves a thin strip of hair on their head, grows it eight inches, and dyes it blue is actually a beautiful person inside. The approach I took, with this piece, combined the two modes of thought and examines them through the prism of a real-life character who used to have such a haircut.
What kind of person asks a stylist to cut their hair into a mohawk? What happens to them when they age and go back to having what we consider a more traditional haircut? Do they miss the altered perceptions they used to experience when they had a mohawk, or do they regret ever having the haircut in the first place?
One of my favorite critiques of this piece stated that the immediate components of this story could lead a reader to find impulsive, emotional offense, until they re-read the piece to carefully understand the complex subtext of the piece through deep analysis. “I like the way you take a mohawk and turn it into something greater than just a simple hairstyle. You give it character that I feel not many others could appreciate,” Amanda Akers wrote.
No matter where the reader stands on the conventional fulcrum of this subject, they must acknowledge that an individual who asks to have their hair cut into a mohawk does so to generate reactions, or different reactions, more than a person with a more traditional haircut might invite on any given day. Some would say that mohawk wearers generate unwanted attention for themselves by wearing such a haircut, but others could say that no attention is unwanted for some.
Another mohawk wearer surprised me one day by wearing it to a Halloween party. I told him that I enjoyed his costume, but he told me it wasn’t a costume. It was his hairdo. When I asked him further, more prodding questions, he said, “I wear my hair flat in the office, but I wear it up when I go out.”
If a mohawk wearer detested those who judge them for such a haircut, he or she could just allow the hair to lay flat. They don’t, I pose, because they enjoy detesting straight-laced people who will never understand them as a person. They also enjoy the bond they have with those who sympathize with their plight, and they bathe in the sheer number of reactions they’ve received since they made the decision to wear a mohawk.
I met the main character, who used to have a mohawk, at his wedding. After the wedding was over, the groom’s best man and the bridesmaid both stated, in their toasts, that they wanted to get to know the groom who used to have a mohawk, when he had the mohawk, in part because he had a mohawk. As they learned more about him, to their apparent dismay, they discovered that he was a nice man. As an uninformed bystander, I considered the shock they displayed that a man with a mohawk could be nice, a little condescending. We could view a traditional thinker’s views of a person who has a mohawk as condescending, as they might make generalizations about mohawk wearers, and they might stereotype them. Listening to these toasts, I heard sympathetic souls, who I presumed aligned with unconventional thinking, sound just as condescending as one who might generalize or stereotype. The only distinction was that they were trying to ingratiate themselves to the groom, but I still found it just as condescending.
The groom appeared to bathe in all of it. I watched this man react to these toasts, and I couldn’t tell if he considered it a mark of his character that he had befriended people regardless of the haircut, or if he missed the reactions that he used to generate when he had the mohawk, but my money was on the latter.
The point, as I see it, is that we should maintain a level of skepticism for anything we see and hear, but those who put so much energy into unconventional thoughts often end up more confused on a given subject than enlightened. Forming a hybrid of sorts, is the ideal plane for one to reach as it suggests that while we should remain skeptical in nature, we should also maintain an equal amount of skepticism for enlightened, unconventional thoughts. Yet, as I write, we deem unconventional information to be the result of skepticism thereby granting it immunity from a ledger that scores thoughts, theories, and ideas.
FOBF: The Fear of Being Foolish
Most people hate being wrong, but we’re willing to concede to the idea that we’re going to be wrong some of the times. What we cannot abide is the idea that we’re wrong so often that somebody will consider us a fool. How many rhetorical devices, tactics, and persuasive techniques have we developed over the years to avoid being called a fool? One thing we know is that people who believe in nouns (people, places, and things) are more vulnerable to the charge of being a fool, and we seek foolproof status. Due to the fact that most alternative thoughts are rarely shown to be substantially incorrect, unconventional thinkers are shielded against ever being called a fool. On the off chance that they are incorrect, they might make slight adjustments in their presentation to incorporate the newfound facts, but most of them just move on.
“They just move on?” we asked our friend who told us about her unconventional parents. We’ve all been wrong so often that we’re familiar with the humiliation of being so wrong that we’re laughable. We all have friends and family who are eager to call us out on our errors, and we know that they won’t allow us to just move on, not until they’re done churning us over the spit. Even then, some of us hold onto it for years. When we pose another notion or theory, they say, “Aren’t you the guy who believed … ?”
Over the years, our friend told us that her parents “latched onto just about every conspiracy theory and unconventional notion they ever heard.” She said that when the facts rolled out, and they were proven incorrect, they just moved onto the next one.
“So, when the rest of us are proven wrong, we have to deal with the ramifications that come our way, but when your parents are wrong, they just move onto the next conspiracy theory? How do they do that?”
“They just do,” she said.
She informed me that her parents were prophets of doom, as the millennium neared. They were handing out pamphlets and grain pellets at their church. They believed something would happen on 9/9/99, and when it didn’t, they moved onto the millennium. When nothing happened on 1/1/2000, they suggested that we all miscalculated the Aztec calendar, and that the day of doom still awaited us sometime in the near future. She said they listed a specific date, based on specific criteria, but she didn’t remember the exact date, because she knew they would just move on after that date passed. She knew they would just move onto the next date of doom to some day in the all too near future.
Most of us know, firsthand, the humiliation of being so wrong on an issue that our friends won’t value our assessments in the future. If we staked our personal reputation on a prediction of this sort, and it passed without event, we would be mortified. After being wrong numerous times, these parents were out, at the next date of doom, passing out pamphlets and grain pellets.
We don’t know what drives common, every day people to partake in doom-saying, but it probably has something to do with the idea that the track record of alternative, unconventional information is somehow immune to criticism. It is foolproof, because the alternative is believing what the ever elusive “they” tell you to believe.
If in the course of them trying to warn us about a current date of doom in the all too near future, we were to call these parents out on their track record, they might turn the tables on us, “How can you be so sure that it won’t happen this time?”
We can’t be sure, of course, because we are insecure beings who falter in the face of certitude. We’ve watched too many movies where no one believed the sexy actor who knew something no one else in the production did, and we don’t want to be the overweight, unattractive character actor who doesn’t believe. They frame their questions in a probing, “Who do you think you are?” manner that asks us how many times we’ve been wrong before, and if we’re willing to wager that we know more about this than their list of experts do.
Dumb guys who fell prey to believing far too many alternative, unconventional, and conspiracy theories were so relieved to read some psychologists write that we must all make a concerted effort to avoid falling prey to this type of seduction, because it suggests that we’re all susceptible to their siren call. Our grades in school haunt us to this day, and we will use any excuse we can find to declare that we’re not as dumb as we think we are. When someone comes along and basically writes up a siren call that is so alluring that we must proactively keep our susceptibility in the “off” position, it lends credence to the “shame on you for fooling me” portion of the idiom. As long as we maintain the “off” position to prevent the shame from doubling back on us in the future. Though the psychologists’ conclusion does not absolve us of the idea that we once believed a wide variety of crazy theories and loony conspiracy theories, we do find some comfort in numbers.
Maintaining this “off” position is not easy, and it is not our intent to suggest that we woke up one day deciding that we were no longer going to believe alternative ideas loaded with unconventional information that can lead to conspiracy theories. It wasn’t any easier for us to avoid their interesting and thought-provoking theories. We simply put forth constant and diligent effort to defeat our susceptibility in this arena. Tune out, turn on, and defeat is the credo we use anytime we encounter sexy, enticing pieces that lead to emotional reactions. Current and future stories such as those are as difficult to ignore as all the previous ones were, but after mentally charting all of their hypothetical guesses, based on alternative thinking that many considered unconventional, we were finally able to break the leash.