In the last two weeks we had three major snowstorms in the Boston area with more promised for this coming week. Number three in this dismal sequence paralyzed the city—schools and universities were closed, as were most offices and many stores, and no mail delivery, no newspapers. Even the public transportation system was shut down, private cars were banned from the streets—people were trapped in their houses or apartments. We were lucky, compared to some other areas—we had heating and electricity, and we had stocked up on food. Still, there arose the question (especially in a mind early shaped by Viennese paranoia) what it would be like if industrial civilization were more than temporarily suspended. Even this short suspension reminded one of the fragility of civilized order. At the height of a blizzard occurs the phenomenon called “whiteout”—when the snow comes down like a sheet, visibility is zero, and the mundane reality that had been taken for granted has disappeared. Interestingly, the term “snow” is also used when the television screen is filled with fragmented strings of images—a sort of impenetrable “whiteout”.If one lives in New England, the idea of global warming has a certain attraction. Of course there is by now a certain canon of global warming prophecy. An enormously influential item in this canon is Al Gore’s documentary film “An Inconvenient Truth”. I was wondering whether Gore is now working on a second documentary, “An even more inconvenient Truth – I was wrong”. But of course he is not doing this. Ideas that have become an ideology do not admit falsification. Global warming has become an ideology, mostly but not exclusively concentrated in the progressive portion of the political spectrum. Its three central propositions have become axiomatic among progressives: that significant global warming is in fact occurring (“the science is in”); that its consequences will be dire; and that its major cause is industrial pollution (especially by evil American capitalism—never mind the fog of pollution hanging over the cities of India and China). Deeply committed progressives are as eager to sign petitions to stop this or that “carbon footprint” as petitions to pull American troops out of Afghanistan or to boycott Israeli products. The only (rather ambiguous) concession to the notion that, just maybe, all the science is not in, has been a shift in language from “global warming” to “climate change”. Critics of the ideology are pelted with pejorative labels—political reactionaries, uneducated ignoramuses (comparable to creatonists or flat-earth theorists), or agents of the petroleum industry.I am not a climate scientist. But I can claim to be a specialist in ideologues who claim to be privileged epistemologically and thus entitled to disdain anyone who dares to reject their alleged truth. I think that the work of the psychologist Leon Festinger (1919-1989) is very helpful for an understanding of this phenomenon—especially his two books When Prophecy Fails (1956) and A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance The first book deals with a fascinating little cult led by a charismatic woman who claimed to be in telepathic communication with beings from outer space, who warned her that the North American continent would be inundated by a huge tidal wave on a specific date a few months hence—but also said that a vehicle would pick up the little group and whisk it away into safety just before the cataclysm. The members of the group behaved just as one would expect people to behave who believed that the world was about to end shortly. One detail that impressed me was that they stopped changing the oil in their cars. Not to keep you in suspense, the world did not end on the specific date announced to the prophet. After this big disappointment the group split into two factions. The first faction acknowledged that they had been deceived and quit. The other faction rallied more fervently around the prophet, made efforts to convert outsiders, and found reasons why the miraculous rescue mission did not occur: there had been a failure of communication, the cult members had caused the delay by sinning, some enemies had sabotaged the whole drama. In any case, the vehicle from outer space would come after all, and soon. I don’t know whether Festinger was familiar with New Testament scholarship. It is quite clear that the early followers of Jesus believed that he would return to earth in their own lifetime. When he did not, this had to be explained—and was. All of early Christian thought could be described as a sustained exercise of grappling with what German scholars have called Parousieverzoegerung—freely translatable as “a slight delay in the Second Coming.”Later Adventists have played it safe by not tying themselves down to a special date in the future—“soon” will have to do. Thus a plausible cognitive defense—a demolition of a strategically important cognitive dissonance—has been effective for some two thousand years. In the second book mentioned before, Festinger developed the insights gained from the study of these modern cultists into a general theory of how people deal with views that contradict their own.Scientists are not immune to the intellectual acrobatics of cognitive defensiveness, despite their professional commitment to making sure that their theories are based on empirical data, which implies a willingness to change a theory if new data make it questionable. Of course many scientists do just that, but often reluctantly and slowly. Thomas Kuhn, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, has described in detail how theoretical paradigms change. The adherents of the old paradigm want to hold on to it as long as possible—they have both intellectual and material interests here: Their professional career has been connected with the paradigm, and there are pending applications for the funding of projects based on the old paradigm. When the empirical evidence becomes irresistible, the tendency is to modify the paradigm here and there without giving it up entirely. Kuhn shows how this was done in the cognitive defense against the new Copernican model of the solar system.By way of illustration let me give some examples from my own experience. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the development of the Baha’i movement from a Messianic insurrection in Iran in the nineteenth century to a well-behaved American denomination in the twentieth. One of my professors had mentioned my doctoral project to a student of his, who was a convert to Baha’ism and wanted to meet me. I agreed when he phoned me and went to see him in his home. Two interesting things happened during this visit, which only became clear to me a few years later when I tried to work with my colleague Thomas Luckmann on a new approach to the sociology of knowledge. Upon my arrival at his home, the Baha’i student took me to a coffee table on which he had spread out some pamphlets of the kind one would give to an outsider who knew nothing about the religion—What is the meaning of “Baha’i”? Where and when did the faith originate? What are its major teachings? This was quite inappropriate. The young man only knew two things about me – that I was working on a doctoral dissertation about the Baha’i faith, and that I was not myself a Baha’i. Surely he must have known that I had far more information than these pamphlets contained! Later I understood: He could deal with an individual who knew nothing about the faith and did not profess it; he could not cope with someone who knew a lot but also did not believe.A little later, after I had told him the outline of the dissertation, he asked me a rather strange question: “I know that you are not a Baha’i. But if you were, is there anything you found out that would disturb you?” I was taken aback, then mumbled something about “value-free social science” (I had been fully immersed in Max Weber), and the inability of any empirical discipline to assess the truth or falsity of a religious faith. But then I said: “Well, there is something that would disturb me, which involves empirical data”. Then I told him of a very curious episode in Baha’i history. There were two founder individuals at the beginning of this history, who took on the names of the Bab (which means “the gate”) and of Baha’ullah (meaning “the glory of God”). The Bab was executed after a failed uprising against the Iranian government; Baha’ullah went into exile in the Ottoman Empire (the Sunni Ottomans did not care about what they must have seen as obscure intra-Shia quarrels). It is official Baha’i doctrine that Baha’ullah is the prophet for this age and that the Bab was his forerunner, like John the Baptist to Jesus. An early history of the Babi-Baha’i movement contradicts this interpretation: No, the Bab did not think of himself as any kind of forerunner: he was the prophet for this age.Here is what happened later: After the death of Baha’ullah in 1892, his oldest son Abdul-Baha took over the leadership in the early 20th century. He instructed his followers to buy every copy of the early history and if necessary to steal copies from libraries, and then to destroy all garnered books. He almost succeeded (an amazing feat in the post-Gutenberg era—the books were printed!). Then a British scholar found a copy that had survived, in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. The British scholar published the original Persian text with an extensive English commentary. The cat was out of the bag, but the official Baha’i organization continued to adhere to and to publish its version (actually containing bowdlerized sections of the early history). And here is what happened in the living room of my fellow-student in Manhattan of the early 1950s: He listened to me attentively. Of course he had never heard of this campaign of book destruction. After I finished the story, he sat very quietly for five minutes (I looked at my watch). Then he spoke up and gave me seven reasons (I counted) why the episode could not possibly have happened during Abdul-Baha’s leadership: The cognitive defenses went up immediately!The purveyors of cognitive dissonance are typically identified as enemies. The emotional quality of this is typically rage. This may well be one of the root causes of anti-Semitism, at least in Christian countries (“God-killers”/”enemies of Christ”). My preceding example did involve religion, but not visible rage (I don’t know what may have rumbled in the depths of my host’s soul, but I left his apartment in one piece).The next example is full of rage, though it is not obviously religious (unless the expectation that little green extraterrestrials arriving on earth is good news may be called at least quasi-religious). The episode also occurred during my time as a graduate student. I was a research assistant at a project directed by my doctoral advisor. His secretary, a middle-aged American woman was passionately interested in a group that studied reports of extraterrestrials landing on earth, supposedly with unprejudiced objectivity. She invited me to a meeting of this group. It turned out that objectivity was the last thing on their minds. The discussion was indeed very emotionless—until a moment when a critical question was asked by a visitor who was not a member of the group; he asked whether there was certainty about the accounts of actual meetings with extraterrestrials—were all the witnesses reliable? A couple of group members asked, in angry tones, whether the visitor had a reason for doubt. He nodded, very calmly opened the quite bulky report of the investigation and read an observation that the sheriff of the community (it was, I think, in a remote area in New Mexico) had been drunk when interviewed, in his office during office hours. The sheriff was a key witness; as I recall, he was the only one who not only talked with the extraterrestrials (apparently in English) but was invited for a drink (of what?) on the spaceship which they themselves called an “UFO” (unidentified flying object). What followed was close to mayhem: The unwelcome visitor was shouted at for several minutes—what were his qualifications for assessing this highly technical document (it contained a description, by the sheriff, of the instrument panel of the spaceship, it had a button marked, also in English, “RETURN HOME IMMEDIATELY”), was he a journalist who came to make fun at the expense of honest country folk, or a spy working for the U.S. Air Force (which heads the list of “UFO deniers” in the brochure I was handed at the door—nifty term, which puts them in the company of genocide deniers and other obviously wicked people). For a moment I thought that there would be physical violence. Fortunately there was not, though I departed rather quickly, before my own credentials could be questioned.I was thinking of adding two more episodes from my own experience—one of the failure of a project of mine to convince a member of the Communist Party in the U.S. of the veracity of reports about Soviet atrocities, and one when I attended a conference of the anti-smoking movement when a pair of epidemiologists read a paper which contradicted the movement’s position about the health effects of so-called “environmental smoke” on non-smokers. But this post is already getting to be longer than usual. There also are cases of religious or political institutions (not just individuals) setting up cognitive defenses against challenges to their particular orthodoxy. In the history of Christianity there was one episode of cognitive defensiveness that exemplify a very common pattern for such cases—from determined defense, including repression, to cognitive bargaining, to cognitive compromise, to surrender, to schism or neo-orthodoxy. A crucial challenge came from modern Biblical scholarship. This particularly affects Protestants, for whom the Bible has been the central authority; Catholics had other things to worry about, such as questions about the authority of immoral or even infidel popes (what if Pope Alexander Borgia, who staged orgies in the Vatican and had once attempted to poison the entire College of Cardinals, had claimed infallibility for his statements on faith and morals? Fortunately, the Borgia Pope had little if any interest in faith or morals). First, American Protestant churches and theological seminaries criticized and, if feasible, repressed what was early on called the “higher criticism” of the Bible. Then, as cognitive contamination began to bite, they engaged and compromised with it: The Resurrection of Jesus is non-negotiable but we’ll give you most if not all the other miracles attributed to him. Some who didn’t agree with the compromises broke off and formed more rigorous seminaries or denominations. (Not unimportant insight: Religious freedom is dangerous for religious communities that resist changes from whatever tradition they identified with in the past: they will very likely lose some of their members.)Let me step away from religion for a moment and look at the example of a political movement trying to cope with inconvenient data in a way that somehow defends the core of the movement’s history. It is the story of the Marxist quest for the authentic revolutionary class. Marx himself thought that only the proletariat had the right consciousness to launch the revolution that would bring about the socialist utopia; everyone else, especially the bourgeoisie, was in “false consciousness” and thus unable to understand the realities of the class struggle. Thus the proletariat also had to be or become an epistemological elite (basically, because it is so oppressed that it has nothing to lose and because the vision from below can dispense with illusion—never mind that the rationale for this theory is thoroughly implausible, and that it fails to explain how Marx, married to an aristocrat and supported financially by a capitalist, managed to see things as they really are). Marx also believed that the working class of the developed European countries—France, Germany, Italy—was most likely to carry out the hoped-for revolution.The primal disappointment of the Marxist movement was that the European working class failed to develop the revolutionary consciousness predicted by the theory. Instead, it created social democracy, which avoided revolution, favored reform from within the capitalist system, and made compromises with the class enemies. Eventually the revolution took place in “backward” countries like Russia and China. But other candidates for the true revolutionary class were lining up. Lenin had the brilliant idea that, even if the proletariat became a patsy of the capitalist status quo and failed to have the right consciousness for the revolution, the Communist Party could be the “vanguard of the proletariat” in both thought and action. Thus “the Party is always right”. Rosa Luxemburg, the fiery German Communist, awarded the required vanguard role to what she called “the colonial peoples”, who fitted into the theory as an “external proletariat”. Luxemburg was murdered in 1919 by a German rightist death squad. Her ideas did not have much traction then, but they became the font of the ideology of the Third World after World War II—Luxemburg’s “colonial” category now expanded to all the exploited underdeveloped countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. It is a potent ideology that is still alive today despite its glaring implausibility (among many other frailties, it fails to explain the rise of East Asia). Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist, then came up with what must be the most implausible variation of the Marxist quest for the most promising revolutionary class: it was to be, of all things, the intelligentsia. Not surprisingly, it was picked up in the 1960s by some celebrity intellectuals but also by masses of lower echelons of the academic industry. Its slogan was not but could have been “Untenured Faculty and Graduate Students of all Nations, Unite! You have nothing to lose except your disappointing CVs”.Fanaticism, religious or political, is bad for both religious faith and politics, also for the integrity of individuals. Unapologetic reference: My book with Anton Zijderveld, In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions without Becoming a Fanatic (2009).
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Published on: February 18, 2015
As blizzards blanket Boston and there is no sign of Al Gore producing A More Inconvenient Truth, it’s time to look at the cognitive defenses of ideologues.