On ‘Among Us’ and honesty.

On ‘Among Us’ and honesty.

How is the mobile game Among Us like Robert Greene’s The Art of Seduction?

I appreciate the premise of both. They’ll help you learn to get what you want.

But I doubt I’ll play again.

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When people write to Pages to Prisoners, they request all kinds of books. Fantasy, thrillers, sci-fi, horror, romance. How to draw, how to start your own business, how to build a home. How to speak Spanish, or French, or Italian. The history of ancient Egypt. UFO books about aliens building the pyramids.

Most people write and tell us a few topics that they’re interested in, then we comb through our collection of donated books and put together a package that the person will (hopefully!) be happy to receive.

Are you interested in self-help and philosophy? Here’s a package with Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist! Are you interested in games and comics? Here’s a package with a Dungeons & Dragons manual and some freaky zombie books!

We try to give people what they want. Nobody should have their entire life defined by their single lowest moment.

When people write to us requesting a specific book, usually it’s the dictionary. Seriously, that’s our top request. Despite their miserable circumstances, a lot of people caught up in our criminal justice system are making a sincere effort to improve themselves. To read more, learn more, and be better.

If I had to guess what our second-most requested book is, though, I’d say Robert Greene’s The Art of Seduction.

Which seems less helpful than a dictionary if your goal is to become a better person.

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I attempted to borrow The Art of Seduction from our local library. We only had an audio version, though, so I can’t quote from it directly. I listened to the first third, I believe.

And Greene made a remark that I appreciated: because so many of us feel unfulfilled in life – our work might be dull, our achievements might fall short of our ambitions – we would enjoy being seduced. After all, we spend buckets of money on booze, movies, and games. We like beautiful illusions.

Perhaps a seducer isn’t the person whom they’re pretending to be – so what? Greene suggests that we’d still enjoy an evening in which we take on a role in that person’s play – we can pretend to be loved by someone dazzling, someone who at least postures as rich, friendly, a scintillating conversationalist.

In my classes at the jail, I’ve met a fair few men who seem to have studied The Art of Seduction and other such pickup guides. Although their conversations are incredibly engaging at first, they quickly become repetitive – they have a few timeworn routines that they trot out again and again, the same slew each week. If you met this person at a party, he’d seem fascinating! Meet him at three parties in a row, you’d be hearing all the same skits.

As long as we anticipate this dissipation, maybe it’s okay. When we drink, we know that sobriety is going to catch up with us in the morning – sobriety, and a headache. We let a film transport us even though we know that the house lights are coming on two hours later.

If I were talking to someone who was playacting as a brilliant conversationalist, and we were both having fun, I don’t think I’d mind that their stories were invented. When guys in jail spin tales about their lives, I always take them at their word – even though I know that much of what people say in there is bullshit.

Sometimes we have to bifurcate our minds to get the most from life. Immerse ourselves fully in a role and enjoy it for what it is. Nobody playing Dungeons & Dragons believes that she’s really a level nine elf wizard, but she can still enjoy the thrill of saving the party with her powerful spells.

The major flaw with The Art of Seduction, from my perspective, is that it discusses the people being seduced as objects. The guide uses the language of battle and conquest, as though pleasure is something that the seducer takes from the seduced.

If, instead, the guide simply wrote about how best to entice others into joining you for mutually-pleasurable roleplay – in which pleasure is shared as you both pretend to be, and thereby become, scintillating lovers – well, then I’d salute Greene for doing his part to make the world a better place. Couldn’t we all use more love, pleasure, and excitement in our lives?

There are lots of ways to dance the dance. To play games. I simply prefer the honest ones – in which everyone is privy to, and pleased by, the illusions.

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My brother recently gathered a group of ten of us to play the mobile game Among Us.

Among Us is a social deduction game, like Werewolf, Mafia, or Secret Hitler. Each player is assigned a hidden role at the beginning of the round – are you townsfolk or the werewolf? Are you a liberal or a fascist?

In Among Us, you’re an interstellar scientist or an alien.

The two teams have opposed goals. The scientists are trying to complete a set of mundane tasks – dumping the garbage, stabilizing the engines – so that they can return home. The aliens are trying to kill the scientists.

The graphics are charmingly reminiscent of early Nintendo games. And the pace of the game is excellent – at times your character wanders a map, trying to do chores, at other times play is interrupted by a meeting in which everyone tries to solve the mystery of who could’ve killed their teammate. Catch someone without an alibi and you can vote to fling them out the airlock, saving your crew from further tragedy.

Unless you were wrong and you accidentally ejected one of your helpful friends. Then the aliens are that much closer to victory.

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I’m quite earnest.

Yes, I love the shared illusion of games, and I can appreciate that Among Us asks two players from each group of ten to playact as evil aliens. Those players are required to be deceptive, but it’s within the safe confines of a game that everyone in the group has chosen to play. There’s deceit, and there’s total consent.

But also, I’m terrible at this sort of game.

We played for several hours – a dozen, maybe two dozen rounds? I was given the role of the evil alien only once. And I attacked my second victim while standing right out in the open. Taylor walked past, saw me, and promptly called a meeting.

“Oh my God,” she said, “I just walked in and Frank totally killed him right in front of me.”

In retrospect, it’s clear what I should have said next. The scientists’ mundane tasks fill up the entire phone screen – I could’ve claimed to be working on one, that I’d been interrupted by this meeting halfway through it and hadn’t seen what happened, but then accurately described the place where I’d been standing. Yes, this would have seemed suspicious – I’d admit to standing right where the body was found – but the other players might think that Taylor had come into the room, killed someone without me noticing, and then tried to frame me.

We played with a team of two evil aliens, so this would’ve been quite helpful to say – even if the other players voted to eject me from the ship, they’d remain suspicious of Taylor and might eject her later, bolstering the chances of my alien ally.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t recall what the nearby chore was supposed to be. I learned that, if you haven’t played Among Us very often but are given the role of the alien, you should slay your victims near chores that you know well. So that you can convincingly describe what you were doing if someone stumbles across your misdeed.

Instead, I laughed and voted myself off the ship.

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Among Us was fun, but the game has its flaws.

Each round is ten or twenty minutes, but a few people are eliminated right away. If you were playing, you’d definitely want a book nearby or a TV show to watch, just to have something to do during the times when your character gets eliminated first. Except that the players are still expected to complete their vaguely unpleasant chores – clicking a set of buttons at just the right times, or dragging illustrated leaves across the telephone screen to clean an air filter – even after they’re killed and can no longer participate in the discussions or votes.

I’d definitely prefer if a deceased player’s chores were automatically completed at steady rate.

For about a decade, Jonathan Blow, creator of the fantastic puzzle game Braid, has been an outspoken critic of unethical game design. In a 2007 lecture, Blow described his qualms about World of Warcraft – players are forced to complete mundane, unpleasant tasks in order to progress in the game. To balance this unpleasantness, the game keeps players engaged with tiny pulses of dopamine – even though it’s not particularly fun to slay each tiny goblin, the game rewards you with a jingle of dropped gold or a gambler’s rush of wondering whether this unidentified treasure will be a good one.

By forcing players to sink time into mundane tasks, World of Warcraft makes their lives worse. “The meaning of life in World of Warcraft is you’re some schmo that doesn’t have anything better to do than sit around pressing a button.”

The chores in Among Us need to be sufficiently challenging that they introduce a cognitive burden for most players, but there are ways to do that without making them tedious. Simple logic puzzles would accomplish the design requirements of Among Us and help players get more out of each game.

The more dire problem, from my perspective, are the ways that repeat play with the same group shifts your optimal playstyle.

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The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a game in which two players choose either to cooperate or defect. Then they’re sent to jail for various lengths of time depending on both players’ choices.

The Prisoners’ Dilemma is a very different sort of “game” from Among Us – I assume nobody would want to download an app for it. Your team wins! You only go to jail for two years each!

If both players cooperate, the pair will be imprisoned for the least total time. But also, no matter what the other player chooses, you can reduce your own time in jail by defecting.

And so the “game theory optimal” play is to defect. When both players do, they both wind up spending more time in jail than if they’d both cooperated.

In Freedom Evolves, Daniel Dennett discusses ways in which human evolution – which bestowed upon us emotions, a tendency to blush or bluster while lying, and a willingness to endure personal suffering in order to punish non-cooperators – may have solved the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

When evolution gets around to creating agents that can learn, and reflect, and consider rationally what to do next, it confronts these agents with a new version of the commitment problem: how to commit to something and convince others you have done so.

Wearing a cap that says “I’m a cooperator” is not going to take you far in a world of other rational agents on the lookout for ploys.

According to Robert Frank, over evolutionary time we “learned” how to harness our emotions to keep us from being too rational, and – just as important – earning us a reputation for not being too rational.

It is our unwanted excess of myopic rationality, Frank claims, that makes us so vulnerable to temptations and threats, vulnerable to “offers we can’t refuse.” Part of being a good citizen is making oneself into a being that can be relied upon to be relatively impervious to such offers.

Emotions can solve the Prisoners’ Dilemma – cooperating because you’d feel bad about hurting the other person – and so can repeated play.

When you’re faced with the Prisoners’ Dilemma once, the “rational” choice is to betray your partner. But if you’re playing with the same person many times, or with groups of people who know your reputation, the optimal strategy is to be kind. To cooperate unless you have ample evidence that a particular partner will not.

The Prisoners’ Dilemma is a game where playing more makes you a better person.

By way of contrast, Among Us teaches you to behave worse the more you play.

This is a feature common to all social deception games. If you were playing Secret Hitler once – and only once – and were assigned to play as a liberal politician, your optimal strategy would be to be scrupulously earnest and honest. The players assigned to roleplay as fascists must lie to succeed, but the liberal team doesn’t need to.

However, if you plan to play Secret Hitler several times with the same group of friends, your optimal strategy includes a fair bit of caginess and trickery even when you’re playing the role of a liberal. Otherwise, the contrast between your behaviors would make the game impossible to win during the rounds when you’re assigned to roleplay as a fascist.

Similarly, Among Us rewards deception even when you’re assigned the role of a scientist. Otherwise, you won’t be able to win during the rounds when you’re assigned to play as an evil alien.

Although the optimal strategy for the team of scientists might seem to be extreme forthrightness, repeated play cultivates a basal level of dishonesty.

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In The Biggest Bluff, Maria Konnikova describes her journey from poker novice to professional – the book jacket lauds her $300,000 in winnings.

She frames this journey as a quest to understand the whims of chance – how can an appreciation for randomness buoy her spirits during the hard times of life?

And the biggest bluff of all?

That skill can ever be enough.

That’s the hope that allows us to move forward in those moments when luck is most stacked against us, the useful delusion that lets us push on rather than give up.

We don’t know, we can’t ever know, if we’ll manage or not. But we must convince ourselves that we can. That, in the end, our skill will be enough to carry the day. Because it has to be.

It’s a beautiful message. We let ourselves believe that we’re in control, because if we lost that belief, we might give up.

And yet. Almost unmentioned in the text of The Biggest Bluff are the mechanics of where money comes from in poker. Poker doesn’t produce wealth – instead, a large number of people pay to enter a game, and a small number of people receive the money at the end.

Because Konnikova was fortunate enough to be instructed by experienced players, and wealthy enough to invest a lot of time and money on learning, she was eventually able to deceive and bully other people well enough that she could take their money.

Poker is consensual. Everyone entering a game knows that the other players are attempting to take their money. Some people must play with full understanding that they’ll lose – maybe they think the entry fee is a fair price for the enjoyment of the game. But most people, I’d assume, are hoping to win. And – because poker doesn’t produce anything, instead redistributing wealth from the many to the few – most don’t.

Playing many games of poker would teach you skills that can be used to get ahead in the world. An appreciation for chance. An ability to negotiate. An ability to tamp down or hide your emotional responses to adversity or triumph. An ability to manipulate those around you.

Some of that sounds good, some doesn’t. On the whole, I don’t think I want the traits that poker would help me develop.

Similarly, The Art of Seduction promised to teach valuable skills. I, too, like cuddles! My spouse bought me a cute little “polyamorous” pin to wear on my jacket label. But I wouldn’t want to follow any advice recommending that we deceive potential romantic interests, or treat them as objects.

And I don’t want the traits that Among Us would help me develop, either.

Deception is a valuable skill. More often, we’d get what we want. But at what cost?

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When I played Among Us, I had fun. I was often laughing during the meetings when we discussed whether we should eject someone from our ship. Sometimes we did, and we felt so sure that we’d eliminated an alien because that person had seemed suspicious the whole game, but then we’d lose and realize that we’d doomed a fellow scientist.

Whoops!

Again, I’d laugh.

But the ability to enjoy Among Us comes from a wellspring of privilege.

My spouse can’t play social deduction games. She grew up with a paranoid schizophrenic mother – in order to stay safe as a child, she learned to lie. For many years, my spouse then lied compulsively. Pervasive lying came close to wrecking her life.

She resolved that she wouldn’t lie anymore. Recognizing that it would be an easy habit for herself to slip back into, she won’t lie even in a game.

Our children know that there’s no Santa Claus. That’s okay – I think that the Santa story is a starter conspiracy theory, and, even if Santa were real, our family would probably be against elf servitude.

Our children know that there’s no Tooth Fairy. My spouse and I dress up fabulously and dance through their bedroom when we replace their teeth with quarters – I wear a glittery skirt, angel wings, and a light-up tiara, all rescued at various times from neighborhood trash.

Another of my close friends joined us to play a single game of Among Us. She hated it. She, too, had a traumatic childhood. For someone who grew up around adults with mercurial swings of violence and rage, it feels awful to be lied to by your friends. Even within the consensual confines of a game.

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After each game of Among Us, I wanted to play again. Despite the nuisance chores, despite my near-total inability to lie, despite knowing that I might be eliminated from the game within the first minute, I wanted to play again.

And yet, having written this essay, I doubt I ever will.

On conspiracy theories and Santa Claus.

On conspiracy theories and Santa Claus.

Our daughter wants to visit dungeon-master Santa.

This isn’t as scary as it sounds – the local mall Santa happens to be a developer for Dungeons & Dragons.  Unfortunately, our daughter has a bit of trouble with impulse control.  I’ve heard that this is normal for three year olds.

santa-2990434_640“What would you say to other kids about Santa?” we asked her.

“I’d tell them that Santa isn’t real.”

“But, remember, only their parents are supposed to tell them that.”

“Why?”

“Well, you should know that we will always tell you the truth.  If we’re telling you a story, we’ll let you know that it’s a story.  But some other families are different.  They want their kids to believe the dungeon master lives on the North Pole with an army of elves.”

Why?”

“I … I dunno, dude.  But don’t tell the other kids, okay?”

I’ve written previously about the harm in conspiring against children – belief in one conspiracy theory makes people more likely to believe in another.  People who believe that the government is covering up evidence of UFOs are also more likely to believe that vaccines cause autism, fluoride in the water enables mind control, and the Earth is flat.

And, sadly, we start our citizens early.  The Santa story is a vast conspiracy, a large number of authority figures (grown-ups) collaborating to keep the child in a state of ignorance.  A local philosophy professor told me that he felt the story was valuable as a measure of intellectual development – at first the child believes, but then begins to notice flaws in the story.

“Uh, if it takes two minutes to deliver presents, it would take a thousand years to visit everyone in the United States, or two million Santas on Christmas Eve – but not every house has a chimney!”

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I think it would be cynical to lie to children as a developmental metric.  This measurement changes the child (which is not Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, f.y.i.).  The experience of uncovering one conspiracy will train children to search for conspiracies elsewhere.  Perhaps a child is supposed to realize that there’s no Santa at seven years old, that there are no gods at eleven, that the moon landing was faked at thirteen, that JFK is smoking blunts in the Illuminati’s underground lair at seventeen.

After all, the Santa story isn’t the final time we conspire against children.  In my school’s health classes, all sexuality outside of marriage was described as fundamentally bad.  Even if we somehow dodged pregnancy and disease, disrobed physical affection would break our hearts and leave us feeling guilty and ashamed.  Recreational drug use was described in similarly bleak terms (by a teacher who drank coffee every morning).

Students grow up, get laid, drink beer, smoke pot.  Grown-ups were hypocritically hiding the truth.  Sex is fun.  Drugs are fun.

What else were they hiding?

(Have you seen all those children’s books with pictures of happy animals on the farm?)

A lot of the guys in jail believe in conspiracy theories.  Despite a plenitude of dudes with Aryan tattoos, I’ve never heard anybody on a full-tilt ZOG rant, but I’ve been told about Nostradamus, Biblical prophecy, the CIA (to be fair, I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking about MK Ultra, too).

To an extent, I understand why.  The people in jail are being conspired against by judges, informants, and the police.  With lives in thrall to the overt conspiracy of our criminal justice system, covert conspiracy seems probable, too.

And so, in preparation for this essay, I took a few minutes at the beginning of class to say, “There’s an administrator at the local school who thinks the Earth is flat.  Says so to kids.  You guys hear anybody talking about that?”

flatearth“Oh, yeah, there was this dude in A block!  He was talking about it like all the time!”

“Now he’s in seg.”

“It’s like, has he never seen a globe?”

And the guys wondered what that administrator was doing inside a school.

“Cause kids go there to learn, right?”

Kids do need to learn critical thinking.  They should question whether the things they’re taught make sense.  I’ve heard plenty of teachers make erroneous claims, and not just in Indiana’s public schools – some professors at Northwestern and Stanford didn’t know what they were talking about either.  Even so, I think it’s unhelpful to train children by having them uncover the Santa story.  That experience is a step along the way to thinking your sensory experience has primacy over abstract data.

After all, the planet feels flat enough.  It looks flat from most human vantages.  And it would be cheaper to deceive people than to send spacecraft to the moon (a former colleague recently went to the International Space Station for some incredibly expensive molecular biology experiments.  This was a huge undertaking – and she was only 0.1% of the way to the moon).

If you take a kid for his MMR vaccine, and shortly after vaccination he seems to regress into autism, that narrative – which you watched with your own eyes! – is more compelling than a bunch of medical statistics proving there’s no connection.  If you comb the Bible and find lines mirroring current events, that narrative also must seem more compelling than the thought that history is chaotic.  Physicists from Einstein till the present day have been dismayed that quantum mechanics feels so unintuitive.

It’s tricky to find a balance between our own senses and expert opinion.  It’s even harder in a world where numerous authority figures and media outlets have been caught spreading lies.

And so, while I try not to judge others’ parenting decisions, please, take a few minutes to think about the holiday stories you tell.  If you’d like to live in a country where the citizenry can agree on basic facts, lying to your kids might be not be the way to get there.

On paranoia, virology, conspiracy theories, & lemmings: my experience reading ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.’

On paranoia, virology, conspiracy theories, & lemmings: my experience reading ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.’

gravitys rainbow at whitney

Shortly before I turned sixteen, I read an article in the Indianapolis Star describing a piece of artwork temporarily showing downtown. Fred Tomaselli’s Gravity’s Rainbow, as inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s book. The description in the paper was rapturous. Beautiful, deep, dark, mysterious. A giant canvas with covered in fluorescent parabolas of … pills?

Street drugs, pharmaceuticals, and fakes, all strung vibrantly together.

I was enthralled. After a week of pleading, my parents took me to see it. And… well, sure, I was disappointed. I was just a kid. I hadn’t read the book. Just like Marcel when he finally saw La Berma, I felt let down because I didn’t have the background needed to see as much in the artwork as the article implied.

But I did resolve to read the book.

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I’m not sure what image best illustrates the opera performance of a fictional character, so here’s Alexandre Cabanel’s Phedre. This is the role Marcel first saw La Berma perform, at which point he felt disappointed by her apparent lack of artifice. Good acting means acting naturally??

At the time, my hometown library didn’t have a copy. The only bookstore I frequented was Half-priced Books, which has very haphazard inventory. Later, when I didn’t have an influx of babysitting money supporting my habit, I became even stingier and only shopped at library booksales. Paperbacks for a quarter! Hardbacks for fifty cents! The only problem being total inability to predict what you’ll find.

5628951142_cc4759b4dc_oLet me tell you: if you’re hunting for a mammoth, oft-discussed-but-rarely-read cult novel, you’ll have to visit a whole lotta library booksales before you’re likely to find a copy. Over the years I’ve found V and The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice and even a guide purporting to demystify Gravity’s Rainbow, but never the book itself.

Of course, now I live in a town with much better libraries than where I grew up. The library here has a copy. We even have an audio version in case you’d rather spend thirty-eight hours listening to it in your car than sit down and read the thing.

The book follows, among numerous others, the travails of ex-military man Slothrop, a paranoid drug-gobbling sex criminal (I could’ve used fewer gleeful paeans to pedophilia, but I can’t expect every author to cater to my reading whims) who feels himself to be — and perhaps is — enmeshed in a dark conspiracy that spans decades, transcends nationality, and takes precedence over even the war.

The evocation of paranoia is charming. Indeed, within novels, it’s often the case that everything really is connected, that even the most outlandish coincidences were inevitable. Excepting works like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s serially-published & sketchily-planned The Idiot, novels are sculpted by an all-powerful author dictating the course of action. Slothrop is right to be afraid… of Pychon, if no one else.

The novel reels through numerous “Proverbs for Paranoids,” but to my mind the most chilling passage is the following:

The basic idea is that They will come and shut off the water first. … Shutting the water off interdicts the toilet: with only one tankful left, you can’t get rid of much of anything any more, dope, shit, documents. They’ve stopped the inflow / outflow and here you are trapped inside.

. . .

So it’s good policy always to have the toilet valve cracked a bit, to maintain some flow through the toilet so when it stops you’ll have that extra minute or two. Which is not the usual paranoia of waiting for a knock, or a phone to ring: no, it takes a particular kind of mental illness to sit and listen for a cessation of noise.

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Paranoiac by adricarra on deviantart.

This passage is frightening because it sounds so reasonable — maybe secret agents would take precautions to keep you from destroying evidence — yet only someone with a totally hyperactive connection-seeking mind would actually thinking to monitor the trickle of a leaking toilet, fully expecting the noise to someday stop.

The human mind evolved to find meaning in the surrounding world, but to my mind the root of schizophrenia, more dire than sounds perceivable to no one else, is the tendency to find meaning too often. So much is happening every second that connections and coincidences will always be there, if you demand them to be.

In the paranoid world of Gravity’s Rainbow, even World War 2 bombings were planned for, and were necessary to enable devious machinations. This sounds deranged, and yet it’s actually very similar to something that happens in nature.

Take influenza. The influenza virus can’t reproduce until it enters a host’s cells. But the viral protein that latches onto cells, in its standard form, doesn’t work. The virus is produced with a “fusion-incompetent precursor.” Only after the viral protein is attacked by its host — chewed on by a protease that’s attempting to destroy the virus — does it become functional.

3-dimensional-model-of-influenza-virus
Hemagglutinin molecules — blue pegs on the outside of this model — need to be severed by a host endoprotease before the flu virus can dock & conquer.

Influenza is harmless … until the host fights back. If you’ll excuse me a touch of anthropomorphism here, influenza is so devious because it knows the host will fight back, and plans for that, and uses the host defense as part of its own strategy.

The paranoiacs in Gravity’s Rainbow fear that weapons facilities were constructed the same way. That bombings were anticipated, and planned for, and the structures assembled precisely so that the bombings would activate the facility:

Zoom uphill slantwise toward a rampart of wasted, knotted, fused, and scorched girderwork, stacks, pipes, ducting, windings, fairings, insulators reconfigured by all the bombing, grease-stained pebblery on the ground, rushing by a mile a minute and wait, wait, say what, say “reconfigured,” now?

There doesn’t exactly dawn, no but there breaks, as that light you’re afraid will break some night at too deep an hour to explain away — there floods on Enzian what seems to him an extraordinary understanding. This serpentine slag-heap he is just about to ride into now, this ex-refinery, Jamf Olfabriken Werke AG, is not a ruin at all. It is in perfect working order. Only waiting for the right connections to be set up, to be switched on … modified, precisely, deliberately by bombing that was never hostile, but part of a plan both sides — “sides?” — had always agreed on …

These musings must strike most people as deranged. The likelihood of a single organization willfully orchestrating World War 2 is pretty low. But this idea isn’t dramatically more bizarre than other common conspiracy theories.  Large numbers of people believe that the moon landing was faked, that the CIA killed JFK, that the mass shooting at the Batman film in Colorado was planned by the U.S. government …

The United States is rife with conspiracy theorists. With X-Files back on air, perhaps there’ll be a resurgence in the number of conspiracy theories involving extraterrestrial life — those seem to have faded in popularity since the late nineties.

suspicious mindsA few books have been published recently examining why so many Americans believe in conspiracy theories. The latest (that I’ve noticed) is Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds, which examines the way quirks in our brains promote belief in conspiracy theories.

For instance, pattern-seeking: it makes sense to assume that individuals best able to look at their surroundings and see patterns — This berry patch has a lot to eat every spring! Everybody who’s gone to that water hole at twilight has been eaten by a tiger! — would’ve been most successful through evolutionary time. The only drawback is that our brains are so good at finding patterns that we often see them when they aren’t there — In our last three games, my team won both times I was wearing these socks, and lost when I wore different ones… I’ll never take these socks off again! — letting us ascribe deep meaning to random happenstance.

Honestly, believing in happenstance can be terrifying. If you believe that bad things happen to good people because a watchful god is angry, you can make overtures to appease that god. Maybe the suffering will stop. But if the universe is a chaotic, value-less place, then there’s nothing you can do to stave off random disaster.

When I read Suspicious Minds, I felt like Brotherton left out a potent explanation for our abundance of conspiracy theories. Yes, evolution seems to have molded our minds to readily believe in nefarious conspiracies. Brotherton cites psychology research into the nature of these beliefs, suggesting the propensity is innate. In addition to all the usual caveats you should keep in mind when reading pop psychology, it’s especially important to recall that most study subjects for this research come from the same culture … and this culture actually trains young people to believe in conspiracies.

The basic structure of most conspiracy theories is that the standard explanation for something — Barack Obama was born in the United States, vaccines don’t cause autism — is a lie, and a cabal of authority figures is working hard to prevent people from uncovering the truth.

santa and his cauldronIn the United States, many people go through this same experience as children. We’re taught to believe in Santa Claus, for instance, and over time might notice adults winking at each other as they discuss the flying reindeer, or the cookies he’ll eat, or presents he might leave… until one day it becomes clear that the authority figures were making the whole thing up. It was Dad eating all those cookies!

It becomes a rite of passage. At six, you learn that your house wasn’t actually visited by Santa Claus. At eight, maybe you learn that there is no Easter Bunny. Seems like every kid’s favorite pizza topping is pepperoni until one day a slightly-older kid on the bus leans over to whisper, “Do you know how they make pepperoni?” So why would it be strange for people to grow up and think, at twenty you learn that there was no moon landing? At twenty-five you learn that the feds have been putting mind control reagents into childhood vaccines?

Moreover, sometimes there really is an attempt to hide the truth. Researchers employed by cigarette companies tried their darnedest to distract from the various ailments caused by smoking. Researchers employed by oil barons are still trying their darnedest to distract from the planetary ailments caused by combustion.

Or, in matters slightly less dire, there’s lemmings.

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Lemming imagery shows up repeatedly in Gravity’s Rainbow, like the farmer depressed by all his pigs “who’d rushed into extinction like lemmings, possessed not by demons but by trust for men, which the men kept betraying”, or the Europeans befuddled by an African tribe’s apparent desire to fade away together rather than die off one by one, “a mystery potent as that of the elephant graveyard, or the lemmings rushing into the sea.

Given that so much of the book is about paranoia and blind trust and suicide, it makes sense for lemmings to have a star appearance. The main character, Slothrop, the Harvard-educated pedophile, even takes a moment to explain why lemmings kill themselves the way they do:

Well, Ludwig. Slothrop finds him one morning by the shore of some blue anonymous lake, a surprisingly fat kid of eight or nine, gazing into the water, crying, shuddering all over in rippling fat-waves. His lemming’s name is Ursula, and she has run away from home. Ludwig’s been chasing her all the way north from Pritzwalk. He’s pretty sure she’s heading for the Baltic, but he’s afraid she’ll mistake one of these inland lakes for the sea, and jump into that instead —

“One lemming, kid?”

“I’ve had her for two years,” he sobs, “she’s been fine, she’s never tried to — I don’t know. Something just came over her.”

“Quit fooling. Lemmings never do anything alone. They need a crowd. It gets contagious. You see, Ludwig, they overbreed, it goes in cycles, when there are too many of them they panic and run off looking for food. I learned that in college, so I know what I’m talking about. Harvard. Maybe that Ursula’s just out after a boy friend or something.”

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Lemmings by Tao Lin on Flickr.

And the reason I bring this up in conjunction with conspiracy theories? It isn’t true. Lemmings aren’t the suicidal little furballs that I, for one, always believed them to be.

In 1958 Disney released a documentary film, White Wilderness, that showed lemmings committing suicide. The voice-over explained weren’t actually suicidal, but that they single-mindedly launch themselves into the water to drown because they assume they’ll be able to swim across:

It is said of this tiny animal that it commits mass suicide by rushing into the sea in droves. The story is one of the persistent tales of the Arctic, and as often happens in Man’s nature lore, it is a story both true and false, as we shall see in a moment.

What the audience then sees are close-ups of lemmings jumping off a cliff into the sea. Except… well, because this doesn’t really happen, the filmmakers instead trapped a few lemmings on a big slippery snow-covered turntable and spun it in order to fling the poor critters over the edge.

Lemmings do migrate, and like most migratory species, when venturing into unfamiliar territory they sometimes die. Their occasional deaths are more reminiscent of the unlucky members of the Donner Party than the folly I was trained by Lemmings (the computer game) to believe in.

The original lemming myths seem to have been caused by humans seeing huge numbers of lemmings, noticing that some were migrating to less-populous areas, and then finding that the population had plummeted to almost nothing. Where did the others go? Maybe they committed suicide!

Well, no. Their population booms and busts, like those of most prey species, seem to be caused by the population density of their predators. It’s the predators who mindlessly exploite abundant resources.  When lemmings are plentiful the well-fed predators breed profligately, certain they’ll be able to support their brood, and then the overpopulous predators eat the lemmings nearly to extinction, at which point the unlucky predators will starve, their population plummets, and the lemming population can rebound.

Book_of_Genesis_Chapter_41-6_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)Humans are very similar to most other predators this way.  A bit foolish, we are.  We live large in the good times. Genesis 41, in which Joseph interprets the Pharaoh’s dreams, is so striking precisely because few humans would have the foresight to plan for seven years of drought and famine. Indeed, in the contemporary western United States, we divvied up water usage rights during particularly lush years and are now squabbling over who should actually get water when there isn’t enough to satisfy everybody’s usage permits. The human population is still rising — indeed, many religious leaders still purport that their followers have an explicit directive to “go forth and multiply” — despite the fact that we’re already taxing the planet near its limits.

So it goes.

The point being, at the moment, not that we’re all doomed… who knows, maybe we’ll come together and shape up our act? But that the abundance of actual lies — why would anyone even feel the need to lie about lemmings? — makes it that much easier for people to believe in nefarious conspiracies. We’re trained from youth to believe that the authorities and experts — our parents — are hiding the real truth. Why would we expect politicians or scientists to act any differently?

In related news, I’m trying my best not to lie to my kid. The world is already plenty strange — I think she’ll still have fun despite a healthy dollop of truth.