Friday, March 10, 2006

Crackpot criteria are always conventional?

I feel like I can draw a distinction between crackpot assertions and ideas that are merely contentious or wrong. Don't you? But what makes that difference? I think I can do better than “I know it when I see it.”

I would put in the crackpot category: sincere (as opposed to politically opportunist) Holocaust deniers, opponents of evolution, and those who believe the US government can't legally collect income taxes. Also HIV-AIDS denier Celia Farber, who just got more of her crackpot HIV-does-not-cause-AIDS-throw-away-your-medicines writing published — in Harper’s, for God's sake.

Contentious ideas: Freudianism, behaviorism, Reagan (or FDR) was the greatest president, No one likes me, There is (is not) a God ...

Wrong ideas: This is 2005, I fail at everything I try ...

I realize I'm slightly confounding crackpots  (people) and crackpot ideas  that the people promote. But I want to get this posted, so I'll sort that out later. Maybe.

I think they're different because the crackpot assertions about HIV or tax legality are about out-in-the-world phenomena where we all, including the crackpots, really do agree on most of the ways we evaluate such ideas’ truthfulness or validity or strength. Whereas for merely contentious ideas, proponents and opponents both generally acknowledge that we don't agree on the terms. Either (a) we agree on the criteria but the evaluations are subjective and iffy (“I do  love him!”), or (b) we all acknowledge that we don't agree on the criteria, like when capitalists and communists focus on different economic outcomes.

Maybe a wrong idea that persists despite contrary conventional evidence wouldn't be crackpot if the person simply rejects the conventional criteria. As in, “I know he says he doesn't love me, and he moved away, and he got a restraining order against me, and he married someone else, but something tells me he does love me, deep-down.”

A crackpot idea is one whose proponents seem to agree that the idea can be, should be, and is evaluated according to conventional criteria. The proponents just repeatedly refuse to accept the conventionally-provided evaluations of those criteria. They minimize, dismiss, or flatly ignore an evaluative source otherwise accepted by everyone including the crackpots — but only when that source disputes or weakens their idea.

Maybe this insight is unremarkable to most people. Maybe it's wrong! But it bugged me not to understand the difference I felt between AIDS deniers and, say, cultural conservatives, since I disagree with both. (Conservatives sometimes fall into the crackpot category but not necessarily.) The distinction I see, which allows a lot of gray area between the poles, is this: Crackpots say  they're playing by the same rules, but they're not.


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