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The Lunatic Fringe

July 20, 2007

I want to talk about this topic later, but here’s a really rich discussion of popular credulity from one of my favorite authors.  Following are excerpts from the chapter of that name in 1965 Arthur C. Clarke essay collection, Voices From The Sky.  The section that follows is quite long, but guaranteed to reward your investment of time reading it:

The lunatic fringe has always been with us.  In every age, there have been people who were willing to believe anything so long as it was sufficiently improbable.  Religion, economics, science, politics have all had – and still have – their fanatical minorities who devote their fortunes, their energies, and often their lives to the cause they have made their own.

Often the cause is a sensible one but its advocates are not; they show that humorless monomania, that inability to see any other point of view, that distinguishes the crank from the enthusiast.  One does not have to look very far for examples…

(Describes US phenomena of John Birch Society and of the Black Muslims, and their respective fears of Communists and the Ku Klux Klan)

The driving force behind all such extremist groups and crackpot organizations is a mixture of fear and ignorance….

(Review of several popular hoaxes, including the Bridey Murphy case, Dianetics (which Clarke optimistically referred to in the past tense), UFO’s…)

Another revelation must be imminent, now that the Beats are buried and the zest for Zen is flagging.  I have no idea what it will be, and am in no great hurry to find out.

You may feel that this is making too much of something that affects only a small part (one hopes) of the total population.  it is true that in the past crankiness and eccentricity did little harm, and even added a certain spice to society.  A generation ago, flat-Earthers, end-of-the-World cultists, and disciples of weird religion caused no embarrassment outside their immediate circle.  But we are moving now into a complex and perilous age, where credulity and superstition are luxuries that can no longer be afforded.  For consider this example:

In 1843, fifty thousand followers of the prophet William Miller gathered on New England hilltops to await the expected hour of judgment.  The advent of a great comet, its tail streaming like a fiery banner across the sky, seemed to them a sign that the end of the world was at hand.

Men are still watching the sky for signs of doom; but now they look into radar screens.  And here is the important difference; the beliefs of fifty thousands Millerites could have no influence, one way or the other, upon the end of the world, but today, when we can carry the power of Vesuvius in a single warhead, the fears or delusions of only fifty men could bring it about.

This is an extreme case; but all forms of irrationality are dangerous, because in the right circumstances they can spread like a plague, infecting not only a community but an entire nation.  Those concerned may be very ashamed of themselves afterwards, but by then the damage may be done.

You cannot build an informed democracy out of people who’ll believe in little green men from Venus.  Credulity – willingness to accept unsupported statements without demanding proof – is the greatest ally of the dictator and the demagogue.  It is not so very long ago that there were voices crying; “The Jews are plotting against the Reich!” and “I have here in my hand a list of 205 Communists in the State Department.”  These voices are silent now, but there will be others.

(An aside on how the success of modern science has ironically led many to think that anything is possible, without critical boundaries) 

(Examples of Brits in WW I who fancied that Russian soldiers were arriving in large numbers to help, because they saw soldiers with snow on their boots.  And, a Russian craze that Venusians were coming to Russia to buy sweets.)

No one should derive much satisfaction from this proof that nuttiness is also rampant on the other side of the Iron Curtain.  unreason is always a menace, wherever it occurs; it may be even more of a danger in the Soviet Union than in a country with democratic safeguards.  (Look what Hitler’s intuitions did to the world.)  And there is, unfortunately, no reliable cure for it; you cannot buy sanity at the drugstore, or inject common sense into the community by mass inoculation. 

The only answer lies in education, and even that is merely a palliative, not a panacea, for a college degree is no guarantee of wisdom, as anyone who has ever been near a campus will testify.  There are many people in the world who are educated beyond their intelligence, but there are far, far more who have not been educated to within hailing distance of it.  They are the ones who provide fodder for the demagogues and cranks, who listen to false prophets and sponsor absurd or evil causes.  They cannot always be blamed, for society has robbed them of what should be every man’s right – an education to the limit of his ability, whatever his financial status, creed, or color.  No wonder that, dimly realizing their deprivation, they seek any substitute that they can find.

Very often that substitute takes the form of anti-intellectualism – a pretense that knowledge, education, and culture are worthless or even dangerous.  This is, of course, a typical sour-grapes reaction; not long ago one could identify those suffering from it by their fondness for the word “egghead.”  That engaging term is now a little out of fashion, because the events of the last few years have made it obvious to everyone that society that despises brains is on the one-way road to oblivion. 

Human nature being what it is, the lunatic fringe can never be abolished – and most of us, if the truth be told, would hate to see it vanish altogether.  But education cna minimize its influence, can convert it from a potential danger to a source of mild amusement.  A century ago, Matthew Arnold compared this world to a “darkling plain… where ignorant armies clash by night.”  The metaphor is still valid. Perhaps the greatest single task that now faces every nation is the dispelling of that ignorance, lest the armies clash again – for the last time.
- Arthur C. Clarke, 1965

I am reading another book that develops a similar theme, in far more detail and with more specific relevance to current events.  But I was cleaning up the basement and found this old book by Clarke, and this section seemed too good not to share. 

Categories: Politics
  1. Ted
    July 20, 2007 at 22:31 | #1

    So he wrote this 40+ years ago. And things have changed for the better, I suppose. At least we have cheap goods at Wal*Mart so life is better. Here. For now.

    Eggheadedness aside, what is the deal with scientists and their relationship to public policy?

    Do we just elect/select a poobah chief scientist to lead us, and then go back to watching reality based, quality TV?

    That probably wouldn’t be the right approach though; being non-eggheads, we’re too stupid (well, lets be kind—we’re too uneducated, too uninformed) to decide who should lead us—we make poor choices. Witness Bush.

    Perhaps a benevolent ruling class is in order. They could get “educated”, and devote (sacrifice even) their lives to the greater good of leading us while we could get “trained” because someone still needs to turn the wrenches and unclog the clogs.

  2. July 21, 2007 at 03:58 | #2

    I think Clarke is right to speak of ameliorating lunacy through education rather than abolishing it altogether. There will always be some well educated people who “just don’t get it” and believe in such nonsense as creationism. Maybe those are the ones Clarke refers to as “educated beyond their intelligence.”

    On another point, I wouldn’t be as quick as Clarke to dismiss psychiatry as part of the solution here. A lot has changed to make psychiatry more effective since Clarke was writing more than 40 years ago.  And it’s fairly well known that people who suffer from untreated mental and emotional illnesses often “self-medicate” by obsessing themselves with various unfounded beliefs in order to distract themselves from their other problems. So perhaps good psychiatric care could also play a role in ameliorating the sort of lunacy Clarke so well describes.

  3. July 21, 2007 at 09:04 | #3

    Do we just elect/select a poobah chief scientist to lead us, and then go back to watching reality based, quality TV?

    The problem is, as venture capitalist Paul Graham says, you need good taste to even be able to hire a good designer.  We need a certain level of scientific and cultural/historical literacy to even distinguish a good leader from a bad one.  30-second TV ads paid for by corporate backers won’t cut it.

    And it’s fairly well known that people who suffer from untreated mental and emotional illnesses often “self-medicate” by obsessing themselves with various unfounded beliefs in order to distract themselves from their other problems.

    That never occurred to me – fringe belief as self-medication.  What an interesting thought!  Fringe beliefs come packaged with devoted friends and community against an uncaring world; a very attractive feature.

  4. July 22, 2007 at 13:22 | #4

    All of these loony theories, Armgeddon, Scientology, New Age Crystals, all of it, are invented and promoted by the Masons, S.C. Johnson, The Egg Council, and M&M;Mars Co. They do this so that if anyone discovers how these organizations are related and controlling everything, they can pass it off as “just another crackpot theory.” They are also responsible for pointing the finger at Proctor & Gamble and the Rothschilds. Sneaky bastards!


  5. July 23, 2007 at 02:36 | #5

    I have long suspected the Egg Council of being a front organization for the most heinous plots.

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