The Dark Power of Utter Certainty
Passionate belief in fringe views can be attractive
Anthony Storr was a British psychiatrist and author. In his book on gurus, Feet of Clay, he tells us how he once met Sir Oswald Mosley socially. He had been the leader of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. Storr found Mosley’s worldview abhorrent, but politely listened as he started expounding a series of simple solutions to difficult problems with great certainty. To his surprise, the psychiatrist found himself feeling impressed by the disgraced politicians’ flood of words. He learnt a difficult lesson that day: Humans find utter certainty attractive.
I have my own tale to tell. A friend of mine has got caught up in a bleach-drinking cult. Since 2006, various quacks have been promoting a toxic water-treatment chemical as MMS. The initials usually, but not always, are an abbreviation of Miracle Mineral Supplement. Sometimes the vendors change the name slightly but keep the same initials. My friend is convinced that taking MMS every day will make him immune to COVID-19, while vaccines are dangerous. I staged an unsuccessful intervention during the pandemic. I knew it had failed when we started talking about Andreas Kackler, one of the promoters of the scam. I told my friend how Kackler had bought his credentials from a diploma mill, but it didn’t matter. My friend’s eyes glazed over a little. “I like him.” Kackler offered him a sense of utter certainty in an uncertain world. My friend then tried and failed to get me to try MMS.
If certainty underpins charisma, we have a problem. Promoters of fringe views, like extremist politicians, vendors of quack cures and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, will always find a respectful audience among people who are doing their own research about the world. On the other hand, if we try and tell people to take a probabilistic approach and to distrust their gut instincts, we risk triggering their sense of cognitive dissonance. It is very hard to square this circle. Sharpen Your Axe is my attempt to overcome the problem, but Storr’s insight shows us that the fight between skeptics and true believers can never be a fair one.
Chapter Six of Sharpen Your Axe explores the way that gurus, extremists, con artists, believers in fringe views, people with mental health issues, professional conspiracy entrepreneurs and authoritarian governments develop conspiracy theories. If you missed the beginning of the book, here are the links to Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four and Chapter Five.
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Update (25 April 2021)
The full beta version is available here
[Updated on 10 March 2022] Opinions expressed on Substack and Twitter are those of Rupert Cocke as an individual and do not reflect the opinions or views of the organization where he works or its subsidiaries.