problem with wingnuts
Reading Time: 8 minutes (Jack Anstey.)
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Some skeptics call it crank magnetism: the tendency of someone with one untrue belief to hold others. I call it the Problem of Wingnuts. It means much the same either way: when someone accepts as true even one untrue belief, more untrue beliefs inevitably follow along behind it. Untrue beliefs only proliferate. That’s really the quintessential Problem of Wingnuts: What gets weird can only get weirder. Today, let me show you how it happens–and why.

problem with wingnuts
(Jack Anstey.)

(Definition of terms: When I say “wingnut,” I mean by the term “someone whose ideology and framework for looking at the world do not come from reality and in fact are contradicted by reality.”)

The Problem Of Wingnuts.

Remember that episode in Better Off Ted about the sleep machine? In “Beating a Dead Workforce,” boss-dude Ted sabotages the company’s project by canceling a parts delivery. But then, his fanatical young employee, Johnny I think, declares that he’s rescued it by manually fetching the parts himself overnight. He tells his amazed, dismayed, exhausted boss:

I’ve been driving for 20 straight hours. I took everything the truckers gave me. Now watch how fast I can run! (He begins zipping around and around the room at a dead run.)

Y’all, that was me as a teenaged Christian. Just like Johnny did, I zipped around and around the (metaphorical) room in a frenzy because why would total strangers lie to me or give me anything that was bad for me? Seriously, I didn’t even wonder if my foundational beliefs were true.

I well represented the problem of wingnuts: people with wackadoodle beliefs tend to spiral in only one direction.

The Wingnut Cycle of Life.

Looking back, I can identify a definite cycle to my travels through Christianity.

This was me from oh, about ages 16-23.

Here’s what those steps looked like for me when I was a Christian:

  1. I joined a group devoted to a particular thing. It would be the closest fit I could find to my idealized vision about such groups. For a while, I’d ignore the inevitable various negatives about the group.
  2. But then I became restless. The group failed to live up to their own hype. It didn’t deliver what its recruiters had promised. Thus, this group could not be the ideal one I had envisioned.
  3. I’d seek out a new group that better fit my vision. I always assumed that an ideal (or at least better) group existed. Eventually, inevitably, I’d hear a sales pitch that seemed promising.
  4. Finally, I’d join the new group, thus beginning the wingnut cycle of life again.

Notice that in the Better Off Ted episode, Johnny-I-think never questions whether or not he should fetch the machine parts. Nor does he question the excessive work hours Viridian inflicts on him and his workmates. Viridian told him that it was essential to have the machine finished by a certain date. And so that is how it was for him.

In similar fashion, I never questioned Christian groups’ focus in the first place. My indoctrination told me that the focus of Christianity was real and true. It also told me that long ago, Christian groups had been ideal. I couldn’t even imagine an omnimax god allowing his worship to degrade entirely forever. Obviously, that logic led to an obvious conclusion: some group out there was Jesus-ing correctly!

I only had to find them.

(I’m still amazed I didn’t end up in a really bad cult.)

How Wingnuts Work.

Ironically, the Christians who fall into this mindset tend to function exactly like they mistakenly think gamers do.

Reality-Land has rules and truths. But reality’s rules and truths do not confirm or conform to wingnuts’ beliefs and desires–so wingnuts ignore that reality and substitute their own.

Adam Savage of Mythbusters, quoting the 1984 movie The DungeonMaster. Probably, almost nobody cared about the quote till then.

In that substitute reality, wingnuts’ beliefs and desires are 100% true and their substituted rules always work great. That substitute reality comforts and soothes them. It eases their greatest fears and irritations. It tells them that if they keep doing what they’re told then they will win–and win big.

Antiprocess handles the rest. Whenever reality rubs up too closely against their substituted one, wingnuts can easily tune it out with a variety of mental techniques. Thought stopping, compartmentalization, magical thinking, and other such rationalizations exist to help them ignore the real world and remain safely cocooned in their substitute one.

Using the Wrong Yardstick.

In the real world, people use techniques like the scientific method to judge claims. Though these techniques are far from infallible, they do tend to self-correct. The yardstick judges claims from the bottom up, accepting only that which has already been supported by the yardstick.

Thus, even if someone somehow misuses the scientific method to arrive at an incorrect conclusion, then other people using the same method will figure that out eventually and correct the mistake.

In Wingnut-Land, however, the yardstick wingnuts use doesn’t have any of those features. It uses purely subjective measurements, can’t promise replicable results (indeed, this yardstick doesn’t even care if a claim’s promises match its own results), and never allows for falsifiability. It builds off of precedent and consensus.

Most of all, the wingnut yardstick works from the top down, assuming that all kinds of unsupported premises are correct in order to reach its conclusions. If enough wingnuts arrive at an incorrect conclusion, then it becomes canon to them. Literally no method in their toolbox exists to tell them otherwise.

Thus, the methods wingnuts use to judge claims can’t self-correct. That’s one part of why one wingnut can’t convince other disagreeing wingnuts that they’re wrong about anything.

Adding Error to Error.

In Reality-Land, many people believe one or two erroneous ideas. Very few of us can be right 100% of the time, after all.

Some otherwise very liberal people might not understand that abortion represents a bodily autonomy issue–thus making its legality a requirement in the upholding of human rights. Or maybe a generally anti-woo person embraces all the woo around essential oils. Or maybe someone just has the worst taste in picking relationship partners or simply cannot adequately follow baking instructions – creating disasters in the oven more often than not (ahem).

Generally, these folks possess critical thinking skills. They simply might not utilize them all the time, is all.

But these denizens of Reality-Land at least possess a general framework for critical thinking:

Most of all, in Reality-Land people want to be correct more than they want to feel comfortable. If something they believe turns out to be wrong according to the best of their knowledge, then they want to reject it.

Even if it feels scary to reject their belief, if that’s where the facts point then that’s the direction they go.

Lacking a Framework.

In Wingnut-Land, however, the residents there have a lot of trouble assessing claims. They flit from wrong idea to wrong idea. They completely lack a framework for discernment. Thus, their entire pattern of thinking confuses and confounds the people from Reality-Land who into contact with them.

Really, the two groups of people might as well be speaking two different languages because they have such different ways of looking at information.

Wingnuts derive comfort and soothing from their beliefs. They adopt the beliefs that provide them the most comfort and soothing. So they suffer from a great deal of self-interest in how they approach new ideas. They accept nonsensical new information simply because it agrees with those beliefs–or extends them, as we’ll see shortly. They also wholeheartedly accept false experts if those people confirm or validate their beliefs.

If some new bit of information threatens to contradict their beliefs, then wingnuts deploy their copious antiprocess techniques. New information bounces off of the bubble separating them from Reality-Land. Eventually, new information or processes become frightening in and of themselves.

How Wingnuts Assess Claims.

First, the claim must fit in generally with what they already believe. That’s a must-have. If it contradicts any one of their beliefs, they reject it out of hand. Most wingnut groups quickly amass entire libraries’ worth of hand-waving meant to combat major or oft-repeated criticisms. In Christianity, for example, they call those libraries apologetics.

Next, the claim must come from sources the wingnuts already respect. Wingnuts really distrust real experts in anything. They disdain tenured college professors, preferring instead fellow wingnuts with falsely-claimed credentials–or none at all. Having been coached to it for many years, they prefer poor-quality self-education to receiving a good one from accredited sources. And they trust each other most of all. Someone from their own tribe, saying the lies the tribe believes, receives a great deal more credibility than someone from outside it. They’ll take a useful idiot from an outside or enemy tribe–but that person is easily discarded if they step out of line.

If a claim can piggyback off of something the wingnuts already believe, then all the better. Even if the claim is new, if it can be integrated easily with existing beliefs, then it’ll find quick and complete acceptance. That’s how the evangelical culture war fighting to preserve segregation easily became its arguably far-more-effective culture war against abortion.

Once the belief settles into the wingnut belief system, it’s there for good.

Why Wingnuts Spiral More Extremist, Not Less.

Every thread I’ve handed you here now comes together to weave a cord.

Wingnuts can only go in one direction–unless a grand contradiction and refutation happens, of course, as in the case of deconversion. But barring a wholesale rejection of the framework that goes into making that person into a wingnut in the first place, that person stands at high risk of heading right into another similarly false ideology!

In order for wingnuts to pull back on the extremism throttle, they must become convinced that they were going too far. That would just about have to mean that they were wrong in going that far. Wingnuts don’t like to feel wrong about anything, ever. That’s why their substitute reality doesn’t provide a mechanism for correcting their own errors, any more than it provides a mechanism for meaningfully testing their ideas.

Worse, wingnut groups tend to reward their most fervent members. That’s a recipe for increasing extremism, as members race to become known as the most hardcore wingnuts in the group. Those folks get leadership opportunities, praise, and attention–and sometimes great wealth.

This framework easily encourages even rank-and-file members to dive even further into extremism. Generally speaking, their leaders teach that any problems they have can be resolved by becoming even more fanatical and devoted.

This process is exactly how evangelicals fused with fundamentalists to become fundagelicals–and from there, it’s how they grow more authoritarian by the year.

The Comfort of Wingnuttery.

People become wingnuts because it’s comforting and lets them behave in ways that Reality-Land would forbid. That framework promises them stuff that Reality-Land never would. They can feel superior to others and act out–and who can stop them? Only their imaginary friends, who are unlikely to object all that much, and whatever real people hold power over them in their groups–leaders who benefit enormously from leading a group of people who are disconnected from reality.

But reality seems to be drawing more and more people away from those substitute fantasies. We can only hope that once Christianity has become largely irrelevant, whatever comes next is just a little more closely related to reality–and more compassionate.

NEXT UP: Speaking of wingnuts, Thom Rainer’s got something to say about receiving anonymous feedback. Let’s see what he and his commenters thought of it! (Spoiler: Ohhhh my. They don’t like it.) I think it’s going to be fun, and we could sure use some. So see you soon! <3

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...