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Thoughts on the rise and fall of Crackpot Theories

A thing I keep banging on about is that a crucial stage in an argument occurs when the burden of proof gets reversed.

Crackpot Theorists devise a Crackpot Theory. It unites them. It excites them. It excuses their shared belief that The Free Market Is Not Good Enough. They demand action from each other. They capture small parts of government departments that most people don’t give a damn about. They write small laws and get them passed.

A few Critics notice, and start explaining that the Crackpot Theory is, maybe, a crackpot theory. The Crackpot Theorists say: No it isn’t! The Critics say: But you are making bad decisions! The Crackpot Theorists say: No we aren’t! As this phase of the argument gets seriously going, the Critics become ever more convinced that the Crackpot Theorists are indeed Crackpot Theorists, and because the Crackpot Theorists are behaving like the maniacal Crackpot Theorists that they are, the Critics grow in number, and in their certainty that the Crackpot Theorists are totally crackpot.

The small bits of the government departments grow into big bits, and infect other bits. The laws they introduce get bigger and more intrusive.

But sadly, nobody else cares, or not enough to stop all this. The money and inconvenience involved is still trivial, by the usual standards of government-imposed expense and inconvenience. Let the Crackpot Theorists have their fun! And besides: Maybe, just maybe, the Crackpot Theorists are onto something. Better safe than sorry! Anyway, what can you do?

As the Crackpot Theory grows in power, powerless people start to notice and to cry out: Your Crackpot Theory is just an excuse for us to be taxed more! Alas, for many people this is a feature, not a bug.

Throughout this phase of the history of the Crackpot Theory, the Critics of the Crackpot Theory are in the impossible position of having only one way of stopping the rise to prominence of the Crackpot Theory, which is to convince the Crackpot Theorists that they are wrong.

Some Crackpot Theorists are convinced. Quite a few of them creep away in ashamed silence. A tiny few even say in public that they were wrong. But others of them are now so wholly dependent for their livelihoods upon the Crackpot Theory being true that they stick with it anyway, despite now suspecting or even knowing what total crackpottery it is. What can they do?

Until, one day, the Crackpot Theorists pick a fight with a group of people powerful enough for their anger to actually matter, to the entire world.

At which point, the burden of proof, hitherto weighing down only upon the shoulders of the Critics, now descends upon the shoulders of the Crackpot Theorists themselves. Suddenly, they have to convince the world that they are right and that their Critics are wrong. They have to convince their Critics that their Critics are wrong, just to shut their Critics up from saying what the world now wants to be told, namely that the fight with those powerful and angry people is a fight that is not worth having.

But our Crackpot Theory says that we must have this fight! No matter what! The world must be saved, even if it is ruined in the process!

I’m just thinking aloud, you understand. Having seen this (linked to just now by the ever-alert Instapundit):

China will take swift counter-measures that could include impounding European aircraft if the EU punishes Chinese airlines for not complying with its scheme to curb carbon emissions, the China Air Transport Association said on Tuesday.

Wei Zhenzhong, secretary general of the China Air Transport Association, said:

“We would try to avoid any trade war.”

If that’s not a powerful and angry person threatening a trade war, I don’t know what is. If the trade war duly happens, next up: trade war. (What was that about the EU putting an end to conflict between Great Powers?)

So, Crackpot Theorists, is your Crackpot Theory true enough to be worth stuff like this? Go ahead. Convince us.

9 comments to Thoughts on the rise and fall of Crackpot Theories

  • J Storrs Hall

    But religions have always been a casus belli…

  • Jim

    I’ve always said there will never be a ‘hands in the air, sorry we got it wrong’ moment from the bureaucracies. Thats not the way they work.

    What happens is that the head of the department is allowed to continue on his merry way (people like James Hanson, Phil Jones et al) promoting his Crackpot Theory, until he retires. He will then be replaced with a less Crackpot Theory friendly person, who has studiously avoided making too many hostages to fortune in his previous statements, who will then slowly distance the department from the previous incumbent.

    Rather like how the new President of the USSR would denounce the old one, once he was safely dead. Government bureaucracies do not do screeching brake U turns. They slowly perform an about turn of such magnificent radius that you can never see the turn at any given point. Eventually they will be facing 100% in the opposite direction and no-one will have lost face, or more crucially, pension rights.

    The only thing that could precipitate a more disorderly change is ‘events dear boy, events’. If for example the climate takes a nosedive temperature-wise for a prolonged period in the next decade, then reality might be forced upon them rather more rudely. Politicians will not put up with Crackpot Theories for very long when voters are freezing to death in their droves because they can’t afford the fuel to keep warm.

  • Myno

    CAGW invites negative feedback from states that see their vested interests threatened. I more worry about global fiat money, because there is unanimity amongst the statist players, so no natural source of negative feedback (aside from the inescapable “physics” of Austrian economics which will bring some dire resolution in due time).

  • TDK

    The problem is no one starts with a crackpot theory.

    Rather ‘people who care’© or who want to ‘do good’© seek supporting theories to back up what they want to do anyway. Other people seeing that this group care and want the common good assume that they can be trusted. At that point the ‘good’ people do not need to argue their point. Instead they can point to the implicit wickedness of people who do not agree with them.

    At some point though the road to hell causes sufficient harm that the goodness is called into question and once that falls then the theory is openly questioned.

    In this case the harm is being done to China who perceive rightly that rich nations who can afford carbon offsets are penalising relatively poor nations. Hence they do not see the ‘good’ motives any more (if they ever did) and only see protectionism.

    I’m inclined to think most nations like China have long seen this is bollox. However the prospect of either free money or else western self hobbling was sufficient for them to go along for the ride.

  • Anteros

    Bishop Hill may be an old-fashioned blog in a number of respects but it also follows the modern trend of allowing the bulk of commenters to ‘go native’ and express the wildest craziness and partisan clap-trap. The articles and posts merely hint at the possibility of something slightly questionable and the echo-chamber resounds to the cries of “liars!” “frauds!” “rent-seekers!”

    Of course, such things are all part of the propaganda effort -and are mimicked at blogs like RealClimate too – but they do nothing to diminish the polarising distrust and hatred that emanates from both ‘sides’ of the issue.

    How many places exist in the blogosphere where people can have a vaguely civilised discussion/dialogue on climate related issues without puerile mud-slinging and abuse?

    If I wasn’t such a lazy arse I’d get around to providing such a venue myself 🙂

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Jim has it right. Our own Tim Flannery keeps getting it wrong (permanent droughts afflicting Australia for the foreseeable future?), but that hasn’t stopped him from enjoying a bureaucratic career in Canberra. (Perhaps these people should be called Canbereaucrats.)

  • A EU-China Trade War; sounds like fun. A long, messy stalemate would only be fitting, except that it would tend to drag the rest of the world into an autarky-driven recession.

    An EU-China shooting war over climate change? With the modern EU-left’s pacifist streak, that seems unlikely,

  • Paul Marks

    A globel “trade war” leading to a massive fall in production and living standards.

    Even a real war – leading to a vast reduction of human population.


    What from the “Green” point of view is wrong with any of the above?

    They would be delighted with it all.

    I am afraid your arguments will be ineffective in convincing the international “liberal” elite.

  • Brad

    Even if time and tide erodes crackpot theory A, the calcification of centralized power, and its ready made conduits of Force, survive for crackpot theories B and C and D. Here in the US we’ve had over 100 years of ever rising Statism from Teddy Roosevelt’s land grabs to today’s centralized health care drum beats. We went from Olde Tyme Conservatism to Nu Prog 2.0 and the State grew and grew and grew. Career bureaucrats roll on, adapt, and find new life in the next superstition that is bred from “we know better than you and we’re prepared to use Force”.

    The Government Industrial sector thrives and is counter-cyclical to EVERYTHING. The free market has either/or’s and one rises as the other falls. Force First is not a free market component and it thrives as long as no theories, crackpot or otherwise, that flourish are anti-Force (in the offensive-against-peaceful/productive-people sense).