Letters From My Crazy Uncle, Part 1

So I have this uncle, and he’s possibly the most interesting person I’ve ever met. He’s quite well-read, educated, and quite an eloquent speaker. He speaks his mind in a very brash way that many people find somewhere between uncomfortable and offensive, but my family and our tight-knit group of friends rarely took issue with that. He’s also a grade-A conspiracy theorist. Like, 9/11 was an inside job, big pharma is conspiring to kill us all, airplanes are dousing us in chemtrails, GMOs are designed for mass murder… You get the point. I didn’t think much about this in the past; I sort of ignored it. After all, most of what he said was fairly innocuous – JFK assassination stuff that I didn’t know was wrong at the time, 9/11 conspiracies that I used to also believe…


But then, somehow, we started into medicine. It started over discussion of a mutual friend of ours, who had diverticulitis. This mutual friend was complaining that the doctors had misdiagnosed her with the flu, and my uncle started talking about how she really needed to avoid nuts and corn and whatnot. I thought to myself, “hang on, that doesn’t sound right”, and voiced said opinion, but he (being almost 40 years older than me) rejected it. So when I got home, I looked on PubMed (the NCBI’s massive database of peer-reviewed medical publications) for diverticulitis and came up with an article on the subject showing that he was wrong (plus the odd link to WebMD, Mayo Clinic, and the NIH for good measure). His response, per email:


Thanks for checking on that!

However, my statement that doctors are groping in darkness when it comes to chronic illness stands, and if you find that assessment does not match the evidence you might still refrain from casting aspersions on its intent.
P.S. It was a doctor who suggested nuts may be a problem. Maybe it IS bullshit..
This would form a pattern through our further exchanges. When I asserted that certainly doctors are the ones most capable of understanding and discussing such illnesses, and that “groping in the dark” severely understates what medical science has offered, he gave me this reply:



Well, THAT’s something I can’t dispute – that doctors are no more ignorant than lay people about chronic illness. The problem lies in the diagnosis, which, after all, is nothing more than a bunch of words. The mere mention of a probable diagnosis can prejudice any subsequent examination or analysis. Your faith in medical institutions is reassuring, or would be were it not so inchoate. Perhaps you have not been mistreated by institutions yet, or think prestigious names or benevolent aegis are a bulwark against incompetence and corruption, but believe me, all institutions are intended, created and perpetuated to give mean little people a leg up in the “free” marketplace.


(Oh, and for those who don’t know the word, “Inchoate” basically means “just beginning to form, rudimentary”. I certainly didn’t before I googled it.)


After this exchange, her started sending me links. The first was this one. It’s basically a press release from a German equivalent of the Heartland Institute translated into English. It talks about a paper by Steinhilber and Beer, which asserts that the sun moves in 200-year cycles, and claims that therefore, the earth will be cooling soon. I couldn’t find the article fulltext myself at the time, but since I’ve found it, and my response to him at the time feels more and more justified:


You’re reading a press release translated from a german anti-AGW group. It’s basically an analogue to the Heartland Institute. When I have a little more time later I’ll try to examine the article, although neither the original nor the translation is forthcoming with even a link to the abstract, let alone the full text, and I’ve learned to be very wary about taking press releases from organizations like this at face value.

Like, just at first glance, it seems to try to explain all warming with solar activity, but ignores the theoretical scientific basis for CO2 as a driver of warming. On the plus side, like most such models, it provides a fairly straightforward falsifiability claim – according to it, temperatures should drop quite drastically within the next decade or so. This doesn’t seem to be happening, but we’ll know pretty soon whether or not the model was bunk or not. But as said, I haven’t seen the actual article yet, just skimmed the PR. I’ll check it out when I have a little while longer.


So I read the article (I might make a post about it later), but before I could respond, he messaged me back. This is where the really crazy started.


That’s the salient point isn’t it? ALL analyses come from SOMEwhere.. What is an “anti-AGW group” anyway? Is it a group that is against global warming? Or against global warming hysteria? It is facile to impeach evidence that tends to disprove cherished notions; that is the method of methodological doubt, but it must be applied to all data. In the Church of the SubGenius (www.subgenius.com) we teach Belief In All Things. Not universal gullibility, but rather an intellectual respect for any information, regardless of how arcane, abstruse or absurd because it is all part of the big picture, whether iron-clad, double-blind, peer reviewed studies, or some freak’s fever dreams.

He goes on for a few pages spewing all kinds of crap, from the implicit claim that because antediluvian temperatures were higher, CO2 couldn’t be causing warming now; to the claim that we needn’t worry because nature works in cycles; to his claims that my gonads are being irradiated (he’s actually referring to me keeping my laptop on my lap!), to the claims that background radiation is the worst thing to happen since ever and that it’s increasing due to human output… But what really bothered me was up in this first paragraph. This is a theme that goes through all of our communications, and I really should’ve just stopped there. Anyone else spot the problem? Here, lemme point it out to you.

In the Church of the SubGenius (www.subgenius.com) we teach Belief In All Things. Not universal gullibility, but rather an intellectual respect for any information, regardless of how arcane, abstruse or absurd because it is all part of the big picture, whether iron-clad, double-blind, peer reviewed studies, or some freak’s fever dreams.


Yeah… No. Adopting this methodology gives you no ability to discern between sources. Period. The fact of the matter is that not every source is worth taking seriously, and oftentimes, the sole contribution a source has to the “big picture” is “there are a lot of scared people, and there are a lot of dishonest jerks willing to take advantage of them”. But here’s the thing. Whenever someone tells you something like this, watch their actions very carefully. Usually, they talk a good talk, but when the chips are down they are astoundingly quick to straight-up reject any information that disagrees with them. This guy will quickly believe any random rumor he hears on websites he trusts, but will instantly reject any source with an actual reputation for science, education, or rational thought as biased.  And you’ll see that going on in the next part.


I tell you guys these stories to give you some insight into how conspiracy theorists think, and into the many errors in the thought processes that drive them. Because the errors are there, and they are multitude. And as bad as it feels to mock a friend, I feel this point needs to be made.