Folk beliefs of 21st century northern California: A conceivable ethnography
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
Technology has united humanity into an increasingly uniform material culture, while simultaneously fragmenting perceptions of the world into an increasingly large number of mutually irreconcilable niches.
Everywhere has the same Starbucks, but never before in history have so many people lived in such intimate proximity, all patronizing the same Starbucks, while maintaining such radically different beliefs. Rather than uniting humanity in a cohesive worldview, the internet is sequestering those who share cognitive biases into distinct information spheres, resulting in progressively more extreme manifestations of those biases.
This isn’t happening because of an intrinsic aspect of technology per se, but because people are born different. That people are born different has been a constant source of anxiety and ideological crisis throughout modern history, and as a result most dialogue—whether it is about peoples’ varying perceptions of pop stars or mass incarceration—lacks terms to talk about how people are different, or what it means for the world. But people are very different, and it means everything for the world.
For instance, granting that the reasons are numerous, one of the reasons the world will probably end is that the vast majority of people troubling their heads over existential threats like climate change and nuclear war typically, when attempting to affect outcomes, operate in a strategic framework that assumes everyone is born the same, and that all difference is produced by social conditions.
A rational basis for this notion has never existed, but its emotional appeal is so potent that most energy devoted to ‘social science’, for most of the time it has existed, has been wasted either operating on its tenets or refuting it. The moral appeal of the blank slate theory of humanity is enhanced by its simplicity. ‘Everything is a social construct’ is a monolithic axiom that can be applied to every situation with equal plausibility when you simply don’t let other forms of knowledge intrude. In contrast, explanations which involve physical reality also require that one learn, say, math, and that one’s explanation of, say, cross-cultural gender roles not conflict with one’s observations of hunting customs in the Amazon or factory conditions in China. As a result, social determinist accounts tend to exist in fragmentary and mutually irreconcilable form.
In their 1989 essay “The Psychological Foundations of Culture”, bemoaning the endless permutations of nature vs. nurture that had thwarted most progress toward understanding humanity at the time they wrote, the evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides phrased it thus: “After more than a century, the social sciences are still adrift, with an enormous mass of half digested observations, a not inconsiderable body of empirical generalizations, and a contradictory stew of ungrounded, middle-level theories expressed in a babel of incommensurate technical lexicons.” (1)
This tendency towards fragmentation and mutual incomprehensibility has been observed by biologically-oriented thinkers repeatedly, who often describe their own worldview in terms of cohesion and interrelationship in order to contrast it with the schismatic theories of social constructivists—Tooby and Cosmides call their model the Integrated Causal Model, the animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz called his scientific paradigm Monism, and the evolutionary theorist E.O. Wilson once wrote a book called Conscilience: On the Unity of All Knowledge.
A non-trivial degree of complexity and cognitive challenge exists within integrated scientific explanations that simply does not exist in social constructivist ones, and it is cognitive challenge most people have not endured. As a result, most people really don’t have a basis for evaluating the many specific arguments and general modes of reasoning social constructivists have created, and certainly don’t explicitly think about which arguments and modes of reasoning they may have adopted from them.
A bizarre cultural process has unfolded where everyone is reiterating the core tenets of academics they’ve never read. No one reads anthropology, but everyone arguing about identity on the internet uses terms and conceptualizations taken straight out of the introduction to an ethnography, wherein the anthropologist assesses their own culturally contingent frames of reference and acknowledges their understanding of others’ experience is imperfect. No one reads Foucault, but everyone is increasingly convinced his cheeky little aphorism ‘language is oppression’ is fundamentally true.
This is true for adolescents who grew up on the internet and are having their first argument about sexual identity, but it is true for adults with good intentions and advanced degrees. In years of political organizing against the fossil fuel industry and the climate crisis, I never encountered a meeting or a group where the strategy was based even partially on the understanding that people have a definitive nature, and that people are fundamentally different. Mostly, I encountered earnest disavowal of the notion that people have innate tendencies towards, say, wanting to put immigrant children in cages vs. wanting to go to yoga vs. wanting to fight for life on earth. But mountains of evidence say unequivocally that they do (it’s also intuitively obvious, if you don’t want to read a bunch of science; all you need is to not have an ideology in conflict with your senses).
The ideological landscape is far more nuanced than the familiar binary of left and right, but the left-right divide is the most concise and powerful illustrator of the innate, biological character of political ideology specifically and varying perceptual tendencies generally.
Political orientation has genetic and neuroanatomical corollaries. Scientists can predict a person’s left-right orientation by looking at their brain with an fMRI scan. Those on the right have larger amygdalae and insulae—brain regions responsible for the experience of fear and disgust, respectively—than those on the left. Those on the left have more developed anterior cingulate cortices, a part of the brain that monitors external conditions for conflict with habitual behavior. (2) As one would expect, people on the right therefore have a greater physiological responsiveness to frightening or disgusting stimuli—hook them up to a machine which measures emotional arousal through skin conductance or blink amplitude, while they look at pictures of spiders crawling over people’s faces or maggots feeding on an open wound, and they quantifiably freak out a whole lot more. (3) They also respond much less strongly than leftists to images of cute kittens and children playing and other things people generally like. As one group of researchers phrased it, rightists have a generally aversive cognitive disposition, and leftists have a generally appetitive cognitive disposition. (4)
There is no gene for politics. As one would expect when the differences between people map to something as fundamental as brain structure, the underlying psychological frameworks from which left-right ideology derive are fundamental, and shape perceptions of the world far beyond the domain of politics. Leftists are less clean than those on the right, have a greater appreciation of complex or ambiguous art, report a stronger desire for stimulation and novelty, have better reading comprehension, and otherwise diverge from rightists on a wide array of core psychological traits. (5)
It’s hard enough to imagine that people’s positions on, say, military invasions and welfare and mass incarceration were arrived at through a process of rational deliberation, because you can predict one position from another despite that they are logically unrelated. But it’s truly impossible to imagine ideologies coming from rational processes when these ideologies also correlate to how afraid people are of death, how likely they are to report desiring ‘an exciting life’, and who they are related to.
When asked, or when arguing about politics, most of us claim a rational basis for our positions, but this largely reflects the psychological need to believe our deepest intuitions about the world are valid. What is actually happening is that our innate psychological templates direct us toward an ideological position, and the rational parts of our brain leap in to do the work of justifying it.
That the internet has allowed people to engage in increasingly gratuitous forms of this process, coming to increasingly self-referential and mutually incomprehensible forms of left and right politics (as well as increasingly self-referential and mutually incomprehensible forms of culture in general), is well documented. As one would expect—considering that the psychology which produces right wing politics is more fearful, less concerned with novelty and exploration, and demands greater levels of certainty and cognitive closure than leftist psychology6—the right-wing media ecosystem is more insular and densely connected than the left-wing media ecosystem.
You’ve probably seen the types of network maps that illustrate this point before. The nodes of the network can be anything—people, websites, physical infrastructure—and the size of the node indicates how many connections go into it. In the case of a map of websites, this means the size of the node, designated by a circle, indicates how many people visit a website. The other feature of the map is proximity. Close together nodes are visited in succession, or linked directly one to the other, more often than far away nodes. Because no one goes to every site on the internet, what this means is that different clusters of nodes represent different populations of internet users who access different sets of information.
After the 2016 election, researchers at Harvard released a study, complete with horrifying network map, showing the process of the right-wing talking itself into increasingly crazy versions of its own nonsense. There were two basic features of this process.
First, between the 2012 and 2016 elections, the websites that Republican voters visited were increasingly on the far-right and conspiracy-oriented. Center-right entities like the Wall Street Journal, which have the same cognitive biases as their further right counterparts, but which share reasoning processes and evidentiary standards with center-left sources like the New York Times, declined considerably. Sites like InfoWars, which simply do not share any epistemology with other regions of the information landscape, got a whole lot more popular, and played a decisive role in shaping right-wing voters perceptions. (7)
Second, these changes were asymmetrical. The contraction of information sources that has occurred in concert with the center of gravity in the right-wing media landscape shifting much further right (and further toward theories involving reptilian hominoids) is not mirrored on the left. The familiar claim that society is generally becoming more polarized overlooks this asymmetry. Those on the left are much more likely to access content from other, far-flung corners of the left. A reader of It’s Going Down or the Earth First! Newswire is also likely to read Vox and the Washington Post. If a process analogous to the consolidation of right-wing media sites occurred on the left, it would not just be true that many people started reading IGD and EF! Newswire, it would also be true that people stopped reading things like Vox and WaPo to avoid threats to their worldview.
Of course, this process, of the emergence of increasingly self-contained information spheres, is not restricted to politics, but is ubiquitous. It doesn’t require versions of reality that are explicitly in conflict or irreconcilably different. The information landscape is also fragmenting in such a manner that different frames of reference and emphases simply become primary, and any information that gains attention within them must be oriented toward these priorities. I have encountered this reality constantly trying to get people to pay attention in a useful way to climate change, but it is also true of things people aren’t as historically prone to ignoring, like nuclear war and humanitarian crises.
2017 and 2018 were years of terrible atrocities and historic nuclear threat, but these facts didn’t register in anything like the same large-scale and socially cohesive way they would have a decade before. An early 2018 piece in The Atlantic called ‘The CNN effect dies in Syria’ (the ‘CNN effect’ is a 90s term for the ability of the 24-hour news cycle to inundate comfortable people with enough images of suffering that they want something to be done about it) described the reasons for the lack of more widespread outrage to slaughter in Syria: “… we have a fragmented mediate landscape: different images, different narratives, no facts beyond doubt.”
For many people, the overwhelming barrier seems to be the fragmentation per se, as opposed to truly conflicting narratives. The incredible diversity of different information spheres, each so tailored to unique cognitive and cultural tendencies, is such that the knowledge that the world is closer to nuclear war than it has been since the 1950s, for instance, simply doesn’t register. For this to occur, one would be required to craft communications which appealed specifically to the dog show realm of Instagram, and also the realm of Instagram where photos of weed are paired with alluring images of women with tattoos, and a separate communication for the Reddit forums where people debate the true nature of extreme black metal and post-minimal electronic music, and still another for the Facebook groups where the queer identity of fat people of color is constructed, and so on, into infinity.
Again, this isn’t happening because technology intrinsically fragments perception. What’s happening is that the incredible array of distinct perceptual styles people are born with are being channeled, through technology, into more self-contained, and therefore absolute, versions of themselves. That such differences would become more evident as society becomes more complex makes particular sense when one considers that the right-left divide, likewise, only emerges once societies cross necessary thresholds of technological and social complexity.
Psychological innateness is often revealed by covariation, by the tendency for a belief or pursuit to coincide with other beliefs and pursuits. If one looks not at a map of political websites, as in the Harvard study, but simply a map of the internet (a number of such mapping projects exist, such as the aptly named internet-map.net), what the clusters of websites essentially reveal is cognitive covariation, the innate sets of interests different people possess. Scientific literature databases are closer to art websites than to conspiracy theory websites. Conspiracy theory websites are closer to Ponzi scheme websites than to cooking blogs (indeed, Ponzi scheme nodes are often immediately adjacent to conspiracy nodes). Cooking blogs are closer to left-wing sites than sports blogs (indeed, Democracy Now! is pretty much surrounded by cooking sites), and so on.
Without the internet, the number and nature of innate cognitive niches people occupy would be much less easy to see, because geography and cultural processes that require proximity mediate the expression of different niches. The internet allows the one person who likes punk rock in Fort Benton, Montana to find others who do, but a logical corollary of this is that it allows the tiny number of people who see a mass shooting and immediately conclude it’s a hoax to find each other and confirm one another’s intuitions. (In the case of some conspiracy theory subgenres, it is particularly obvious that information spheres reflect innate cognitive tendencies, because they unite people who share a particular form of mental illness).
There have been many writings about this fragmentation of belief systems and sources of knowledge, but they typically dismiss the clear role of biological innateness in the phenomenon being described. A David Roberts piece called ‘America is facing an epistemic crisis’, based on the Harvard study of the 2016 election, received widespread attention, and since the age of postmodern identity politics really began in earnest on college campuses in the early 2010s, there has been a steady litany of writings by professors expressing consternation at the loss of shared sources of knowledge among their students.
The screaming irony of this is that the core premise these dismayed western civilization/liberal democracy types are operating on—that humans are essentially rational creatures, who have been moving through history towards an inevitable consensus since the Enlightenment—is just as unscientific, based on just as overtly tribal an epistemology, as evangelical Christianity. The ideological insistence on human rationality places its defenders in the constant position of being surprised. They are surprised, for instance, by the fact that fascism retains its enduring appeal, even after we supposedly all had a big conversation about it in the mid-20th century and decided fascism was bad. They are surprised that people don’t believe in climate change or evolution, despite that science has been steadily accumulating results for centuries while people’s belief systems have been steadily developing in completely unrelated directions.
The 2017 and 2018 wildfires in California, which set records for mortality and acres burned, blanketed the west coast in so much smoke plants died from lack of sun, and produced a vortex of flame called a fire tornado, are as good an illustration as any that the Enlightenment-era notion of inevitable human progress toward a single rational belief system has completely failed to manifest. A hypothetical anthropologist, capable of time travel or cryogenic sleep or some other wonder of science fiction, who made a succession of trips to northern California—say, at the end of the last ice age, 1,000 years ago, 100 years ago, and during the 2018 fires—would find a landscape of belief more complex, hyper-local, and mutually irreconcilable on the last trip than on any previous.
Of course, the first point of sharp perceptual division would be between people who saw climate change as the driver of the fires and people who don’t, but among those who don’t explicitly deny that it is happening, the range of climate change perceptions is vast. Scientific polling consistently shows that most people who accept its reality know virtually nothing about it and rank it low among their concerns (these numbers began showing their first signs of upheaval amidst the overtly cinematic storms and fires of 2017). A very tiny minority of those who ‘believe in’ climate change see the mass incineration of forests as one of a few phenomena, like melting permafrost, which will amplify climate change to levels that caused 97% of species to go extinct in the past, even if fossil fuels stop burning. In other words, a very tiny minority of people, many of them with heads full of numbers directly taken from scientific papers, experienced the 2018 fires as a stage of the apocalypse, as a guarantee of the inevitability that most people and species will die, or a very strong indication that moment of inevitability is a few breaths away.
As previously described, the vast majority of people outside the tiny echelon who experienced the fires as apocalyptic inhabit regions of the information landscape where other concerns, be they films that recapitulate the aesthetic highlights of growing up in the 1980s or Facebook arguments about whether looking at someone is a form of rape, prevail. But those who are just as obsessed with the fires as I am, but who would never trust the kind of science that involves math and peer-review, provide a window into how exquisitely hypercomplex the landscape of belief has become.
To some people the fires were apocalyptic, to some they were concerning, to some they were to be ignored, save when donning a respirator to walk through the parking lot from the car to the store. But to others, the fires were caused by lasers in outer space. If you’re a defender of human rationality, you’ll probably be surprised to learn that the most common YouTube search terms related to the fire had to do with lasers,8 and that there are two variants of the theory in manifest but unacknowledged conflict, one in which lasers simply started the fires, and one in which the space lasers were the actual physical means by which cars melted, horses and humans died, and landscapes blackened.
This lattermost claim is arguably a remarkable development in the history of conspiracy theories, because it contradicts the hundreds of hours of footage people took of … well, fire. To claim a school shooting is a hoax based on vaguely intuited inconsistencies is still a degree closer to a consensus version of reality than claiming, based on spatial patterns of destruction, that a fire could not have caused the destruction, when there is video footage of fire doing exactly that. Our purpose, however, is not simply to mock this particular belief and its development but use it as a window into a broader network of overlapping, interrelated and rapidly developing beliefs.
The space lasers are new, but are tightly clustered with a number related conspiracy theories in the weather control genre. People who believe wildfires are caused by secret weapons in orbit are particularly likely to also believe that the HAARP atmospheric research facility in Alaska is a government weather control program, and that airplane condensate trails are full of nefarious chemicals which likewise determine whether sun shines or rain falls.
Belief in any or all of the weather control conspiracy theories is highly predictive, essentially a guarantee, of belief in other conspiracy theories, but I am convinced there are no conceptual tools, no forms of data visualization or summarization, which meaningfully and comprehensibly group or classify these various cosmologies. Some beliefs covary more than others—someone who believes that Wal-Marts are prototypical mass prison camps and are connected by an underground network of tunnels might think flat earth theory is ridiculous, but is fairly likely to believe that FEMA and the UN are totalitarian conspiracies. However, this covariation is difficult to reduce to any overarching theme or process of reasoning—it is difficult to predict from belief in either a flat earth or mass Wal-Mart incarceration whether someone will believe, for instance, that sociopolitical elites are reptiles.
Assessing the websites of conspiracy theorists in search of a unifying psychological tendency or behavioral trait without a direct relationship to the theories themselves—in search of cognitive covariation which can tell us something about the underlying mental frameworks that orient to such theories—the most conspicuous and immediate point of unity is poor graphic design. This happens to be funny, but isn’t mentioned specifically for comic effect. Considering that people who run coffee shops, sell socks with knit images of bacon on them, make indie rock, or do virtually anything else all find the burden of making websites (or paying someone else to) which adhere to a few very broad design standards perfectly amenable, it is highly psychologically revealing that virtually everyone writing about directed energy weapons and the role of extraterrestrials in Egyptian architecture opts for dense text lacking margins, against a white background, typically with the garishly-colored hypertext links so characteristic of amateur websites of 20 years ago.
This probably isn’t quite as simple as conspiracy theorists being messes. It probably has something to do with a general sense that conventions of presentation and standards of discourse don’t matter, and this probably reflects a particular variety of alienation. The unifying psychological need exhibited is to have a different version of reality than whatever feels most like the consensus, for the conspiracy theorist to feel like they see something others are too stupid or acquiescent to see, which frees them from the burden of playing by the rules.
This is not a truth restricted to political ideology, because most people on both the right and the left alike are baffled by science. This is not to say that left-right varieties of these worldviews don’t exist. The notion that human evolution and/or social affairs are directed by infinitely more powerful nonhuman entities, for instance, has a version characteristic of the right’s more fearful and hostile outlook, in which insidious reptiles control us, and a version in which the left’s more xenophilic tendencies are expressed, in the form of benevolent spiritual entities who emerge occasionally from Mt. Shasta. Belief in these right-left versions of aliens might correspond to more conventional right-left positions—unsurprisingly, a believer in hostile reptilians might be more likely to support a US-Mexico border wall than one seeking contact with ascended beings of light—but ultimately, a believer in either form of aliens is likely to believe climate change is a hoax to distract from the chemtrails, and that Monsanto is poisoning everyone. In other words, to find enemies in conventional targets of both the left and the right.
Since 1992, in the hybrid cultural landscape where rural conservatives who do not believe in evolution meet those who believe human evolution was guided by psilocybin mushrooms, I have watched the folk beliefs of northern California evolve. In that time, the human genome has been sequenced and thus the interrelationships of populations have been discerned, the operations of the brain have been mapped in increasing detail, and results have steadily accumulated indicating it may very well already be too late to prevent wholesale, self-perpetuating ecological collapse. None of these developments, nor any of the myriad other wonders and horrors produced by science per se, or rational thought in general, has had much of an effect on the evolution of these beliefs, nor on the beliefs of people outside of both northern California and conspiracy theories.
When the notion of rational humans undifferentiated by anything other than social conditions first came into vogue, at the outset of the Enlightenment, it was arguably already dubious. Why posit an inevitable evolution away from the superstitions that have always plagued humanity without clarifying why they have always plagued humanity in the first place? But now that the most common YouTube California wildfire searches are related to lasers in outer space, and the number of people who believe the world is either flat or ruled by reptilian-hominid hybrids is steadily growing, the notion is simply ridiculous.
And yet, the ridiculous notion prevails. The undifferentiated human pervades everything from art manifestos to political strategies, positing a general reaction that ‘people’ will have to a given statement or action (typically, the ‘people’ in these statements are exceptionally self-referential).
In a world where biological evolution was going to continue on its current foundations—a world less imperiled—the ability of technology to cohere people with a given set of cognitive tendencies into a self-contained universe would likely play a huge role in generating even more unique subspecies of humanity than already exist. This process indisputably already began, for instance, in the United States with the phenomenon of geographical self-segregation by cultural and political preference, and has continued every time someone meets and reproduces on the basis of either the psychometrics generated by dating websites or via contact on any other corner of the internet they have self-selected into. Truthfully, on some level I would anticipate this with joy. It would be fascinating to be able to talk to people with even greater innate cognitive differences, particularly because cognitively modern humans replaced (or exterminated, depending on who you ask) the myriad other hominoid species that were distributed around the globe when we left Africa ~60,000 years ago.
But in a world where evolution doesn’t seem all that likely to continue on its current foundations—in a world that’s on fire—the indisputable reality of people’s innate cognitive tendencies and limitations should inform what potentials we perceive for beauty, adventure, and survival. The insistence on humans as blank slates who can be reasoned with all the way to utopia is born out of emotional need, and like many notions born out of emotional need, when we divest ourselves of it, we experience not only the anguish, but also the agency, that accompanies living in truth.
Tooby, J. and Cosmides, L. “The psychological foundations of culture.” In: J. Barkow, L. Cosmides and J. Tooby, eds. 1992. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kanai, R., Feilden, T., Firth, C., & Rees, G. (2011). Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults. Current Biology, 21, 677–680.
Oxley, D. R., Smith, K. B., Alford, J. R., Hibbing, M. V., Miller, J. L., Scalora, M., Hatemi, P. K., et al. (2008). Political attitudes vary with physiological traits. Science, 321, 1667–1670.
Dodd, M.D. The political left rolls with the good and the political right confronts the bad: connecting physiology and cognition to preferences. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, Vol. 367, No. 1589, The Biology of cultural conflict (5 March 2012), pp. 640-649.
Jost, J. T., et al. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 339–375.
Jost, J.T., et al. (2003). ibid. I believe this 2003 meta-analysis is the most commonly cited description of the psychological distinctions between left and right. Another important review is: Hibbing, J. R., Smith, K. B., & Alford, J. R. (2014). Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37, 297–307.
Faris, R., et al. Partisanship, Propaganda, and Disinformation: Online Media and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. Research Publication No. 2017-6 August 2017.
Haskins, C. “YouTube lets California fire conspiracy theories run wild.” VICE Motherboard. Nov 21 2018. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/43937d/youtube-lets-california-fire-conspiracy-theories-run-wild