The Torture Debate, UFO Cults, and People Impervious to Changing Their Minds

Ryan Sager sees a connection:

I have yet to see a single pundit or politician change his of her position on torture or “enhanced interrogation” based on anything that’s come out since the torture memos. Isn’t that odd? Well, not if you know the story of Marian Keech. In the early 1950s, Keech, a Chicago housewife, started receiving mysterious messages from extraterrestrials, telling her that the world would be destroyed by a giant flood on December 21, 1954. However, by having faith in God, she and her 11 followers would be saved by a UFO. As you may recall from history class, the world was, in fact, not destroyed in a giant flood on December 21, 1954. So, what happened to the beliefs of the “Seekers” (as Ketch’s cult called itself)? Well, two members did leave when the prophesy went blatantly unfulfilled. But something strange happened with the rest: Their beliefs were actually strengthened. These people, after all, had made a significant investment in Keech’s being a prophet. Some had quit their jobs, sold their houses, given away their possessions. When 4:45 a.m. rolled around, with no UFO and no flood, Keech said she had a new revelation: God had spared the world because of the Seekers’ faith. Seekers poured into the streets, elated, grabbing passers by and trying to convert them. Soon after, the once-publicity-shy group started sending out press releases seeking to proselytize new believers. In the torture debate, all those with an entrenched public position are like Seekers — seeking a justification for their pre-determined position. It’s where the phrase “cognitive dissonance” comes from, and it’s on broad display in the torture debate.

Seeking justification for their pre-determined position. This is a very human trait. It’s called ad hoc  reasoning, or reasoning after your conclusion has already been set in concrete. In other words, so much the worse for any new facts! You have a thesis (the U.S. does or does not torture; UFOs are real or not real) and you make every piece of new data fit the thesis, however strained the connection between your rigid thesis and the current data. The temptation to pull away from clear-headed dispassion when looking at a matter, and to avert your gaze from hypotheses or facts not to your liking, is always real, always present. I feel the tug of this with my own UFO explorations right now. I, personally, like the idea that UFOs might be visiting us. I think it’s trippy. It also colors what I’m exploring. It has to. I’m only human, right? But you’ve got to keep your bullshit detector on high (saith I to myself).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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