Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/03/2009

The Third Person Effect: Nostradamus and other nonsense

Please note: I invite you , of course, to read other
postings. Go to:
for the most recent, or click on “Monthly Archives”
to find titles of previous writings. Thank you.


Conspiracy theory

. . . .research indicates that people generally feel that others are more gullible than themselves [the Third Person Effect] and that others should therefore be protected from potentially damaging attempts to change their attitudes and behaviors. ***


(Disclaimer: Last night, the “History” [sic] Channel broadcast another prophetic program on the pyramids or Nostradamus, or some combination of the two. This morning, I woke up ready to write on the subject (or my need to write on the subject woke me up; sometimes I know what I need [the emphasis on NEED] to write about before I begin, sometimes I don’t).

I wonder what one must do these days to be “committed” to a mental hospital. I know in 2006 I had to move from suicidal ideation to actual thoughts of suicide (and figuring out how to do it) to end up (I am grateful) in a place where all of the doors from the inside said, “WARNING! Elopement Danger!” The doors were locked, and a few mysterious (that is, a mystery to the rest of us) people had keys. Of course, I was not crazy, simply in a depression caused by all those misfirings in my brain.

The world is coming to an end in 2012.
The Bush administration perpetrated the events of September 11, 2001 .
The CIA assassinated John F. Kennedy.
The Freemasons wrote the United States Constitution.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was the work of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The government has been hiding the truth about Roswell, NM, since 1947.
The Priory of Sion knows the truth about Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

If you believe any one (or all) of these theories, YOU ARE NUTS!

Why would any intelligent person believe them? A couple of years ago, a friend mentioned innocently (we were having a fairly serious conversation about our spiritual journeys) that he was having a crisis of faith and had all but given up any belief in Christianity. We were in the sumptuous living room of a friend—the fruit of his lucrative work as some sort of computer genius. Our host regaled us for an hour with the story of the Holy Grail and the children of Mary Magdalene and Jesus (straight, I think, from The Da Vinci Code). It was a lesson in the “truth” about Christianity, not “what-if” or “isn’t this fun to think about.” He believed every word.

David Ray Griffin, a brilliant and highly respected theologian and teacher, will come to your church or your large public hall and regale you with the “truth” about what happened in New York and Washington, D.C., on 9/11. He, too, is dead serious and believes every word he says. His “truth” is that Dick Cheney and friends (mostly Jewish) planned, set up, and carried out the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—that even those who watched (and/or filmed) airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers are mistaken, that planes never crashed into those buildings (how could they have? no parts of them were ever found). Having met Griffin years ago at the graduate school in Claremont, California, where he taught, I cannot fathom how he came to this.

Conspiracy theory

Being intelligent has nothing to do with believing idiotic ideas.

I once knew the widow of Rear Admiral Robert “Fuzzy” Theobald, author of The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor: The Washington Background of the Pearl Harbor Attack. He was long deceased when I met his widow, but the cadre of believers in his assertion that Franklin Roosevelt invited (perhaps orchestrated) the attack on Pearl Harbor was alive and well in Massachusetts. The first time I heard about Theobald’s conspiracy theory was long before when I was in college. My freshman English teacher, Mrs. Halsey, was related to Admiral William “Bull” Halsey (I have it in my mind that she may have been his widow, but that seems far-fetched; I don’t want to start another ridiculous “theory” here). At any rate, she regaled us with the story of Theobald’s book one day and made it clear how absurd it was—as part of our education in the difference between writing well and writing “truth,” whether in fiction or non-fiction (she is partly to blame for this writing). Admiral Theobald’s widow, a brilliant musician (who had stopped playing by the time I met her) and musicologist, certainly believed every word of his book. Here are two preeminent naval officers (one of them successful throughout his career and the other relieved of his duties after some military failures) and two brilliant women. One of the men and one of the women believed until their deaths that FDR plotted the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the other two did not.

The Mayan Calendar! I used to be amused by and slightly interested in the dire predictions of the end of the earth in 2012, based on the prophecy of Nostradamus and corroboration by the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. However, if the History and Discovery Channels have one more two-hour “special” preparing us to die in 2012, I will sell (or give away) my TV.

Humans are, by nature, experts at finding patterns whether they are real or not.****

Conspiracy theorists are humans acting as humans do—attempting to find patterns where none exist. Since the Third Person Effect is fully operative (“…people generally feel that others are more gullible than themselves…”), those who are convinced they are not gullible, that they have either figured out the truth or are among those who are intelligent enough to figure out the truth, set out to protect the “gullible” by announcing the “truth.”

Robert Theobald, David Griffin, my friend of the Da Vinci Code conspiracy, and countless others want to establish patterns that explain why the world is the way the world is. One of the most amazing aspects of this nonsensical need to force the random world into a pattern one can see, understand (and, perhaps, manipulate) is that it takes a certain amount of intelligence to accomplish it. Explaining the world is not for dummies! And, in fact, a certain amount of education as well as intelligence is helpful:

[Research] here was to show why a priori theories, that is, preconceptions and mental stereotypes due to education of culture, are not only misleading because they are erroneous; they also make people unable to interpret new contradictory facts; in other words, they make people blind to the outside world. *****

Robert Theobald was a committed conservative free-market isolationist of the Pre-World War II variety. His stereotypes due to his “education of culture” misled him to believe that liberals of the FDR stripe had to keep their political power base from slipping, so they must have been responsible Pearl Harbor. David Griffin, opposite from Robert Theobald, is a liberal free-thinker, and is misled by his conviction that the Neo-Conservatives could be up to no good for this country, so, to make sense out of that conviction, he must believe a theory that fits his educational culture.

I only wish these people would stay off TV long enough for me to get some sleep.

We must bear in mind the influence of culture on the categories we use to understand examples and the impact of education on our background knowledge. Furthermore, our mental stereotypes bias our perception of reality. Lastly, our personal experience of life determines the very types of examples that we consider. *****
*** Douglas, Karen M., and Robbie M. Sutton. “The hidden impact of conspiracy theories: perceived and actual influence of theories surrounding the death of Princess Diana.” The Journal of Social Psychology 148.2 (2008): 210.
Russo, Chris, and Joe Rudy. “How we staged the Morristown UFO hoax.” Skeptic [Altadena, CA] 15.1 (2009): 10.
***** Ganascia, Jean-Gabriel. “Reconstructing true wrong inductions.” AI Magazine 29.2 (2008): 57.



  1. I remember aged about 12 when my mother told me about having read a book when she was in her teens(she’s now 74) about the idea of Jesus being married etc. At the time it came as a shocking thought but now, I think, why not?
    As for the Mayans, well, we had all this panic when we came to the year 2K didn’t we?


  2. Other views of reality:

    “man has need of the word, but in
    essence number is sacred.” Carl Jung

    “our primary mathematical intuitions
    can be arranged before we become
    conscious of them.” W. Pauli, Nobel

    “if in the morning I receive a message
    from myself the night before, informing me that a world exists
    around us that we barely sense,
    I say, listen closely you son-of-a-bitch of the moring; this stuff is real.” Carl Sagan….

    “let us hope that the moon is still
    there, even when we’re not looking
    at it.” Einstein….

    “it is in the nature of reality, that
    anyone can experience that which
    is least understood.” TDL


  3. […] couple of days ago I couldn’t figure out why Sumnonrabidus got so many hits, especially since the post that garnered all of those hits is from 12/03/09. I opened that post—Duh! It’s about conspiracy theories, especially the […]



%d bloggers like this: