Monday, July 18, 2011

Hucksters and the Triumph of Belief over Reason

In all walks of life, whether it's academia, or the professional world, or just some guy rambling on at a bar trying to impress a cute girl with his war stories, you're going to run across someone who lies about his background, or his credentials. The most notable current example seems to be Walid Shoebat, who has paraded himself as a former bomb-throwing terrorist who became an evangelical Christian, renounced terror, and then became an expert on Islamic terrorism and fundamentalism. Many news organizations used him as a commentator and pundit over the past several years, and various government agencies - including Homeland Security - have employed him as a consultant and a speaker.

But here's the thing - a recent CNN report has revealed Shoebat to have exaggerated about his past history, at best, and to have outright lied about it, at worst (other news agencies, including the Jerusalem Post, have reported on this previously). In short, he's a fraud.

All very interesting, but as I noted above, not terribly surprising, because it happens all of the time. Thereal question is not why someone like Shoebat would do something like this (the answers are obvious - money, ego, fame... there are plenty of potential reasons), but rather why people would fall for it in teh first place, and then continue to buy into it, even when questions have been raised about the authenticity of his story?

P.T. Barnum famously said that there's a sucker born every minute, but that's not true. Suckers aren't born - they're made.

It all comes down to belief. Shoebat, like all hucksters and con artists, was spinning a story that some people wanted to believe. When he stood in front of soldiers and police officers and firemen in some midwestern state and told them that Islam is an evil religion, he was preaching to the converted. They already had their minds made up; someone like Shoebat was just giving them a veneer of supposed intellectual legitimacy for their pre-existing opinions.

It goes something like this:
Shoebat: "Secular dogma like Nazism is less dangerous than Islamofascism that we see today ... because Islamofascism has a religious twist to it; it says 'God the Almighty ordered you to do this'.... It is trying to grow itself in fifty-five Muslim states. So potentially, you could have a success rate of several Nazi Germanys, if these people get their way."

Right Wing American: "Yup. I knew it all along."
Of course, this isn't about left versus right, or science versus religion, or any other field of study or endeavour in particular, because it can and does happen to any group of people who have already made up their minds, and convinced themselves that no other position is valid. 

While we should definitely hold someone like Shoebat to account when their fraud is discovered, the individual huckster invariably comes and goes, just as individual criminals do. The real challenge is for all of us to take a hard and long look at ourselves, because the real story isn't about someone like Shoebat; it's about the people that he duped, and the triumph of belief over reason.

If we don't take that look at ourselves, day in and day out, then no matter how much we might like to think otherwise, we are all potential marks for one con man or another.

Paul Kimball

1 comment:

Okeanos Secretus said...

I have witnessed exactly what you are describing, as well as a 'Stepford' following - where people buy into something they dont believe, in an effort to establish themselves with someone else.