Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Why do you take the 'Sucker' nowhere?

P.T. Barnum is often quoted (albeit incorrectly) as saying "There's a sucker born every minute, and two to take him."

Regardless of the quote's attribution, it touches on a chain of thought that I haven't been able to fully explore.  Hence my need to write it out so I can come to an understanding of what I really thing.

I'm not particularly concerned with the first part of the quote.  I think it's undeniable that there are many people who are overly credulous, and at some point, we're all suckers (stupid P.J. with his stupid gullible joke).

But I've been thinking about the 'two to take him' part.  I completely understand why someone would become a con man.  Easy money has a powerful allure for some (again I'm unconcerned with the accuracy of the perceptions).  If someone decides to set up a Ponzi scheme, or tries the Nigerian Bank con, I can understand their motivation.

The motivation that eludes me is what drives people to put immense time and effort into frauds and hoaxes where they obtain no material, mental, or spiritual benefit.

A number of different interactions and events have prompted this question.   From friends falling for the usual internet hoaxes (Fake Virus Warnings and other scarelore) to the recent petition to have the City of Winnipeg stop putting fluoride in the city's water, I've really begun to wonder what motivates people to do this sort of thing.

If these hoaxes caused people to take action that would benefit the perpetrators, I could understand.  If they caused people to take actions of which the perpetrators would be aware (fulfilling some aberrant  psychological need), I could understand.  But these actions are shots in the dark.

And in cases like the City of Winnipeg fluoride issue, where the perpetrators could conceivably be aware of the results of their hoax, the amount of work, time, and effort involved seem wholly disproportionate to any reward.

I know that there has always been a great deal of irrational fear surrounding fluoridation of drinking water.  From the conspiracy theories of the 50's (fluoridation was a Communist plot), to the cancer/dementia/SIDS scares of today, it certainly seems to be fodder for scaremongers.

But this is more than simple scaremongering.  Entire organizations have sprung up to fight a practice that has proven benefits with only one minimal side effect (dental fluorosis).  These organizations create websites, hold meeting and actively proselytize.  They spend a great deal of time and effort manufacturing materials to support their 'cause'.

And if they were true believers, I guess I could simply categorize it as a religion.  I understand the human need for faith, and perhaps these people simply choose to put their faith in the anti-fluoride movement.  But that just doesn't track for me.

Creating the materials to support their cause involves a degree of intellectual dishonesty that, to my mind, precludes the true believer thesis.  These materials will quote a study that fully supports the safety of fluoridation, yet say that it demonstrates significant risks.  The Fluoride Action Network indicates that the US Department of Health and Human Services links fluoride to arthritis"

Joint pain and stiffness are well known symptoms of excessive fluoride intake. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, too much fluoride causes “chronic joint pain” and “arthritic symptoms.” (DHHS 1991).
 Yet when you read the DHHS report, arthritis isn't even mentioned.  Now it's possible I'm missing something, but I doubt it.

Which brings me back to the question.  What do people get out of this?  Is it simply a practical joke on a scale that I'm unable to appreciate?  Perhaps I'm simply too materialistic to appreciate the esoteric rewards of such behaviour.

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