On credulity

It should come as a surprise to nobody that the much-hyped “discovery” of a Bigfoot corpse in Georgia was revealed today to be a hoax. A common, cheap Halloween costume, some opossum entrails, a cooler, and a whole lot of overheated gullibility combined to form a perfect storm of stupid. Profitable stupid, to be sure, but stupid nonetheless.

The man who orchestrated this hoax, incredibly, has been caught doing Bigfoot hoaxes in the past…and yet, people still took him seriously.

Now, I don’t give a toss about Bigfoot. But I do think there’s an interesting lesson in here.

Folks want to believe in things like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster and astrology and UFOs and the divine love of Our Savior Jesus Christ and a whole lotta other unlikely and sometimes downright nonsensical things. And in fact we may even be hardwared to believe them. Human knowledge is a history of two steps forward, one step back; we no longer believe that solar eclipses are caused by gigantic marauding dragons pursuing the sun across the sky, but we do believe that our office mates are snippy and the coffee maker is on the fritz because of the motion of a tiny, tidally locked ball of rock with a large iron core.

All these things, from Bigfoot to psychics, are woven together by the common thread of irrationality. And no matter how many times a conman gets caught with an ape mask and a handful of animal guts, folks can predictably be relied upon to say “Well, this particular guy was a shyster, but Bigfoot still exists!”

But I didn’t actually come here to talk about Bigfoot.

Instead, I came here to talk about physics.

How are the two related? Through the common languages of money and credulity.

The hottest area of venture-capital investment in the US right now is alternative energy. Solar power, wind power, thermoelectric power–if it involves getting energy without burning stuff, people will invest in it.

And it’s in this environment that anyone with a scientific-sounding yarn and a pair of brass balls can score millions.

The problem with the Georgia Bigfoot hoaxsters is that they set the bar too low. You might make a few thousand dollars duping folks who like to believe in big, hairy ape-men running around upstate Georgia, but if you really want to score the dough, you need to think bigger. And the notion of limitless power from tap water is not a bad place to start.

This is an old-school scam, of course–I remember reading a plot in the newspaper comic Gasoline Alley a couple of decades ago that centered on one of the main characters being scammed by an elaborate con involving a car that could run on water. And today the Web is littered with Web sites offering to sell gizmos, usually for hundreds of dollars, that promise you can boost your mileage by running your car on water.

Still small potatoes, though.

Oh, no. To score for real, you gotta aim your sites not at average consumers, but at venture capitalists themselves. And what better way than by claiming to have discovered that all of modern physics is completely wrong, and that you can get limitless power from tap water by creating an entirely new state of matter?

That is exactly what a guy named Randell Mills has done, and he’s scoring big. A while back, he claimed that he has discovered a new state of hydrogen, which he calls the “hydrino,” that involves moving the electron closer to the nucleus than the laws of physics permit. It makes no difference that the math doesn’t work, nor that the book he wrote on the topic appears to be equal parts flawed math and text plagarized from other textbooks. What’s important, as any good Bigfoot “researcher” knows, is that it sounds good–and more importantly, that it talks about things that people really, really, really want to believe in.

The second part can make up for a lot of flaws in the first. We really, really want to believe that the world has meaning and purpose, and to that end we are willing to accept a great deal, and not look too closely at things that support what we’ve already decided we’d like to be true.

And a great many people want this notion of the “hydrino” to be true.

Randell Mills has been talking about hydrinos for quite some time now. Nearly twenty years, in fact. And he’s proven to be remarkably skilled at piggybacking his notion onto whatever other ideas happen to be getting attention at the moment.

When “cold fusion” was all the rage, he proposed that it worked because the hydrogen in the water was being converted into hydrinos, and the hydrinos were what was fusing. No real explanation for why this should be, mind you; but that’s a minor matter. The publicity is what’s important.

Now, with the price of oil high and alternative-fueled cars in the news, he’s proposing that fuel cells that work on hydrinos could provide limitless energy from tap water–and he’s scored fifty million dollars of venture capital funding to that end.

Never mind that in nearly two decades he’s never made this idea work. Never mind that current models of the behavior of hydrogen atoms have been verified experimentally over and over again. Never mind, even, that he’s been promising a major breakthrough since 1991, a breakthrough that’s always just a little bit of money away.

He keeps bringing in the money because investors want to believe.

And not just for obvious reasons.

Yes, it is true that the lure of owning the one invention that will bring an end to the era of Big Oil is powerful. Yes, it is true that anyone who wins on alternative energy is likely to win in the billions, at least. And yes, it is even true that the next big invention is likely to be surprising and to come from an unpredictable place.

But there’s another reason that Mills is so successful at scamming folks, and it has to do more with sociology than with technology. We all want to believe we can run our cars on water, but we also very much hate and fear science, and we all want to be able to laugh at those pointy-headed, superior scientists in their white lab jackets and say “Ha! You were WRONG! Ha, ha, ha!”

Randell Mills doesn’t exist in a vacuum. His success is very much a product of anti-intellectualism. We simply don’t like science, we don’t like the people who do it, and we want to give a giant “fuck you” to the people we hate so much. What better way than to buy into a gizmo that lets us drive cars on water and also proves all those complicated scientific theories are wrong?

And it’s not a stretch, really. Most folks are only dimly aware of hat an “atom” is, and haven’t the faintest idea of what a “ground state” is. Why not believe that it’s possible to shrink a hydrogen atom way down smaller than it’s supposed to be? And as long as we’re believing that, why not also believe that you’ll get a whole lot of power to run your car by doing it? Hey, it could happen, right?

Fifty million dollars in venture capital later, the math still doesn’t work and the idea is still bunk, but when you start with investors who don’t have the background to understand why the idea is bunk, but are itching to be able to say they helped knock a lot of know-it-all eggheads off their pedestals…well, the result really shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose.

I spend a lot of time talking about credulity and gullibility. Sometimes, people ask me why I, or anyone else, should care. What’s the harm in folks who believe blindly in Bigfoot? Who cares if people believe in things without evidence?

Randell Mills is the answer to that question. Credulity has a price. Sometimes, the price is financial; gullibility and anti-intellectualism allow people to be manipulated into parting with cash; they make for easy marks. Sometimes, the price is in human lives. Anti-intellectualism is what lets people believe that chlorinated water is bad.

All these things are related. And in the rush to believe what we want to believe, in the desire to be seduced by someone who will tell us the things we really want to hear, we sometimes forget to check our facts.