Malignant True Believers

A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. – Winston Churchill

On the way back home from my 30th birthday, I sat next to a 20-year-old, talkative Christian missionary to India. Aside from chattering about how much she was afraid of enclosed spaces and how beautiful God’s creation (nature) and Man’s creation (New York) were, she mostly sat and read her bible. She would highlight passages and write comments like, “If Jesus didn’t say he was the son of God, why would they kill him?”

On the flight after that, I sat next to a 40-year-old man who was carrying a crying baby. I put on headphones and started writing stuff. That didn’t stop him from asking me about my tablet. I told him I used it for work, which was academic research. His immediate comment was,

“so you must have an entirely different perspective on vaccination from most of us, then.”

Having lived on Earth for over 30 years, I wanted to run away, but I was stuck. I remained stuck as he argued that injecting children with mercury was dangerous and the flu shot was a conspiracy to get money out of us. I tried to make sense of his point. Yes, medical doctors have done terrible things, drug companies have interests that are orthogonal to global health, and conspiracies have occurred. But you really have to use your best judgment and trust in the best judgment of others. It is a minor gamble to choose to believe the sum total of science over your own half-assed Google searches. Especially since the anti-science communicators are targeting you directly, whereas the pro-science communicators usually have other things to do. Here’s a fun chart:

Go Medicine!But he kept arguing. He then went off a bit of a deep end: arguing that the underwear bomber was working for the CIA because two lawyers saw somebody film him when he was getting on a plane (as if it were staged). Also, apparently Sandy Hook was staged. I laughed out loud at the last one, which is frankly an absurd, offensive claim. I challenged him on a number of points before finally comparing him to Roswell UFO conspiracy theorists. Apparently, he didn’t like that comparison, because he stopped speaking to me immediately thereafter.1

It occurred to me that these two seatmates were not dissimilar. Both truly believed what they said. Both acted with respect to their beliefs. Both probably think about their respective beliefs every day. In graduate school, when I met people who acted this way about their research projects, I called them “true believers.” I often envied them. It must be much easier to build a career if you’re a true believer than if you just think about it as a thing you do. So the grad school true believers were benign. But something about the evangelical nature of religious people and conspiracy nuts bothered me. So I made a list:


Sufficient Criteria for Malignant True Belief (in order of importance)

  • Your actions are consistent with your believe and they harm the health of those around you
    (Evangelizing is a troubling worry in this category. I tend to think it causes harm, but I might be biased based on how much people espousing their beliefs to uninterested 3rd parties bothers me.)
  • Your actions are consistent with your believe and they harm your own health (other than through lost time and effort)
  • You cannot converse about other subjects
  • Conversations are typically heated
  • You cannot converse as if your world view is not true

The criteria for Benign True Belief are the denial of all of the criteria for Malignant True Belief. I strive for Benign True Belief and run away from Malignant True Believers. And maybe you should, too?

  1. The guy’s name was Chris and claimed he owned all of the ATMs in Atlantic Canada. I would name and shame him some more, but I couldn’t find his full name after a minute of Googling and I gave up. []

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