Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Part 1 - Deflections & Diversions

Tales of Human Folly, Unreason & Error

“The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.”

H.L. Menken

“There is no such thing as a classification of the ways in which men may arrive at an error. It is much to be doubted whether there ever can be”

Augustus de Morgan

If they have anything in common the following accounts might be characterised as a portrayal of irrational or unreasonable behaviour. Many kinds of human behaviour are unreasonable of course. Every sort of misconduct that interferes with the normal, moderate flow of our lives (aggression, greed, spitefulness etc} falls into this category. But the behaviour that is the principle focus of interest here is of a more specific kind, namely on self-deluded error in its many and various aspects. For students of the dottier side of human behaviour this is, naturally, a rich area. The ever-present elements of unenlightened self-interest of the kinds mentioned above, i.e. those driven by predatory, or criminal, or pathological motives, are covered too, but are of secondary interest (although, as we shall see, there is often a certain fuzziness at the edges in these matters). There are of course many different categories and varieties of irrational behaviour, but the reader is warned not to expect any serious, systematic examination of this subject. Rather, this is a loose, somewhat schadenfreude, assemblage of stories, anecdotes and potted histories, many of which are transferable and would have fitted equally well in one of the other sections of The Slight Swerve. The collection overall itself is something of a grab-bag; it could hardly be otherwise since irrational and unreasonable behaviour, like error itself, are infinite in their variety …

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Contents (in no particular order)

Ludwig and Schloss-Manie: Magnificent Obsessions I

When the Divine Right to rule fell to the eccentric Ludwig of Bavaria it resulted in the most extravagant and unstoppable building programme of the 19th century, leading directly to his countries economic ruin. But was the Dream King entirely the insane failure that is his usual portrayal?

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An Inglorious Diversion: The Deplorable 4th Crusade

Dandolo, the Doge of Venice, had been blinded as a young man in Constantinople for espionage activities. As a distinguished (and cunning) eighty year old he was presented with the opportunity for revenge in the shape of the belligerent and determined, but thoroughly disorganised, Fourth Crusade.

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The Blues and the Greens: Three Vignettes of Byzantine Life

Hostilities between two rival camps can arise for any number of reasons, but once generated may easily come to be associated with different interests or beliefs. This rivalry may then develop into a self-perpetuating, seemingly endless, cycle of conflict. An account of the curious history of chariot-racing and its team supporters, at the time of Constantinople’s Hippomania.

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Sovereign Remedies

Elixirs and quack remedies do not have a good historical record, many have been positively harmful, but none in the modern period were quite as lethal as Radium which, incredibly, was touted as a cure-all during the 1920s and 30s.

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Versions of Utopia

Ironically, wild revolutionaries frequently came up with extraordinarily conformist visions of the future. Some of these, however, were very influential and even acted out - usually with disastrous results.

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Visiting Stalin’s Utopia

In the 1920s and 30s the Soviet Union held a particular fascination for progressive intellectuals from the West. When they visited the new Socialist state they ‘saw’ what they expected and yearned to see – and the Soviet authorities, for their own reasons encouraged this illusion of an egalitarian society. The realities were very different.

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Dr. Haversteins Fiducial Folly

An account of the hyper-inflation of the Weimar period of pre-war Germany, and the leading role in this debacle of the Reichsbank’s president, whose narrow views and pig-headed obstinacy led a nation into economic chaos and political despair...

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The N-Ray Fiasco

Scientific investigations are just as likely to veer wildly off course as any other human enterprise, and for the same reasons – of personal prejudice, rivalry, the desire for status etc. This is a classic in the field.

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Wegner and Continental Drift

Alfred Wegener was an amateur geologist whose speculations on the formation of the continents was essentially correct and way ahead of their time – but these ideas were met with hostility and a reluctance to consider them seriously by the Geological establishment, particularly in the U.S.

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The Semmelweiss Tragedy

The tragic story of the first surgeon to apply antiseptic principles, and the rejection of his important discoveries by the medical establishment of the time.

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Holding Back: Rules of Engagement and Illusions of Restraint

Social codes extend to the area of conflict – wars are usually fought within an understood framework, and there is generally some sort of common agreement about what is, and what is not, permissible. But this balancing act between the aggressive and social impulses has led to all manner of incongruities.

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The Sinister Youth: Nihilism and Nechayev

The young ‘Nihilist’ Nechayev, who rose to prominence during the emotionally charged revolutionary atmosphere of mid-19th century Tsarist Russia, was the prototype of the modern terrorist/fanatic. Taking the revolutionary aims of progress, science and materialism to extremes, he developed a creed of destruction for its own sake, becoming a murderer, blackmailer and extortionist in the process.

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The Machine Gun War

Weapons are indefinitely improvable in their destructive capability. Man’s capacity for self-delusion apparently not. An account of some of the hopes, expectations and distorted views of weaponry, particularly the machine gun.

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The Lysenko Years

Under Stalin’s patronage the quack ‘biologist’ Trofim Lysenko was able to foist his ludicrous, cranky ideas on the Soviet biological establishment where they became part of the dictator’s oppressive system. As a result, the Soviet biological sciences were set back by decades.

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The Revolutionary & The Police Chief

Revolutionaries and the government agencies dedicated to thwart their activities have naturally opposed aims but, ironically, have a common interest in the derogation of power. This is the tale of the strange relationship between the Revolutionary, Sergai Degayev, and Colonel Sudeikin of the Tsarist Third Division.

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Le Fin Amour

The Medieval cult of Noble Love, with its strangely distorted values, was undoubtedly a cililising influence, leading Knights out of the brutal bellicosity of the Dark Ages.

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The Stymied Philosopher

A short account of the philosopher Bertrand Russell’s protracted struggle with a seemingly trivial paradox, one that threatened to undermine his major Opus, and his sanity.

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The Voice of Authority

The Official reassurances that ‘All is well’ cannot always be relied upon. This is an account of an extreme instance of institutional arrogance and unreliability.

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Prester John: A Tenacious Myth

At the time of the Crusades rumours began to circulate of the existence of a Christian monarch of great wealth and influence whose empire was located in the distant East, and whose vast armies were preparing to reclaim the Holy Lands for Christendom. In reality, there never was such a figure, or such an empire - but as various historical events and personalities became known to the Crusaders they were fitted to the legend, and over time the legend itself was moderated accordingly.

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Chinese Whispers

Rumour and misinformation can have serious consequences. This is an unusual account of a journalistic prank that took on a life of its own.

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* Leading Lights

The erratic assumptions made by charismatic leaders can lead to serious misunderstandings. This situation, when it appears in Education, the Sciences and Humanities may be compounded by group loyalties and an unwillingness to accept the shortcomings of a persuasive leader.

* A Perilous Occupation

The annuls of Alchemy provide an extended case-history of credulity and self-deception – and of the perils of presumed success.

* Monumental Egomania

In most instances the pathological condition that is characterized by a grossly overestimation of one’s own importance and abilities is interpreted as a compensation reflex for the lack of position and power – but megalomania is also a serious occupational hazard for those who attain positions of power.

* From Reason to Terror

The group of 18th century French philosophers known as the Encyclopedists put forward a whole range of optimistic, rational proposals for the betterment of society. Unfortunately, these benign ideas lead directly to violent Revolution – and the ensuing Terror.

* Perpetual Motion (and other perpetual obsessions)

The notion of a machine that, once started, would run forever is an illusion. The fact that such a scheme defies scientific realities (and common sense) has not deterred countless hopeful inventors from trying to achieve it. And there are other hopeless, but perennially appealing challenges.

* The Deplorable Influence of Forks (and other curious taboos and prohibitions)

Societies are defined by their belief systems - however, there are relatively few universally accepted modes of conduct, but many curious and exceptional ones.

* Narcosis and Control

Attempts at the social control of prohibited substances have a nasty habit of backfiring. The classic in the field belongs to the failures of the US Prohibition Amendment of 1920, which have been exceeded in more recent years by the ‘War on Drugs’.

* Other Notorious Backsliders

Further accounts of the unreliability of persons.

* Punishment and Reform

Punishment of wrongdoers is an old idea Reform a more recent one. In practice however these are difficult to reconcile and attempts to do so have frequently produced the very opposite effects to those intended (The Panopticon & Millbank).