Defining Nuttiness

David D. Friedman has an essay (which I just now discovered, having been reintroduced to his blog) on what counts as “nutty.” Apparently this grew out of a series of previous posts about the putative “nuttiness” of Christine O’Donnell, Republican candidate for Senate in Delaware — who, in the absence of some deus ex machina, seems in any case destined to lose the race to an avowed Marxist and “pet” of Harry Reid named Coons.

Like everything DDF writes, every word is worth reading. But let’s cut to the chase:

So what does qualify one as a nut? I think the best answer I can come up with is holding beliefs that no reasonable person with your intellectual background could hold. In practice, since one rarely knows enough about some else’s background to apply that criterion, it comes down to observing how someone holds and defends his beliefs.

There are few minds I admire as much as I do DDF’s but I don’t think I agree with him here. Some of the commenters seem to have a position closer to what I hold.

What I think is meant by “nutty” is a single belief or set of beliefs that lies sufficiently outside the mainstream of the culture. Note that my definition of nuttery makes no mention of whether the beliefs have a basis in fact, or whether or not they are justified and true (as in knowledge). Nuttiness is an entirely social construct. And it is not a binary state, but one characterized by degree of divergence from the mainstream. It is completely contextual (time and place). Copernicus was a nut for believing that the planets moved around the sun. The Wright Brothers were nuts for believing man-made contraptions could fly. People who believe that AIDS was engineered by the CIA to wipe out the people of Africa are nuts. Libertarians are nuts, relative to the totality of modern Western civilization.

It’s an interesting question whether liberals and/or conservatives are nuts. Based on my definition, and looking at recent survey results, we might say that liberals are nuttier than conservatives, since around 40% of people describe themselves as conservative vs. around 20% as liberal. However, if we restrict our reference culture to the liberal salons of Manhattan, then it is conservatives who are nuts, whereas liberals are the people “who think and vote exactly like all the people I know.”

The really amusing or interesting nuts, though, are the 3-or-more-standard-deviation nuts. These are the people who really stand out from the crowd. People who think the “white race” was created by a Satanic scientist on the lost island of Patmos, for example. Or that returning to the gold standard would solve America’s economic problems. Or that wearing an energy bracelet can improve your balance.

Maybe you could provide some more amusing examples of the truly nutty in the comments section?

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