I had the idea to do an Ask Kevin series. Whenever I get a question I want to spend some time answering, I will write about it here.
I was asked:
A lot of my psychological examinations of quacks and their followers are based on my own experiences of being a follower of many quacks. My first foray into the nutrition space was Paleo, and that lasted 10 years. There is a lot of quackery in Paleo circles. I have been up and down conspiracy lane so many times, personally, and to many great extremes.
I have disbelieved that LDL caused cardiovascular disease. I have hated Monsanto and glyphosate. I have believed the low-fat guidelines caused the obesity epidemic. I have thought we should all return to a pastoral way of life and jettison all industrial agriculture. I have thought that medicine is a profiteering scam, a way for elites to exploit and oppress everyone else.
So when I write about the psychology of quackery, I am often writing about my old self.
Another source of mine is Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, where Arendt examines the rise of Hitler. Parts of Arendt’s analysis apply to any fake news phenomenon or any quackery. The analysis does not apply just to the Nazis. She addresses the popular appeal of lying in perhaps unparalleled depth, and I draw from that in making sense of my own experience and what I continue to see.
That said, I think there is some confusion latent in the question. So I will try to flesh out the psychology of lying among quacks in greater detail here:
When a lie is particularly subversive of something you hate, that can make it attractive and funny. Hearing such a lie is a relief. It’s like a weapon thrust into a perceived enemy or oppressor. This relief, this sense that an oppressive norm has been violated, this is what makes it funny.
Lying in a particularly subversive way can be very funny. This is the sort of motivation behind the “humor” of 4chan or of alt-right troll armies. Or the 2016 Trump campaign. Part of the reason its lies were appealing and sometimes very funny was because they were so subversive.
That these were lies does not register as lies to people locked into this way of seeing the world. To them, this is not a contest of facts. This is a contest of power. In a contest of power, the point is to violate the enemy, and the truth is secondary. Or rather, the truth is subsumed to the contest of power. Truth is what wins. Because the enemy is wrong. Whatever can beat this enemy is true.
Resentment or hatred drives this way of seeing the world.
Sometimes the best way to win the power game is to lie. In fact, being a brazen lie is exactly what is most likely to win the game: it opens a new hole, a new front. It also distracts. A hundred lies are like a hundred missiles, and they eventually become overwhelming. A multiplication of lies can be appealing to those engaged in The Fight. They might not do it themselves, but they will welcome and support those brazen enough to do it. This is in part how the constantly more extreme forms of health ideologies are getting their footing: they are building off of less extreme versions of themselves, iteratively.
For instance, carnivore from keto from Atkins from Paleo. Robb Wolf was long a supporter of Shawn Baker.
Being a brazen lie is also what makes it funny. Did he just say THAT? Of course, because it may contain a bit of truth, indirectly, the lie is justified. It isn’t completely false, and it is effective.
Put another way, the enemy is evil; therefore, anything that harms him is right, good, and therefore true. Something that brazenly harms him, an outrageous lie, is all the more relieving and therefore funny (and good). If the enemy is sufficiently evil, then the more lies heaped against him, the better.
Somebody trapped in this mode of thinking sometimes does and sometimes does not have the capacity to detect lies. If they are unintelligent or lack self-awareness, they do not have the capacity. If they are intelligent and sufficiently cynical, they can lie because they are earnest in their lies. They think they are doing the right thing. This is not because they think that lies are good, but because they think that lies against the enemy are good.
So to answer the question, whether the person really believes that their guru is lying is a case-by-case situation. The intelligent person trapped in this way of thinking does it with some self-awareness (and is thus creepy); the unintelligent and unreflective one believes the lies and is mostly or entirely unaware that they are lies.
Most people are not at the extreme ends of this way of thinking, but it does seem to be becoming more common. Such people do not have the capacity to think in terms of “truth”. That is, they cannot criticize their own closely held ideas. Because they cannot self-criticize, their thinking will always take the form of conflict: they will always be trying to undermine their enemies, and in sufficiently extreme cases, even through lying or in endorsing their leaders’ lies.
This way of thinking is entirely of a different character than that of the scientist and is mendacious in its very core. But it is not experienced as bad by the person thinking this way. It is experienced as good. And in many cases, the lies will not be readily detected by the person endorsing them. Truth, as something arrived at through a careful and impartial examination of the facts, is not even a concern. In a way, to such people, such a notion is absurd. They are engaged in a battle of good versus evil. There is no room for such a notion of truth; indeed, such a notion of truth itself seems dishonest.
To understand this way of thinking, one must understand that truth for such people exists along an axis of ideology, not of impartiality. The ideology reigns supreme; it is the unquestioned truth; and those who follow it are its foot-soldiers and servants. Those who ask for critical thinking are the real liars, trying to conceal a “truth” that is easy for everyone who is not blind (or lying) to see.