Think About It: The tyranny of certainty, Part 3

I have not forgotten the tyranny of certainty series or my commitment to move on to Part 3, Certainty and Politics. For new readers and readers who have forgotten, I offer a brief summary; the fuller versions are available on the Sequim Gazette website: Part 1 on March 9, 2022, and part 2 on April 6, 2022.

My inquiry into the role of certainty began with the question: How did the pandemic cause millions of Americans to reject science and develop unquestioned loyalty to one notably unreliable person supported by conspiracy theory carpet baggers? (“The tyranny of certainty, Part I,” Sequim Gazette, March 9, 2022, page A-12)

Nothing new under the sun looked back to 16th and 17th centuries and scientists such as Bruno and Galileo who were respectively burned at the stake or imprisoned for views or “acts of heresy” that diverged from the certainty of church teachings that claimed Earth was the center of the universe.

I delved too into the role of certainty in human motivation by using Maslow’s hierarchy of human need, which lists security and safety as basic needs early on the scale. I pointed to the destructive invasion of Ukraine as an example of an abrupt loss of security, safety, and certainty.

Today’s example is the overnight destruction of Maui by hurricane winds feeding and turning brush fires into infernos engulfing the town of Lahaina.

In Part 2, I explored further the process of justifying the rejection of science in which the unscrupulous point to evolving science as more is known as reason to be suspicious of the facts of science, adding the step of demonizing the scientists.

In making the case for science, I wrote, “Science is more understandable when we recognize objective science is without emotion … is uninterested in the familiarity and comfort of our daily lives … challenges our certainty creating anxiety about our futures.” (“The tyranny of certainty, Part II,” Sequim Gazette, April 6, 2022, page A-14)

Certainty and politics

And I move on with more questions than answers.

Is it this cold objectivity that causes some of us to disbelieve adverse impacts of climate change such as unbearable heat, droughts and infernos are accelerated by human behavior?

Or disbelieve the role of open access to guns in school shootings?

Or disbelieve that closed access to abortion services can lead to the death of a woman whose pregnancy will kill her?

Given the facts of science and experience data, a reasonable person working with other reasonable persons would do the hard work of finding solutions with built-in understanding that resilience and flexibility is required for continual adaptation.

Yet, we cannot do reasonable work in our current environment “appealing to the bases of the political parties” who demand purity to their values and beliefs.

Although in the case of the base of the Republican party purity means loyalty to one man, Donald Trump and his values and beliefs.

Trump built his base by gathering discontented pieces of society and giving them a reason to follow him, reasonable or not. Subsequently, he pulled in the GOP leadership, who subsequently transformed the Republican Party as servants of the base.

I cannot believe that all people in that base are mean, vindictive and violent people. So what is it that establishes blind loyalty to someone who deceives? It does at least begin with the rejection of science, facts, and evidence that leads to seeking alternative explanations.

A recent opinion piece drew my attention as one answer to this cult-like behavior. The piece — “A neuroscientist warns: We’re watching the largest and most dangerous ‘cult’ in American history,” (MSN and, Aug. 5, 2023) — is authored by Seth D. Norrholm, PhD.

I recommend reading it to form your own opinion or just to remind us of the potential for violence within cults.

As examples, he references Jonestown in which 918 people died in 2001 — literally drinking the Kool-aid under the influence of one person. He cites the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol in which the victims, mainly capitol police were injured or died as a result of an attack by people acting under the influence of one person and believing they could change the results of the election.

Norrholm writes on the reasons why people become cult followers. He quotes what psychiatrist Roer Lifton calls entering a cult “voluntary self-surrender” in an effort to find certainty in their lives. They seek a controlled environment.

Norrholm refers to psychologist Leon Festinger’s explanation of the cognitive dissonance between what people who join cults believe or feel and what they do. Their own disconnect creates anxiety which is relieved by turning toward a cult belief system even though it goes against who they are. Nowadays, I hear that called “group think.”

Cults do not negotiate and compromise. Such an approach disturbs certainty and pulls them away from what has become their comfort.

As titled, Norrholm warns that the cult of Donald Trump has become dangerous because there is no other way.

So what if one major political party is a cult?

Can our current political environment with a cult-like element really be this serious and require a warning?

I think so, even more so since the world today is not providing much comfort given the rapidity of technological change and natural disasters. We are seeing rises in drug addiction and other means of quelling our sense of powerlessness and hopelessness.

As startling as that is, it is more so when we realize more children are showing up in hospital emergency rooms with thoughts of suicide.

Norrholm would make the case it is fertile grounds for cults to grow.

In the past cults may have been more dangerous for those in the cult. The MAGA cult differs in that Trump complains loudly and names his enemies when he is aggrieved.

Followers have or are taking on Trump’s revenge by threatening judges, posting the names of grand jury members and, in the extreme acting on threats such as the case of a Utah man killed in a shootout with law enforcement who claimed he was MAGA and had plans to kill President Biden.

Recently, Congressional Representative Gaetz asserted in his introduction of Trump that “only force” would change Washington.

The drive to certainty is not only tyranny, it can be lethal.

It is within our control to change the direction and plow a different ground.

Leaning back to Maslov, humans require security — basic as in the assurance of food and shelter and beyond as in a safe social environment. As he theorized, security must be in place before we can experience true love for another.

Never has it been more important to engage with each other and build a community that nurtures and provides safety, security, and a chance for human love.

Bertha Cooper, an award-winning featured columnist with the Sequim Gazette, spent her career years in health care administration, program development and consultation and it the author of the award-winning “Women, We’re Only Old Once.” Cooper and her husband have lived in Sequim more than 20 years. Reach her at