You have no doubt seen those “one weird trick” ads that have spread like a cancer across the Web. In case you were wondering about why you see them everywhere, an intrepid reporter bravely clicked on them and tracked down how they work, why they work, and who is behind them.
Here is what he found:
“The link brought up a video with no pause button or status bar. A kindly voice began: ‘Prepare to be shocked.’ I prepared myself. As ‘Lon’ spoke, his words flashed simultaneously on the screen, PowerPoint-style. As soon as he started, Lon seemed fixated on convincing me to stay until the end. ‘This could be the most important video you ever watch,’ he promised. ‘Watch the entire video, as the end will surprise you!'”
The ultimate point is not to steal your money outright, but to sell you a bogus herbal cure or ineffective pills for the enlargement of various organs. This is consistent with the results of other studies on Internet spam: most spammers deliver the product they promise. It’s just that it’s not something that has any real value. Which is to say that what the marketers are really looking for is somebody foolish enough to buy a useless product.
Which turns out to be the whole key to the thing.
“Every time Lon seemed about to get to the spicy heart of the matter, he’d go off on a tangent….
“What really puzzled me about this formula—as I sat through video after video, alternately bored and enraged—is that there’s no way to shut the guy up and just buy the…pills already. The videos were all 15 to 30 minutes long, and you had to sit through the whole thing before you can hand over your credit card. I’d thought the point of all this teasing was to inspire impatience—provoking customers to pay up to end the suspense. I was wrong….
“‘The point is not always to get the customer to buy the product,’ Urminsky says. ‘It may be to vet the customer. Long videos can act as a sorting mechanism, a way to “qualify your prospects.” Once you’ve established this is a person who’ll sit through anything, you can contact them by email later and sell them other products.'”
“‘Those Nigerian prince scams are not very convincing,’ he adds, ‘but they’re meant not to be. If you’re a skeptical person, the scammers want to spend as little time with you as possible. These videos may screen people in a similar way.'”
In short, the “one weird trick” is to build a mailing list of suckers.
There is a wider application for this approach, in philosophy, in religion, and in politics. When I published my recent article on the irrationalist interpretations of quantum physics, one of my readers replied: “I received a bachelor’s degree in physics. But quantum mechanics was the end of my desire to actually be a physicist. It simply made no sense to me. So, I concluded that I must not be bright enough to be a physicist if I could not ‘get it.'” You can see how this sort of thing would have the function of self-selecting for a consensus. All physicists agree with the Kantian-Heisenbergian interpretation of quantum physics—because those are the only ones who make it through.
Something similar applies—only much more so, because the connection to reality is so much more indirect—to a graduate course in philosophy. There’s no need to kick out the rational thinkers; their brains will simply be unable to sit still through the philosophical equivalent of Lon’s endless sales pitch for a quack herbal remedy, so they just filter out through the exits.
Or in politics, you can see the useful filtering effect of airy-fairy speeches filled with bromides about “hope and change.”
Some centuries ago, the early Christian father Tertullian named the “one weird trick” for the propagation of faith, in his famous defense of what would become the Nicene Creed: credo quia absurdum, “I believe it because it is absurd.”