More likely, the people with quite wacky beliefs really do believe them, just as Peter Bartholomew genuinely came to think he could walk through the fire; he wasn’t just doing it to own the Normans, or because of audience capture.
Political debate is a status game, certainly, while hypocrisy is also universal, especially among journalists, but the chances are your opponents really do believe what they claim, and this applies even to areas that seem to defy logic. Just as the crusaders, and countless others involved in wars of religion, genuinely did believe they were carrying out God’s will, rather than, as so many historians would have it, it was all about power or some materialist explanation.
We should take people’s beliefs seriously – yet those beliefs are often arbitrary. No doubt many Norman crusaders had a good old laugh at Peter Bartholomew dying of his burns, and the southern idiots who believed him, but had the humble mystic hailed from closer to Caen than Cannes they most likely would have believed him, too.
Whenever some political figure says something provocative or controversial, it’s common to hear others scoff at the idea that they actually meant it. Of course they don’t actually believe that garbage; they’re only saying it to get attention, or because their paycheck depends on it. That’s always a possibility, but the ubiquity of this knee-jerk cynicism indicates that this is just a subtle form of self-congratulation — I see past the subterfuge and camouflage to the hidden truth; you’re a naive mark who probably yells in earnest at the oblivious referee in professional wrestling. It’s also comforting to pretend that money, sex, and power are the only reasons anyone does anything. The world is therefore ultimately rational; nothing ever happens that can’t be explained. I’ve never agreed with this type of thinking, but as I get older, it only seems more evident to me that human psychology is capable of containing all manner of weirdness and willfulness, which is both fascinating and terrifying.