Thursday, July 20, 2017

On conspiracy theories

It's time for me to make a few observations about conspiracy theories, if only to get all my thoughts in a row. I've been asked a few questions lately, and it gets repetitive repeating fragments. Here they can live in context, under one handy heading.

First, I need to contextualise these comments by saying they only apply to the armchair thoughts of those in the relatively comfortable embrace of "Western society". I have no experience with how these patterns of thought play out in other places. Second, I will use the conventional phrase "conspiracy theory", even though these random persecution fantasies do not deserve the term "theory". By their nature they lack the required rigour, testability, etc.

Third, I am not using the word "conspiracy" in the strict legal sense, but rather follow common usage. These conspiracy fantasies involve hundreds or even thousands of participants, elaborately-constructed plots, duping of large sectors of the media, etc. There is no doubt that small conspiracies with a very limited number of participants have existed and will continue to exist. These generally get exposed in short order. Examples include a break-in at the Watergate apartments or a meeting between the Trump administration and some Russian officials.

But I think we all know what falls under the category discussed here. The government has a UFO under wraps at Roswell. The Twin Tower attacks on 9-11 were an "inside job". Water fluoridation is a plot by a cabal of dentists. Etc.

Why do conspiracy theories exist?

People believe in conspiracy theories, despite all evidence against them, because they are selective in choosing which facts to accept. They do not have strong enough ego structure to adapt to challenges to their beliefs, nor to make change in themselves. So any contrary information is dismissed without being properly considered. Any confirming data is welcomed immediately. No equitable fact checking or testing is performed.

Belief in a conspiracy grants individuals access to a peer group that justifies feelings of persecution and reinforces belonging. This shields members from needing to think outside their controlled environment. Any contrary evidence is dismissed out of hand. "You are all sheeples!"

Such attitudes are driven by existential fears, particularly fear of the unknown and fear of death. Epicurus already wrote about these anxieties two millennia ago. He also included fear of punishment, for example beliefs in an afterlife where we might be rewarded or punished by the gods. He categorised these as "empty beliefs" and understood them to be the main source of anxiety in civilized life. (Before civilisation we had no need to invent fears, since so many threats were actual.)

Studies continue to prove Epicurus correct. For example, "researchers have found that inducing anxiety or loss of control triggers respondents to see non-existent patterns and evoke conspiratorial explanations", according to Scientific American.

The same study shows that arming oneself with knowledge can stave off these tendencies. People with more "education" are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories... though many still do. Knowledge here does not mean the mindless accumulation of facts; conspiracy theorists do that very well indeed. Instead, one must learn the logic necessary to analyse facts, to sift out the true from the false. What counts as a good source? How do we check facts? I have taught research methods at third level and, believe me, it's an up-hill struggle. That's because evidence-based processes and reasoning are rarely taught in schools. I believe we should start philosophy in pre-school, but this would contradict the requirement of manufacturing pliable citizens. (More on that later.)

Do governments need conspiracy?

Many "conspiracy nuts" (the phrase is conventional) point to the government as the big enemy, the mass orchestrator of everything from 9-11 to deadly vaccinations. This flies in the face of all evidence. What government has ever shown itself to be competent enough to manage even a small job without cocking it up? Refer back to that Watergate break-in or Trump-Russia meeting. These were very, very simple operations that left a huge trail of evidence. Governments cannot do anything (much) in secret. Nor, with all their top-heavy, creaking infrastructure, can they do anything well.

One could argue this by counter-example. What big conspiracy theory as ever, over centuries of confabulation, been shown to be true? Well, a theorist will of course say their own theory is true. So perhaps this avenue of inquiry gets us nowhere!

Consider instead whether governments have a need to operate in secret. No doubt Western societies have huge governmental bureaucracies that often serve obscured interests. Take, for example, the enormous sway the coal and gas lobbies have on government policies in the USA. Non-renewable resources have been promoted long past their sell-by date. The cost is enormous to society, perhaps to the planet as a whole. But such policies benefit those few who immediately profit by oil-drilling and coal-burning. I don't think any of this is strange or unapparent to anyone reading this. No conspiracy is necessary for the government to ignore science, ethics, and all their own experts. The machinations are (largely) out in the open.

In order to govern, states need to wrest power from citizens. This is easily done when the populace is divided against itself, as every ruler throughout history has known well. They must pit class against class, "race" against race. In Ireland we have recently been given a perfect example. There is a government campaign against social welfare "cheats". In reality, the sum lost this way is dwarfed by inefficiencies in the government-run system itself. But it is easy to demonize the poor who rely on this broken method of wealth redistribution. The welfare cheat making off with two hundred Euro is the criminal, not the banks who swindled billions.

I am sure you can come up with your own examples for the country you live in, for they are legion. Hispanics in the USA are demonized as "illegal aliens", while they work hard supporting large sectors of the economy. Etc. Etc.

Are people the enemy?

People cannot be allowed the truth that we are all fundamentally similar, with congruent goals (comfort, health, love, etc.). Yes, we also have myriad differences, but these differences are also our strengths. Unfortunately, such humanist beliefs are anathema to the state. Any philosophy that might form a real, lasting, consensual agreement among the populace cannot be allowed to develop. Intelligence is compartmentalised. Evidence-based research is all fine in the engineering building, but let's not use it to formulate public policy. Or ethics.

Conspiracy theorists often think they are fighting against the government. But their beliefs never actualise as political action. In fact, they splinter political action by considering other citizens as their enemies. Every time I hear the stupid phrase "Big Pharma" I think of the thousands of researchers who go into biochemistry or medicine to help their neighbours, or because they lost a relative to cancer, or for some other altruistic reason. Or maybe because they like the puzzle-solving aspect of science. Or even because they don't mind getting a decent pay-cheque. But all these motives are questioned by those who see them as mere cogs in a conspiracy.

Do I need to point out the psychology behind disliking others who are "better educated", know more than you do, have steady work, and enjoy what they are doing? Fear and hatred are often compensatory factors for (perceived) individual inadequacies. This system perpetuates itself, since there is always someone richer, luckier, or with more status than us. No true change can come without changing the belief system that perpetuates envy, as Epicurus and many other wise thinkers have correctly observed.

What's it to you?

This gets me to the point where I can answer the questions I face when rebutting the statements of a conspiracy proponent. "What's it to you?" some will ask, "Why can't I believe what I want to believe?" The answer is simple. Belief in falsehoods is harmful to us all. Living together in society, we need to come to some consensus, however tentative, on how that society should function. This can only be done by addressing both evidence and ethical principles. Not by inventing bad guys behind the bushes.

If a fraction of the energy spent on conspiracy theories was channelled into real political action, then perhaps governments could be held accountable for their actual (not fictional) actions. Wishful thinking, no doubt!

Behind all this is a great irony. In fighting against fictional government conspiracies, "theorists" are in fact working to further the aims of the state: divide the people, discard facts, banish logic and compassion.

So that's why I will continue to counter lies and slander on social media. Because I believe that people are better than that. I did not come into this world any better or worse than my sisters and brothers. I have no fear of some random stranger bombing my building, or poisoning my water. Instead I wish to counter the quite obvious threats right in front of my face.

In the past, I have done this through direct political action. Now, I choose to develop radical philosophy that foreground multiplicity, diversity, and embodied cognition. We all do what we can... and have a limited span in which to make the world a better place.

So, yeah, time to stop ranting on Facebook and get back to work!


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