A meditation on conspiracy theories

Friday, November 30, 2012

"Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

~ Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

People believe in all kinds of crazy things.

We are reminded of this by a remark made over the weekend about water fluoridation, a popular subject locally. Despite overwhelming evidence that fluoride properly used is a tremendous good, and despite lack of real evidence to the contrary (other than crap studies poorly done), people continue to believe that fluoride is not only bad for you, but that it is part of a conspiracy to harm us or keep us docile. Like cattle.

"Chemtrails" are the subject of a similar belief-based conspiratorial movement. Jets create water vapor trails in the sky, just as, in the summer when it's hot and you run the A/C in your car, water drips from the tailpipe. It is condensation, or "contrails," when it happens up above.

Believers in chemtrails say that our skies are being laced with harmful chemicals as part of a conspiracy to control or harm us, in the vapor trails of jets.

Actress Jenny McCarthy's ongoing battle against vaccinations in children, because she believes it causes autism, is another example of a situation where repeated scientific studies can find NO evidence linking the two things, and yet people who are on the "no vaccination" bus will remain on it, because that's how people are. (Not vaccinating your kids, by the way, only works as long as the vast majority of people ignore your theories and go ahead and do get their children their shots.)

To people of a certain age, the JFK assassination conspiracy holds endless fascination. Ask a young person nowadays to identify Lee Harvey Oswald and they'll say, "Who?" And yet dozens if not hundreds of books, and surely thousands of hours of television, have been devoted to who shot JFK and why.

On one level, believing in conspiracies is a harmless way to spend some brain-time. The internet is a blessing to anyone who's interested in UFOs or even whether President Obama, despite a mountain of evidence saying he was born in Hawaii, was actually Kenyan by birth and therefore not qualified to run the country.

On another level, however, believing in conspiracies can lead to immense tragedy. For centuries critics have accused the Jewish people of being secretly in control of big business, the banks, etc., as well as being the villains of the Christian story of Jesus' death. As a result of this unreasonable hatred, millions of Jewish people have perished.

Believing that the government is out to get us in one way or another has led to any number of paranoid pathologies. In addition to the ones mentioned above, there are dozens of websites devoted to supposed FEMA concentration camps for American political dissidents, as well as a growing survivalist "movement" involving real people with real guns playing a game in which the feds are coming to get us soon, and by golly these good ol' boys are gonna be READY when that stuff hits the fan!

(Hint: The stuff is called horses**t. Honest.)

A false belief is not considered to be knowledge, even if it is sincere. A sincere believer in the flat earth theory does not know that the Earth is flat, although he might defend that notion to the death.

Unfortunately, defending a notion to the death still doesn't make it true.

Apophenia means "the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data." It's a part of how the human brain is put together. Even if the data does have some meaning on some other level, people attribute false meaning to it. Like seeing the face of the Virgin Mary in your toast. It's still toast -- it still goes great with ham and eggs -- but it doesn't "mean" anything beyond that, not even if that lump of butter does look like her nose.

Why people are wired this way is a great source of wonder. Maybe finding patterns and connections in the world is what led us from living in caves to our current status. But it comes with a downside -- i.e., we see things even when they aren't really there.

Some psychologists have argued that even though the fill-in-the-blank mysterious evil group behind any given conspiracy is almost always perceived as hostile, there is often still an element of reassurance in it for conspiracy theorists. This is due, in part, because it is more consoling to think that complications and upheavals in human affairs are created by human beings rather than factors beyond human control.

The late lamented Robert Anton Wilson, who wrote often and well about people's eagerness to "believe" in things like 9/11 conspiracy has pointed out most people can't conspire well enough to organize a company picnic, much less take over the government. He also said the following, apropos of those who insist on believing in conspiracies:

"You should view the world as a conspiracy run by a very closely-knit group of nearly omnipotent people, and you should think of those people as yourself and your friends."

You'll be a whole lot happier if you do.

(P.S. The world isn't ending in 21 days. Sorry.)