Earlier today someone criticized me for deviating from my typical religious criticism to target the conspiracy theorist set and I wanted to take a few moments to address this issue in a bulletin. While I suspect that the criticism came from someone who is sympathetic to this crowd’s beliefs that is mere conjecture on my part, so is neither here nor there.
But to clarify one criticism right off the bat, it’s not that I and other skeptics reject the notion that two or more people are capable of conspiring to deceive for their own personal gain. That happens all the time and instances of this are well documented. This is why we usually try to remember to clarify that what we’re criticizing is “grand conspiracy theories.” These are beliefs in colossal deceptions that require thousands if not millions of players involved in order to succeed. Some are deliberate deceivers while others are mere dupes being manipulated. It’s not that such things are impossible, but they are highly unlikely and require extraordinary evidence. It could be argued by grand conspiracy theorists that the misinformation is spread just as religions and other memes are spread. That’s certainly fair. But again, then it still demands extraordinary evidence given the enormity of the claim. And while I hear almost every day from one grand conspiracy theorist or another that they have “smoking gun” evidence for their claims, that evidence has consistently been entirely underwhelming to me as to everyone else who isn’t already a believer.
But one of the two main reasons we seem to some people to take a break from religion to attack grand conspiracy theorists is because from our point of view these grand conspiracy theories ARE religion. We don’t see any meaningful distinction between the two at least as far as truth is concerned. We feel that the claims of these grand conspiracy theorists are not evidence-based (at least not by good evidence) claims that may have begun more as proto-religions, but have with the help of evolving media become very widespread delusional belief systems (and by that we mean merely false belief systems) built on a tower of myths and misconceptions about science, critical thinking, and the universe around us.
We find many other similarities to religion. For instance, the followers of these beliefs have the tendency to develop an emotional attachment to their conclusions creating a dogmatic certainty in their claims that makes it virtually impossible to deliver any meaningful criticisms of the beliefs without being viewed by the believers as mean, disrespectful, or downright villainous as like religions and cults, critics are frequently viewed as at best ignorant of “The Truth” contained by these insulated groups and at worst willful agents of misinformation working for the very forces of darkness the group is fighting. Concordantly, members of these groups tend to show no interest in sincerely seeking out or even hearing out where their conclusions may have fallen short or in hearing any evidence that challenges their claims. As with the religious, they frequently insist that old, tired arguments have never been properly refuted by their opposition when a simple 2-minute targeted Google search proves these statements demonstrably false. They simply KNOW The Truth and if you disagree with them, you’re wrong by default. Well, I’m sorry but that’s not rational. That’s not what a critical thinker does. That’s what the religious do. An that’s what cults do.
Then there’s the issue of never being able to get a straight answer as to the mechanics of the alleged plot. They’ll tell you that “the government” or “the media” is in on the conspiracy but when you challenge the point, they’ll quickly shift to the “they’re just manipulated sheep who aren’t in on it” gambit. So then when you challenge that claim, they shift back to the “they’re in on it” gambit while repeating that you’re just not getting it over and over again. And since no one argument can challenge both claims, it’s virtually impossible to corner them and force them to stick to a claim. Of course some people theoretically could be in on it while others, even most, could just be sheep, but the degree of the alleged deception always seems to require far more manipulation by knowledgeable and deliberate deceivers than the grand conspiracy theorists will accept while the systems of checks and balances designed to prevent such corruption seems more than sufficient to catch the misinformation.
Then there’s the problem of grand conspiracy theorists embracing eyewitness testimony ( a notoriously weak form of evidence) and the beliefs of lone expert “whistle blowers” over mountains of evidence to the contrary and a far larger consensus of experts. They also notoriously have greater confidence in their own abilities to play armchair detective armed with nothing but a search engine than they are in those who have studied the issues for decades. A popular tactic is anomaly hunting, where grand conspiracy theorists seek out lots of little independent oddities that aren’t immediately explicable and insist that by collecting enough of these random oddities that they’ve built a strong case for their particular pet theory. Creationists are most notorious for using this tactic, now focusing their energy on blowing up the alleged gaps in Evolution in order to merely promote their own world view, all without presenting any positive evidence for their particular presupposed conclusion. But let’s face it. There are too many factors going on in the world for us to be able to 100% explain every anomaly we come across. And nothing short of a time machine could give us the opportunity to fully analyze an historical event enough to understand every factor that played a role in that event. Also, to the typical grand conspiracy theorist, there’s no such thing as coincidence. Never. Everything happens with some intention and that’s simply that. But in reality, there’s far more chaos than they’re willing to admit. I’m reminded of the recent film, Burn After Reading, which without giving too much away, revolves largely around a very elaborate series of seemingly important events that is merely the result of incompetence and the random intersecting of lives between random people with their own random motivations. It may not be wrapped up in a nice bow but that’s just life.
Now even a basic understanding of human psychology can explain why such beliefs are so attractive. Like with religion, they offer a satisfying reason for why senseless tragedies occur by inventing a shadowy evil force that is simply evil by nature on which to blame for these tragedies. Psychologically, people prefer simpler explanations for things, and reducing complex ethical ideas into simple black and white explanations helps fundamental critical thinking skills to atrophy, which in turn makes it easier to be brainwashed to accept nonsense. Also, people have a tendency to want to believe all our problems can be solved, so by attributing senseless tragedies to a specific physical agency that’s simply evil by design, it gives them hope that they’ll one day defeat the great evil force and all will be good. This again, sounds suspiciously like religion. Another attractive trait of these beliefs is that they feed into believers’ sense of self-satisfaction and superiority. Everyone wants to believe they’re special and everyone wants to be in the exclusive, elite club that has all the answers and is heroically fighting to save the world. Storytellers recognize the power of these motifs and that’s why films and stories in other media frequently capitalize off them knowing that the audience will identify with these characters and live exciting and adventurous lives vicariously through the characters. Bottom line: everyone wants to be Neo.
And living a secret double life feeds into the classic superhero paradigm that allows you to still be imperfect you most of the time. And as I said earlier, a major part of the deal is that the group is exclusive, elite. Not everyone can be champions of Truth and part of the resistance to save humanity. This insulation is key to the survival of these memes, which is why successful cults promote disconnection policies making the members choose between the group or their loved ones outside the group. The only options for the cult member are to leave the group that has empowered them by seemingly giving meaning to their lives and revealed their true destiny, convert their loves into the group, or disconnect from those loved ones permanently.
But people have every right to believe what they please, so the most important reason why we oppose these grand conspiracies as well as other seemingly benign false beliefs is because they do demonstrable harm, or at least are capable of doing demonstrable harm. Just some examples of how can be found here:
Now arguably the most dangerous grand conspiracy theory being perpetuated today is that vaccines cause autism and that the medical scientific community is covering it up because they’re in bed with the pharmaceutical companies. The leaders of the movement pushing these myths are as anti-science and as unmoved by evidence as any creationist only in this case they’re discouraging people from getting proper medical treatment and from giving infants basic medical necessities. We can see firsthand the level of destruction this can cause by observing similar anti-vaccine myths in Africa. If we allow these beliefs to spread through the Western world without a fight the amount of damage it may cause is incalculable.
Now one of our Myspace friends sent us some of the content of this website here:
And while some who are outsiders to these beliefs might accuse me of picking the lowest fruit, in my experience this website exemplifies what I’m finding to be an increasingly popular position among grand conspiracy theories. For instance, it begins with a traditional grand conspiracy theory and then grows increasingly more erratic, irrational, and nonsensical the further and further you go down the page, adding all sorts of completely different pseudo-scientific belief modalities one at a time: UFOs, David Icke’s amusingly absurd shape-shifting reptilian space aliens, interpretations of Biblical prophecy relating to “the Antichrist,” etc.
These days it always seems to start with just a “simple” conspiracy of thousands, right, and then if that wasn’t implausible enough they gradually seem to introduce the shapeshifting space aliens lizards and the black magic, the Antichrist, numerology. 13 families–ya don’t say? What do you fancy the odds were that it’d happen to be 13? And the Merovingians–aren’t they in vogue these days among the conspiracy set?
Now far be it from me to encourage those I believe to be delusional but I always like to ask, why if they’re so sure that David Rockefeller and company are ruling the world and will on a whim kill thousands of people to further their Bond-villain-like plans–why don’t the conspiracy theorists just stop them, like kill them or something? Oddly, as convinced as they claim to be, it never seems to ever occur to them to take any real definitive action, just collect and spread the information. And seriously, given all the exact data these individuals claim to have found, wouldn’t these have to be the most incompetent secret societies ever?