Conspiracy Theories

19 Dec

Sometimes I wonder why people go for conspiracy theories and the related phenomenon of  what I call ‘Denying’. ie holocaust denial, global warming denial and creationism (what one might call ‘Evolution denial’). Not to mention the mother and father or them all, the notion that the moon landings were a hoax. (NASA has devoted a website to countering the ‘facts’ and arguments commonly offered in support of this conspiracy theory).

It might seem that I’m lumping together some pretty diverse groups of people here, but it seems to me that there’s enough common ground amongst them for me to generalise a bit.

Now, I’m not talking here about the unproven and even slightly dotty ideas that some of us are rather fond of. I’m talking about beliefs that seem to fly in the face of all reason and evidence but are held and defended with remarkable passion by their adherents.

For example, I’d like to believe that there is life on other planets somewhere. There’s no hard evidence to support this notion and while I think that the fact that living organisms thrive in the most unlikely places on this planet makes it seem more likely that we may find life on another planet some day, I know perfectly well that this does not form a conclusive case for the proposition. I’m certainly not going to take offence if someone disagrees with me.

So what makes the people I choose to refer to as Conspiracy theorists and Deniers different and what is it that they seem to have in common?

Well consider, if you will, the following characteristics.

1/ A tendency to seize on, if not invent, trivial inconsistencies or minor infelicities in explanation or exposition as though they somehow ‘prove’ that significant chunks of scientific or historical evidence have been fabricated or misrepresented. This is a habit you often find in politicians and lawyers but it’s not encouraged in philosophy because of the risk of raising a ‘straw man’ argument that only serves as a distraction from the main issue (NB Politicians and lawyers are alike in thriving on distracting attention away from the main issue).

2/ A tendency to claim that evidence does not exist, or at least that the speaker, or writer, is unfamiliar with the evidence. (How often have Holocaust deniers and Creationists pretended that there are only a few scraps of evidence to support the historical account of the Holocaust or the scientific account of evolution through natural selection?)

3/ A tendency to cite ‘facts’ that turn out not to be facts at all, or to appeal to ‘common sense’ which on detailed examination tends to be nothing more than ignorance. (NB Aristotle’s ideas about physics and cosmology are essentially ‘common sense’ explanations based on the kind of observations that anyone can make  without the benefit of elaborate equipment. EG the Earth does not seem to move under our feet, the Sun looks like it rises in the East and sets in the West and so on. unfortunately more detailed observation has proven most, if not all, of his rather elegant ideas to be completely wrong).

4/ (And I think this is the key diagnostic characteristic) Vitriolic hostility towards anyone who disagrees with the writer/speakers views. It is somehow not sufficient for these people to prove their case, or to disprove opposing views, there seems to be a disturbing degree of triumphal spite bubbling through whenever they think they’ve scored a point. Also a tendency to over react to criticism. If you point out a failing in their evidence or reasoning it’s immediately promoted to slander or an attempt at censorship.

So why do people not only believe weird things but also seem to be so passionately committed to these beliefs regardless of the evidence?

What’s special about these ideas and what links them.

Well, obviously some of this has to do with the wider agendas that people have.

For example, I suspect that most Holocaust deniers are less concerned about the state of the historical evidence than with hostility towards Israel, or perhaps towards Jews in general. Either that or they think that Adolf Hitler was actually a rather spiffing chap and he’s been greatly misunderstood. (In a perverse sort of way, you can almost see this as grounds for optimism, because it implies some kind of recognition of the fact that the attempt to exterminate European Jews, amongst others, was in fact rather a bad thing).

Similarly one of the first people I came across who tried to suggest that the 9/11 attacks were actually some kind of CIA plot was actually an inveterate hater of the United States  and Americans in general. (She seemed to feel that this prejudice of hers was not only consistent with her socialist principles, but actually a necessary consequence that followed from them).

Needless to say the fact that she had no evidence to support her theory did not discourage her in any way. Nor did the blatant implausibility of her argument. (If you recall, the Intelligence community in the United States, and particularly the CIA, was under threat of massive reorganisation, if not disbandment, in the wake of their failure to detect and prevent the 9/11 attacks. Why would the CIA engage in a plot that nearly destroyed them as an organisation? I won’t even bother asking why the CIA would think it acceptable to kill thousands of innocent people, most, although by no means all being American citizens, the kind of people who believe these theories are generally willing to believe the people they dislike capable of anything).

The 9/11 attacks were certainly seized on by certain elements in the United States and elsewhere in order to push their own agenda, particularly the invasion of Iraq and the whole ‘War on Terror’  but I think this implies opportunism rather than evidence of complicity.

I also suspect this kind of thinking has a lot to do with a need to feel important. You might be a total nonentity, but if you’re privy to some supposedly secret history of the world, or you ‘know’ that the ‘truth’ that everyone else takes for granted is really just an elaborate fraud perpetrated by some shadowy ruling elite, then that makes you special. It’s a rather shabby form of enlightenment compared with that sought by gnostics and Buddhists, amongst others, but I suppose there’s a similar principle at work.

And I suppose this might explain some of the vehemence behind some of the weird ideas that people cling to. After all, if you give up your hidden ‘truth’, then you have to go back to being a nonentity again.

I don’t really have any conclusive evidence to support this theory. I’m not a mind reader after all. But it seems to make sense.

I suppose I need to point out, although it shouldn’t really need to be said, that I’m always in favour of everyone’s right to form and express their own opinions. There’s also no doubt in my mind that scientific thinking thrives on criticism and challenge. But there’s a difference between informed debate and a crude calumny of detailed research carried out in good faith that’s inspired by nothing more than entrenched ignorance and a desperate wish for self aggrandisement.

So I’m not attacking anyone’s right to say what they want, I’m simply exercising my right to form and express my views about the views expressed by others. This is not censorship, I have neither the wish, nor the capacity to prevent other people from expressing themselves.

This is just me taking my chance to  express my opinion.

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