The Conspiracy Paradox
Conspiracy theories are often treated like weak explanations, easily debunked. This misconception only makes their webs stronger.
This the second post in a series on the pandemic and its impact on progress and problem solving. In the last post, we looked at ad hoc rationalizations and their most famous enthusiast, Donald Trump.
Trump’s superpower is entirely human and all too common. Recognizing this is the first step to defeating bad…
Conspiracy theories are easily refuted, and so they’re often underestimated as weak. Treating them this way invariably backfires.
Consider the most popular conspiracy theory of this pandemic. It claims that Bill Gates created the coronavirus and aims to profit from it. As reported by the New York Times, Gates warned us in 2015 that an infectious virus could threaten the lives of millions of people. By April of this year, The Gates Foundation committed over $250 million to fighting the disease. On its face, these are not villainous deeds. But anti-vaxxers, members of the conspiracy group QAnon and right-wing pundits like Laura Ingraham seized on his advocacy as evidence that Gates planned all along to use a pandemic to gain control of the global health system. A complex network of explanations began to form around this idea. They claimed a global elite had banded together to create the coronavirus in the first place.
Preposterous, right? Apparently not. According to a survey from Yahoo News and YouGov, more than a quarter of all Americans and 44% of Republicans believe that Bill Gates wants to use a Covid-19 vaccine to implant microchips under people’s skin. The Gates conspiracy is now the most widespread of all coronavirus falsehoods.
Conspiracy theories may begin in an ad hoc way. It may be nothing but a wild accusation, like the suggestion that Bill Gates created the coronavirus. But when the circumstances are right, the explanation grows and assembles into a much larger beast. The accusation finds a motive; the accused find co-conspirators; the case finds evidence (or at least confirming observations). The explanation finds purpose, connecting a band of otherwise disconnected causes. No longer isolated, the constituent ideas become mutually supportive, creating complex webs of explanations called conspiracy theories.
Standing outside the web, conspiracy theories seem strange, even outlandish. But from within, they satisfy the attributes of consistency and coherence that make them seem like good explanations. Inside their communities they make perfect sense.
Conspiracy theories demonstrate a tremendous tolerance for change. They continually hunt for new explanations to gobble up and integrate in their webs. This connectivity and reach explains many of their seemingly bizarre assessments. The pandemic is understood as a fairly minor actor within much larger networks of explanations: the deep state, academia, corporations, elites and the mainstream media to name a few. Against this grand cast of villains, it’s hardly surprising that many see the virus as a small supporting henchman, as insignificant as the common flu.
Ad hoc rationalizations are disposal explanations. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, want to endure. Within their nurturing communities, conspiracy theories are valued. They are often purposeful, driven by a belief in God or progress or the value of life. In these motivations, conspiracy theories resemble religions. Their communities are reinforced with rituals and creeds, and they vilify other reality-seeking institutions. They leverage anonymity and the unknown. And those that defy their communities risk excommunication (or worse). As Adrienne LaFrance concluded in her report on QAnon, these drives make conspiracy theories far more important than the tinfoil hat caricatures suggest.
And they are more evolved than your run-of-the-mill bad explanations. Conspiracy theorists co-opt the tools of other institutions, most notably science, to spin their webs. They lay claim to reality and consume tremendous resources in search of it. Conspiracy theorists consider themselves researchers, skeptics and experimentalists. They make predictions and look for confirmation of their explanations in the real world.
And don’t we all? These commitments and motivations make conspiracy theorists disconcertingly familiar. They illuminate the conspiracy theorist hiding in all of us. We all harbor ideas that are unorthodox or contrarian. We all elevate our cherished beliefs above criticism. First and foremost, we need to recognize conspiracy theorists as human beings, motivated by our common needs. To defeat conspiracy theories, we need to seek out the human drives and needs that sustain the people that carry them.
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By any measure, conspiracy theories are a powerful and dangerous phenomenon. Once constrained to the ramblings of your weird uncle, they have been organized and amplified. Societal and technological developments over the last century have produced conspiracy-friendly environments. Propaganda has been industrialized and deployed with relentless efficiency at massive scales. Reality has retreated behind scientific explanations that are increasingly divorced from our common sense experiences. Reality begs disbelief and conspiracy theories happily fill the need.
But their increased notoriety has also made conspiracy theories vulnerable. They have moved from the back alleys to main street, under the light of penetrating criticism. The institutions and individuals that aim to understand reality have declared war on misinformation. And the battlefield is decidedly tilted: fighting reality is like fighting gravity.
Not everyone shares my optimism. Jeffrey Goldberg claims that the conspiracy theorists are winning. He believes that America is losing its grip on reality. He attributes the damage to the ruinous thinking of conspiracy theorists like Donald Trump. He called the upcoming US election “a referendum on enlightenment values and on reality itself.”
None of that is accurate. Reality doesn’t care what anyone believes, not even Donald Trump. The pandemic demonstrates, at a tragic cost to human life, that no amount of obfuscation can suspend reality indefinitely. Rather, it’s a question of how we access reality and whether we can ever be justified in holding our beliefs. The problem isn’t with enlightenment values, but what constitutes these values and what beliefs we would sacrifice to sustain them.
Conspiracy theorists mimic the behaviors of reasonable people. Their foibles are our foibles. A reckoning with conspiracy theories forces a reckoning with ourselves.
And the toll that the pandemic is taking on our values may be the most momentous impact of all. We’ll look at this topic in the next post.
From The Explainable Startup, exploring the science and philosophy of problem solving.