Before you say you’re immune to conspiracy theories take this little internal test. Answer this question to yourself. What do you think of the Warren Report? This is not a poll, this is simply a way of getting you to judge how you feel about a book you have never read and probably haven’t the foggiest idea of how it was organized or who the people who put it together were.
The Warren Report was the work of a blue ribbon panel of seven men commissioned by Lyndon Johnson to investigate the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It has been subjected to almost 60 years of relentless slander by amateur conspiracy theorists. So successful has this slander been that most Americans think the Warren Report is a complete sham, even though they have never read a single word of it and have never heard a single argument in its defense. Chances are very good that you hate the Warren Report, that you have an almost visceral and automatic aversion to it.
Before you contradict me in the comment section I need to take a moment and enunciate a disclaimer here. I said “most” Americans think these things about the Warren Report, I didn’t say all. If you’re somehow an exception that’s great. I’m talking about what, statistically speaking, most Americans think about a book they have never read and don’t know anything at all about. Fair enough?
I use this example to point out how utterly in the thrall we are of popular opinion. When popular opinion is fuelled by good sense and sane laws then popular opinion can serve us well. When it’s fuelled by conspiracy theories it can serve us poorly. It can lead us to reach bad conclusions about historical events, like the Kennedy assassination or the moon landings or the attacks of 9/11.
And sometimes the consequences of conspiracy theories can be deadly. They can lead us to think that the side effects to vaccines are somehow worse than the diseases they cure, that global warming is a hoax and we don’t need to recycle, that racism isn’t a real problem, that it’s a scam of the “woke.” People actually lose their lives every single day because of these conspiracy theories, and there is every indication that conspiracy theories are increasing in number at an alarming rate.
One of the reasons for this is most of us have no natural immunity to conspiracy theories, and we now have the internet. For example, despite getting it wrong over and over we still publish memes on Facebook without bothering to take the 30 seconds necessary to Google them and find out if they’re true or not. We consume and believe conspiracy books without even once trying to find out what the opposing view is. And yet never before in human history has it been easier to discover that some of our most sacred beliefs have already been refuted.
We are, in short, in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, and I am not talking for once about coronavirus. Conspiracy theories are a major sociological problem and they are going viral thanks to the internet. Conspiracy theories — such as the 2020 election was rigged or that masks and social distancing are taking away our Constitutional freedoms or that coronavirus vaccines have a microchip in them — are being cynically and deliberately employed to powerful effect by the Republican Party.
So what do I mean by “conspiracy theories?” According to Wikipedia, “A conspiracy theory is an explanation for an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful groups, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable.”
What can we do to combat them? One way is to try to think like a scientist. We can stop automatically believing everything we read or hear and start asking critical questions. Questions such as “What do people who don’t believe this say?” Or, “What do experts say?” “Is this backed by science?” “What do we really know and what is speculation?” We can also realize that we will never know everything there is to know about a subject. There is always something new to learn.
Also, be prepared to change your mind. If I were confronted by irrefutable evidence that the lunar landings were faked would I admit I was wrong? Absolutely. In a New York minute. I wouldn’t be happy to learn that but my happiness or unhappiness would have absolutely no bearing on the truth.
Now ask yourself the same question about your most cherished belief. If you were confronted with irrefutable evidence contradicting it what would you do? The degree to which you would resist such a question should tell you a lot about your susceptibility to conspiracy theories. I am sorry to say that most people would start looking for ways around the new evidence, no matter how absurd those ways around it might be.
Many people wouldn’t even entertain the possibility that such evidence could exist in the first place. This is why we are in trouble. And, I hate to say it brothers and sisters, but this is why the current generation of Trump believers are virtually unreachable. Once in a blue moon you will encounter a reformed Trumpist, but they are rare. McCarthyism didn’t die out because millions of people changed their minds. McCarthyism died because the old school adherents died out — literally — and were replaced by young people who refused to believe the old nonsense.
Conspiracy theorists seldom ask tough questions. Conspiracy theorists never seem to be troubled by the idea that thousands of people are keeping their secret and that they would become rich and famous by spilling the beans or writing a book. Conspiracy theorists have no problem believing, for example, that I am getting paid via an actual paycheck with an actual paper trail to tell you these “lies.” The unwillingness to ask obvious questions about themselves is a hallmark of the conspiracy theorist.
We are not as enlightened a race of people as we like to think we are. Much of what we believe is irrational and was arrived at not by a series of careful logical steps but by emotional leaps haphazardly made. To overcome our prejudices and knee jerk beliefs takes work and careful thought. It isn’t easy and I will be the first to admit I fail at it every day. But it is an essential responsibility for us all and one we must take seriously indeed. Our lives and the future of our species very well may depend on it. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.