It’s unfortunate that some words and phrases don’t sound quite like what they are. “Refried beans” aren’t even fried once. If someone is speaking, the words “razed to the ground” sounds like either a contradiction or a redundancy depending on how the word “razed” is spelled. So it goes with the words “conspiracy theory.” They sound too innocently like a principle in law than like what they are, a blight on human thinking that could inevitably destroy us all.
I usually start any discussion on conspiracy theories with the Wikipedia definition. This time I’m going to start it with my own somewhat cruder definition: A conspiracy theory is a more entertaining version of a common sense narrative fashioned out of speculation without evidence. It is repeated by naive people who think it makes them sound smarter than they are. Conspiracy theories are like handguns in the hands of toddlers that are being taken away from them and being used against them.
I’m referring of course to the fact that every time we as liberals buy into a conspiracy theory we teach ourselves sloppy thinking and give Republicans a weapon they can increasingly use against us. These days, if you think about it, virtually every distraction fashioned by Republicans is a conspiracy theory. “The 2020 election was stolen,” is a conspiracy theory. “Vaccines are more harmful than the disease they are purported to cure,” is a conspiracy theory. “Joe Biden abused his power to get his son Hunter a fancy, high-paying job then covered it up,” is a conspiracy theory. “Global warming is a hoax,” is a conspiracy theory.
Conspiracy theories are all about using microscopes and disregarding telescopes. What do I mean by that? I mean when someone breathlessly parrots all the “oddities” and “contradictions” about the collapse of Building 7 on September 11th, they’re using a microscope. When they almost never say out loud what they are actually getting at, that the Bush administration murdered 3,000 American citizens and framed Saudi nationals as a pretext for invading Afghanistan and Iraq, they are avoiding the telescope.
The telescope sounds too preposterously silly so they stay away from it. As I say, conspiracy theories are all about microscopes. The evidence of their microscope is also silly and easy to disprove. But the difference is with the microscope they can argue the nuances and discredit your sources and drag you down into the rabbit hole of their “thinking” endlessly, without ever having to concede that what they’re talking about is actually silly.
In the mind of the conspiracy theorist, all conventional explanations are chains. If they can find one weak link then the whole chain collapses. In reality conventional explanations are ropes with thousands of strands. Removing a single strand has a negligible impact on the overall strength of the rope.
Most of the “mysteries” that conspiracy theorists learned about on youtube and brainlessly parrot have reasonable explanations that are easy to find. Once in a while they stumble on some genuine mysteries or unanswerable questions, not because they have found something worthwhile but because life is messy and some things are simply never known.
For example, 99% of UFO sightings are explained. That 1% are not is due to nothing more than the fact that we don’t know everything. It’s irresponsible to the point of ludicrousness to suggest that the unexplained 1% were space aliens. We don’t blame last year’s unsolved murders in New York City on space aliens, right? Well, the sane among us don’t, anyway.
By allowing ourselves to be so easily fooled by all this nonsense we make ourselves into perfect targets for Republicans and their idiotic conspiracy theories. After all, if we’re going to believe that the lunar landings were a hoax where is our moral high ground when a Republican bigot tells us that the Holocaust was a hoax? How do we enlist common sense into our arguments when we have demonstrated so convincingly that we have no common sense in the first place? In point of fact, where do we go to find that common sense when we have so little practice at it?
And yes, I’ve been aware that “common sense” isn’t so common since I was seven years old. I don’t believe that. I think we all operate using common sense all the time, for some reason some of us just don’t apply it to the bigger world “out there,” the world of TV cameras and news on the internet.
For example, let’s say on Sunday I went to the grocery store in the morning and to the movies at night. On Monday morning Mary and I are talking about food and I tell her what I bought when I went to the grocery store yesterday. Later I tell Joe about a great movie I went to see on Sunday. Then Joe and Mary get together later and compare notes. They both know that I went out on Sunday, but each one learns something new. Do they conclude I was lying? Do they conclude I’m really an undercover agent for the CIA? Or that I’m a space alien? Of course not.
Apparent contradictions like that happen all the time. But a conspiracy theorist will take such a simple-to-understand narrative and make something sinister and extraordinary out of it. They will practically write a whole book about it. In fact, some of them will write books about it, and those books often become best sellers.
Conspiracy theory authors are almost always amateurs. Experts know better. But even some experts are tempted by fame and money. That’s why so many conspiracy theories have their “darlings,” experts who have exasperatingly sold out to the whiny, hectoring, infantile and sloppy-thinking conspiracy claque.
These days conspiracy theories have become transparently ludicrous, like the Big Lie that Trump won the 2020 election. They’re ludicrous because they no longer need to be sophisticated in order to be widely believed. So many of us have become so willing to believe any nonsense that Pavlov only needs to ring the bell. He no longer needs to provide the food.
That’s why the words “do your own research” are so commonly used these days. But that requirement is wrong. The burden of proof still rests entirely with the claimant, every single time, and never with us.
Carl Sagan famously said it, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Christopher Hitchens also put it this way, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” Recall that some 60 or so actions in court were brought by Republicans against the results of the 2020 election and they lost every single one. If we’re going to require evidence for their nonsense then we are going to have to stop believing nonsense ourselves. Otherwise we lack the moral authority to do so. 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.