Disingenuous questions are an exasperating feature of the conspiracy theorist. I was once asked by such a one, “You do believe conspiracies actually happen, don’t you?” Of course I do. It was a deliberately stupid question. But it is precisely down such a rabbit hole that the average conspiracy theorist will attempt to drag you if you let them, and I refuse to be dragged. The world of the conspiracy theorist is the world of the microscope: there is no hair too fine that he or she will not attempt to split it.
Much talk is made of conspiracy theories these days, and it grieves me that many of us on the political left are prone to them. It leaves those of us who are given to conspiracy theories without a defense in the face of right wing conspiracy theories. How do we, on the political left, justify our disdain for, say, the Trump-supported conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine and not Russia that hacked the 2016 election, when we support the vaxxer hoax, or 9/11 Trutherism, or the demonstrably false chemtrail hoax – each with evidence every inch as flimsy and specious? On what leg do we stand when we apply the identical rules of “reason” they do? It’s hypocrisy, and it needs to stop.
When I speak of “conspiracy theories” I mean it in the pejorative sense. A good place to start is the Wikipedia definition: “A conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful actors, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable.” The jump from rationality to the surreal world of the conspiracy theory is characteristically Beamonesque, and frequently relies on the cui bono? (who benefits?) logical fallacy.
An example of cui bono?* might go like this: my friend’s uncle recently died and left him a million dollars. Therefore my friend, who clearly benefited from his uncle’s death, murdered his uncle. Now, as absurd as that might sound, millions of people make similar constructions every day in politics and they do so entirely without supporting evidence, merely because, in the world of the conspiracy theorist there is, simply put, no such thing as a coincidence. Sometimes it really is true that people benefit by accident. It really is just that simple. We need, in short, to look before we leap, particularly when it applies to Donald Trump. When we make accusations that are factually wrong or we exuberantly overlook stronger, competing evidence, we weaken our own position. And in the world of Trump, where damning facts against him are a Croesus-size embarrassment of riches, such leaps aren’t merely silly, they are wholly unnecessary.
So when Republicans ignore mountains of uncontested evidence against Donald Trump and, instead, subscribe to evidence-free conspiracy theories that exonerate him, we need to stop being so surprised and outraged if we do exactly the same thing. Hypocrisy is unbecoming. Conspiracy theories attract the uneducated and substandardly literate, precisely the demographic that voted for Donald Trump. We need to demonstrate that we are better than that.
One way to avoid conspiracy theories is to educate yourself in alternative explanations. You might be shocked to learn how ignorant many conspiracy theorists are of those alternative explanations. For example, it was thought for years that the so-called “magic bullet” in the Kennedy assassination took a truly bizarre, zigzag path through JFK and into governor John Connally. It seemed impossible that such a thing could happen and appeared to defy the laws of physics. Then, in 1993 computer animator Dale Myers embarked on a 10-year project to completely render the events of November 22 in 3D computer animation. It turned out that a mistake had been made in assuming that Connally had been seated directly in front of Kennedy on the same level. Once the adjustments were made it was shown that, not only did the bullet travel in a perfectly straight line through the two men after all, but the path of the bullet could be tracked backward to the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository, the location from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shot. Even though this information is more than a decade old, many JFK conspiracy theorists don’t know about it! They prefer to remain ignorant, and ignorance is fertilizer for conspiracy theories.
It is also important that vendors of conspiracy theories understand that the burden of proof rests with them. It’s not my job to read up on the “stunning evidence” that George W. Bush and company murdered 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001, it’s their job to prove it. And, as Carl Sagan so aptly put it, since “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” that evidence had better be stunning. So far it is not. In fact, if I didn’t have so much contempt for the purveyors of that theory, I would feel sorry for them at how utterly silly and ignorant their “evidence” is.
We are in a battle with forces that really are demonstrably evil, we don’t need to make up more evil. Combatting conspiracy theories is important because it is an important part of defending truth and establishing that truth really is knowable if we adopt responsible ways of discerning it. Pay attention to competing arguments. Don’t automatically accept what you hear. When in doubt, Google it! (I have a large number of Facebook friends and I frequently get messages to urgently pass on some bit of tripe that is just a single Google search away from refutation!) Above all, when a pet theory has hundreds of objections, instead of looking for more and more elaborate ways to defend it, abandon it! That’s what science at its best does, and the fact that you are reading this on your phone or your computer across the modern marvel called the internet is pretty extraordinary evidence of just how often science gets it right.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.