Many of you who have read my articles over the years are aware of my antipathy for conspiracy theories. Now that the United States House of Representatives and the Senate have become infiltrated by the QAnon conspiracy theory, perhaps some of you will agree that my antipathies have been well and presciently placed. Of course, QAnon isn’t the first conspiracy theory to worm its way into government on the Republican side — here I’m thinking of global warming denialism — but it is perhaps the most outlandish.
According to Wikipedia, QAnon is “a disproven and discredited far-right conspiracy theory alleging that a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotted against former U.S. president Donald Trump while he was in office.” How a theory so absurd on its face could get a toehold in the United States Congress is a measure of how far the Republican Party has fallen. But the QAnon conspiracy theory began, just like all such harebrained absurdities so often do these days, by Some Guy On The Internet, a construction so commonplace that it has its own acronym, SGOTI, pronounced like “Scotty.”
How do these SGOTIs work? They begin by leading you down a corridor of “astonishing facts” of their own construction. They never offer rational alternatives to these so-called facts, unless it’s to debunk them with specious logic. But the corridor is the point, and it’s a trick that’s been used over and over again by 9/11 Truthers, anti-vaxxers and any of the hundreds (or is it thousands?) of Kennedy assassination theorists. Conspiracy theories have grown to a billion dollar industry.
The corridor conspiracy theorists construct is full of astonishing and highly compelling claims that really are convincing to the uncritical reader who has nothing to compare them with. After all, these conspiracy theories (or CTs) wouldn’t be effective if their proponents didn’t make their little worlds compelling and highly entertaining in the first place. So entertaining, in fact, that adherents of CTs become literally addicted to them. It has been shown that CTs produce dopamine in the brains of people who promote them, so arguing with them really is like trying to argue with an alcoholic or a drug addict.
Debunking CTs, on the other hand, has a low or nonexistent dopamine reward. So the act of debunking any CT is largely thankless, and its success depends more on the rational goodwill of the average reader than on any inherent excitement it may create.
There may be an exception out there somewhere, but every CT I have encountered is anti-science, no matter what the originating SGOTI may claim. Calling scientists liars is a cornerstone of CT. SGOTIs who promote CTs all hate scrutiny and demands for evidence, and any time you ask them for evidence be prepared for a barrage of ad hominem abuse, including that you are a sheep or are in the pay of some economic powerhouse behind some dark cabal.
Speaking of which, the dark cabal or secret government or “Deep State” (or whatever) is a common factor at the heart of most CTs. Be it the CIA, the Illuminati, the Air Force, NASA or the Democratic Party, each CT has its favorite bete noire to blame for “suppression” of the “facts.”
Yet one question an adherent of a CT will never ask is, if there are so many people involved in the work of this suppression, how come there are never any whistleblowers with real evidence? Don’t they know the Mark Twain Rule, that three men can keep a secret if two of them are dead? Yet these secret cabals appear to be mysteriously squeal-proof, and the CT believer never, ever questions it.
One of the points of ignorance that Some Guy On The Internet relies on is called “What You See Is All There Is” (or WYSIATI) by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman. It’s the tendency of many people to believe that what they know is all there is to know. That is why people will repeat what they have heard or read on the internet without bothering to Google it or do any research of their own. There is a tacit, unspoken self belief that if there were a refutation to what they know then they would have heard about it by now. This is a common impulse in us all and it is a mistake that must be hyper-vigilantly resisted at all times.
The recent pandemic has been blamed on new technology, for example. I am referring here not to coronavirus but to the Russian flu pandemic of 1898, which was blamed on the electric lightbulb. So as you can see, crackbrained theories are nothing new, and if we are to differentiate ourselves from Republicans we must resist the temptation to believe everything that crosses our paths, even and especially when it aligns with our political or moral biases.
So remember, a good, solid scientific study beats Some Guy On The Internet — every single time. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.