Show me a startling, prominent and recently-minted news item, particularly one involving one or more murders or attempted murders, and, within a day or two, I will show you a conspiracy theory based on that item. Two weeks later I will show you a nontrivial number of rabid adherents prepared to call “sheeple” on anyone who doesn’t uncritically snap their heads back and swallow lizard-like, whole and untasted, their absurdly reasoned, laughably spelled, quasi-literate proclamations of why the conspiracy theory is true.
Case in point: on 4 March, 2018, in the English city of Salisbury, near my home, former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with novichok, a Soviet-era binary nerve agent. It was unequivocally the work of the Russian government. No one but the brain damaged doubts that the attempt on Skripal’s life was ordered by Vladimir Putin to “send a message to would-be traitors.” Within a very short time, a conspiracy theory grew up around this incident proclaiming that the real poisoners were British Prime Minister Theresa May and her government!
The reason Mrs May and her government took the decision to try to murder a law-abiding resident of England has been lost in the murky mists of shabby thinking. But one thundering fact cannot be hidden (cue the dramatic music, please), Salisbury is geographically close to Porton Down, the Ministry of Defence’s Science and Technology Laboratory, where they possess the theoretical ability to produce novichok. That they would never do such a thing in a million years is beside the point. It’s all about proximity, you see. As long as they’re in the neighborhood, the “theory” goes, the government may as well poison a Russian defector.
In case you are wondering, this is how stupid people “think.” They make wild accusations based on contemptible serendipities in an evidence-free vacuum. For them, their demon haunted world “out there” is positively overbrimming with dark intrigues such as this, and only they alone have the wit to see it. Being every inch as irresponsible as they are stupid, they are likewise euphorically unaware of the harm that they do by contributing, with their assent, to the public’s capacity to easily be fooled by shabby reasoning. Some of them even think that they already follow Carl Sagan’s injunction that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” After all, they maintain, Salisbury’s proximity to Porton Down really is extraordinary!
Some people see this witless, moronic exercise as harmless fun, and I would tend to agree were it not for the damage that it does to society’s ability to discern the truth. Too many people are weak-minded enough to believe this drivel, and therein is the problem. Therein the groundwork is laid, not only for themselves but others, to fall victim to the fake news claims and Ponzi-scheme philosophies of such characters as InfoWars’ Alex Jones, and America’s own Cretin-in-Chief Donald Trump.
It would appear that the FBI agrees with me (or I with the FBI, depending on which conspiracy you subscribe to), according to a recent memo. The FBI intelligence bulletin dated May 30, 2019, from the bureau’s Phoenix field office, describes “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists” as a growing threat.
The principal threat that the document specifically mentions is QAnon, a paranoid network of mental dissolutes that believes in a deep state conspiracy against Donald Trump, and the so-called Pizzagate theory, a bit of discredited nonsense also supported by QAnon, that believed a pedophile ring was being run out of the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant. That the establishment didn’t actually have a basement was a minor problem with the theory.
The document warns that, “[t]he FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts.” The concern is also that conspiracy theory-driven extremists are likely to be on the rise in the run up to the 2020 presidential election cycle. Trump stokes the conspiracy fires by occasionally alluding to this “deep state” nonsense in his tweets. That the FBI is finally taking the threat of these conspiracies seriously, in direct contradiction to the claims of the president, is a credit to them and a rebuke of Trump’s make-believe authority over them.
We on the Left do these idiots plenty of favors by subscribing to wacko conspiracy theories of our own. The decision to stop automatically believing everything you see on YouTube is a decision each individual reading these words can quietly, internally resolve to do at any time. Science does not leap to conclusions on shallow evidence. You don’t need to be a scientist to practice the careful methods of science in your own life. Carl Sagan’s edict that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” should be a strict tenet of every scientist and non-scientist alike.
It also ought to occur to many on the left that Donald Trump, who has never had an unspoken thought, would have used the power of the presidency by now to learn what’s at the bottom of the Kennedy assassination, Area 51, the “Truther” conspiracy, the “moon hoax,” crop circles, and just about any other wacky conspiracy theory out there. The fact that he has not (and hasn’t blabbed about it or tweeted about it) ought to give every conspiracy theory believer on the planet serious pause.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.