Whenever I write about or declaim against conspiracy theories some defender inevitably points out that conspiracies actually exist. This inexpensive comment betrays a sloppiness and lack of rigor that explains, in part, why the defender is a conspiracy theorist in the first place. It’s tantamount to saying the theory of evolution is “only a theory.” It misses the point and betrays not just the ignorance but the lack of effort on the part of the speaker.
Therefore when discussing conspiracy theories I usually start with the Wikipedia definition, and here I make no exception: “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.” The final clause in the definition is the crux of the matter, and I would add that very often the conspiracy theory is arrived at without evidence. The conspiracy theorist frequently confuses coincidence and speculation with evidence.
Too often a conspiracy theory is published in book form. Conspiracy books follow a time-honored formula that works over and over again and not infrequently makes the author a great deal of money. The book carefully assembles a corridor down which it leads the reader using the tantalizing bait of a series of artificially chilling revelations carefully constructed for maximum effect. Simple or obvious explanations for the revelations are not allowed, or if they are allowed they are allowed only fleetingly and quickly dismissed by specious or exaggerated reasoning.
The reader is usually unaware that they are being led by the nose. So skillful and convincing is the author that the reader believes they are being led by real and solid evidence and that by the time they are finished with the book they believe the author’s conclusions are inescapable. This is because the author is very careful about what they reveal to the reader, what they allow the reader to know and what they most emphatically do not allow the reader to know. This is not unlike what Fox News does to its viewers. Their conclusions appear ever so rational when delivered in the context of carefully inculcated ignorance.
Every conspiracy theory book does this. It is shameful and greedy and dishonest, and the reason why there are so many conspiracy theory books is because there is no shortage of shameful and greedy and dishonest people willing to write them. It’s an extremely lucrative market and the temptation to earn money by publishing yet another conspiracy book is too great for a certain kind of person all too willing to blush all the way to the bank.
But much of the fault rests with the reader. Ours is the first generation to enjoy the greatest knowledge resource in human history yet it’s shocking how rarely it is used in such cases. To date I have never met a single person willing to spend five minutes on Google to find out if a particular thread of “logic” or piece of “evidence” they have picked up from a conspiracy book has merit or an alternative explanation. The unwillingness of the reader to factcheck is nothing short of staggering. This reluctance can only be explained by their fondness for their own delusion and how unwilling they are to interfere with it.
The only way we can overcome this tendency is through rigorous education. In the case of conspiracy theories in general and conspiracy books in particular forewarned truly is forearmed. People who are taught how they are tricked are less likely to fall for those tricks.
Which brings me to the anti-vaxxer conspiracy theory. Some of you will be shocked to learn that the anti-vaxxer movement began largely as a disease of the political left. It’s most famous and most destructive incarnation was begun here in England by a discredited conman named Andrew Wakefield, a former doctor who has since been “struck off.” In 1998 Wakefield published a fraudulently-conceived paper describing a link between a novel form of bowel disease, autism, and the MMR vaccine. The harm he has done is incalculable, and thanks to him measles and other diseases once thought eradicated are making a comeback. Many child deaths are laid at the doorstep of “doctor” Wakefield.
The anti-vaxxer movement has since been taken over by the extreme alt-right. It comes to us in the form of resistance to the coronavirus vaccine. Evidence of the wrongheadedness of the movement is dismissed as bogus statistics promulgated by liars. It makes no difference to the conspiracy theorist that there are tens of thousands of these “liars” all over the world who independently report the same thing. They are all part of the same network of paid deceivers, the conspiracy monger avers. Ben Franklin’s edict that three men can keep a secret if two of them are dead is unknown to such people.
But the fact remains, 99% of the people on ventilators in hospitals today are the unvaccinated, many of them by choice. Most of them regret not getting vaccinated but it’s now too late. Some of them will die.
Republicans in Congress are aware of this and yet they still actively or with their silence continue to support the anti-vaxxer movement. Like writers of conspiracy theory books exploiting their readers these lawmakers trade on the ignorance of their constituents. The fact that many of their constituents will die betrays how deep their evil is and how cynically they are willing to trade on the lives of the men and women who elected them.
Some Republicans who will die of coronavirus are evil and I have better things to do than mourn their passing. But some of them are innocent, well-intentioned victims who have been deliberately and cynically misled, and that is a tragedy. We are all human and we all make mistakes, the death penalty is not an appropriate punishment for being human.
That is the real tragedy today, and the gathering storm of the next coronavirus tidal wave to come will be very different in character than the previous surge in cases. It will largely strike down the ignorant and the deceived, rather like a person dying of thirst in the literal midst of water, water everywhere, only this time it is sweet water, lifesaving water, and only ignorance stands in the way. 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.