The unacceptable cost of conspiracy theories

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Those of you who have followed my articles for any reasonable amount of time know of my congenital dislike of conspiracy theories. I define a conspiracy theory in the usual way, as “an explanation for an event or situation that asserts the existence of a conspiracy by powerful and sinister groups, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable.

Evidence is the bane of conspiracy theorists. They don’t require real evidence and dislike people who do. I define real evidence as an available body of provable facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid. Conjecture is not evidence. Intuition is not evidence. Wild claims and personal anecdotes are not evidence. Hearsay is not evidence. Above all, distortions of the truth, misapplications of scientific principles, wishful thinking and lies are not evidence.

Real evidence, on the other hand, is easy to identify when you know how to do it, and it has a reliable habit of revealing demonstrable, provable truths. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are easy to spot by their peculiar lack of such real evidence, and by the observable fact that month on month, year on year, decade on decade, they don’t improve with age. Conspiracy theorists are forever one month or one year or one decade away from digging up final “proof” of their pet theories, proof that never, ever arrives.

For example, last June a friend of mine brought to my attention an article detailing the claims of one David Grusch, a former USAF intelligence officer. Grusch claimed that the American government maintains a highly secretive UFO retrieval program that possesses multiple spacecraft of non-human origin as well as corpses of deceased alien pilots. I told my friend that nothing would come of it and nothing did.

Why did I say that? Because it was yet another example of what American science writer Michael Shermer refers to as the “latest semi-annual ‘the government is hiding alien spacecraft’ story.” No evidence was requested by the believers and, right on schedule, none was given. We were just supposed to believe it because Grusch said it was so. And the story in the mainstream media deservedly died an infamous death. But the lie persists among people who uncritically accepted it.

What makes this sad is that every time a nutjob like Grusch comes forward with rubbish like that, empty-handed without a shred of physical evidence, there are millions of people prepared to believe them, and the nonsense such people like Grusch are peddling enters the human conversation as fact. This is so because open-mouthed gullibility is fashionable and critical thinking is not.

Because millions of people are prepared to believe any bullshit proclaimed by any authority figure or politician like Grusch or Donald Trump, dangerous lies become more easily swallowed whole and untasted the next time. This epidemic of uncritical acceptance of rubbish is why we are in the trouble we are in today, and the uncritical acceptance of conspiracy theories is one of the principal reasons why.

One of the most dangerous results of all this is that the reality of anthropogenic climate change is widely disbelieved despite the mountains of scientific evidence supporting it. It is therefore little wonder that scientific evidence is not respected by a vast number of people. Since scientific evidence is not an important feature supporting what they choose to believe, why should it matter when scientific evidence supports what they choose not to believe?

For example, it’s a scientific fact that the Earth just experienced its hottest February since records began. It is also the ninth month in a row to have broken such records. This is yet another example of mountains of irrefutable scientific facts pointing ineluctably toward the reality of global climate change. By itself it ought to be enough to convince anyone. Sadly, it and all the other overwhelming scientific facts put together are not enough to convince millions of people who have already made up their minds and aren’t interested in contradicting evidence.

I can share these scientific facts about climate change with you without fear of contradiction because most of you are liberals and it’s what liberals believe. But what about unscientific conspiracy theories many liberals believe? What about the claims of Mr Grusch and his aliens? What about 9/11 trutherism? What about the unsupported-by-science claim that MMR vaccines cause autism? What about claims that JFK was murdered by the CIA, or the mafia, or Lyndon Johnson?

I dare say many of you believe those things and that’s a shame, because none of those conspiracy theories are supported by facts in evidence. You just think they are because you’ve been lied to, tricked and deceived, in some cases for decades. Every time you promote conspiracy theories, theories that have no hard supporting evidence, you contribute to the ability of politicians and others to lie to us, and you add to the endless fund of nonsense they rely on.

Meanwhile there are real conspiracies out there. For example, there’s a conspiracy right now to steal the 2024 election. The supporting evidence is overwhelming, and includes gerrymandering, the proven proliferation of online Russian bots supporting Trump and his MAGA lies, state-level Republican legislation to disallow voting by mail, the removal of polling places from minority communities, MAGA threats of violence and intimidation in and around polling places, past attempts supported by the successful indictments of fake electors backed by depositions, whistleblowers with real evidence like authentic memos and audio recordings, and so on.

These are checkable facts, not innuendo, not rumour, not breathless distortions of the truth, not pseudoscientific gibberish. You can look them up, read about them in the congressional records of actual states, listen to them in political speeches, observe them in the maps of gerrymandered districts, read the lies in tweets and posts on social media.

What can you do? You can begin by finding out what scientists and people who know what they’re talking about have to say about what you believe. You can stop automatically taking fantastic tales as fact without bothering to check them out.

If you must hang onto your myths, try to do so without spreading them as fact. Honestly and diligently check them out. Find out what the arguments say against them. Finally, try to live by the dictum of the late scientist Carl Sagan, who said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.

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