Thursday, August 27, 2009

The perils posed by consipracists

There is an excellent op-ed piece in this week's Economist about the perils of believing in conspiracies under every rock.

An excerpt:

Belief in conspiracy theories can be comforting. If everything that goes wrong is the fault of a secret cabal, that relieves you of the tedious necessity of trying to understand how a complex world really works. And you can feel smug that you are smart enough to “see through” the official version of events.
You can read the entire article here.

Of course there are actual conspiracies, and always have been, but the Economist is quite correct when it warns that conspiratorial fantasy can have dangerous real-world consequences, from Timothy McVeigh to Adolf Hitler (and, I might add, some well known UFO cults too).

Those who believe in a particular conspiracy have the burden of proof of showing that their belief is backed up by the facts. In some cases, usually tied to more mundane matters of the real world, that is not only possible, but has been done. Accordingly, one can't just casually dismiss all claims of conspiracy, particularly in the private sector where oversight is less stringent, and where the profit motive can be a powerful motivator for greedy people to cross the boundaries of ethical behaviour, and then hide their malfeasance.

But those people who believe in vast, government-sponsored conspiracies, whether it's the Cosmic Watergate, or 9/11 "truthers", or anti-Obama "birthers", represent a different type altogether - they are predisposed to believe in almost any and all conspiracies, and should be viewed with extreme caution. People like this should be challenged at every turn to prove that what they say is true beyond any reasonable doubt.

In my experience, they usually don't even come close.

Paul Kimball


Mac said...

Terence McKenna aptly called woolly conspiracy theories "epistemological cartoons." I love that term.

Greg Bishop said...

Are you suggesting actually arguing with conspiracy believers? There are thoughtful ones and then there are those whose minds are made up no matter what evidence is presented that casts doubt on their ideas.

Unfortunately, those are usually the ones you hear about, because they are much louder. Sort of like any belief system: the more time and psychological investment in the belief, the harder one must fight to fend off counter-arguments and run from the specter of doubt. Sometimes there's not enough information to make a good case either way, but dots are connected by belief.

ELFIS said...

Hi Paul, Mac and Greg.

There is a lot in this article (and the resulting discussion at Facebook) that I want to address.

But I'll post this here since I've not seen Greg or Mac in that Facebook thread.

I am actually re-listening to a bunch of old McKenna audio recordings and just came across the quote (that I'd heard before) Mac invoked about Terence's perspective on "conspiracy theory".

Before any more comments from me I'd just like to say that my perspectives on these subjects are largely influenced by the works of BOTH Terence McKenna and Jacques Vallee ... both of who I respect immensely but who disagreed on the parapolitical / conspiracy aspects of the phenomena they research.

If you've never heard the Missing Chapter from True Hallucinations you may not be aware of the disagreements between these two researchers and McKenna's chastising of Vallee's "paranoia."

More later but probably posted elsewhere, either in the Facebook thread or on my own blog.

Peace(!) my brothas.

- SMiles

danbronson said...

I agree with much of this article, but one point in particular struck me as incredibly accurate.

The author of the piece writes that "If everything that goes wrong is the fault of a secret cabal, that relieves you of the tedious necessity of trying to understand how a complex world really works. "

A secret cabal that can be identified can be fought. Therefore, the problems of the world can be solved if only "they" can be stopped. How enormously comforting!

To me, that is the key to understanding people who embrace such conspiracy theories. Such theories are not only emplowering, but also a source of comfort, a way of making sense of an incredibly intricate and complex world. Such frameworks of belief are similar to religious dogma.

A serious study of the UFO Phenomenon (or any phenomenon for that matter) requires the dispassionate skepticism of the scientific method. How can this occur when people are so invested intellectually, socially and emotionally in world-explaining conspiracy theories?