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August 26, 2013
On Conspiratorial Thinking
I recently had a e-mail exchange with someone who wanted me to read one of the many books out there that claims that some particular food additive is poisoning everyone. I'm not linking to the stuff, so I'll call the book's author Dr. Cassandra, for short. We argued about data and mechanisms a bit, but my correspondent also brought up what he felt were many other conspiracies around food and health, and I couldn't agree with him on any of those, either. That led to me writing this to him:
Let me get philosophical: one of the big problems with this sort of thinking is deciding what to trust. If you decide that Most Of What You Think You Know Is Wrong, then you have some work ahead of you. If these various authorities and well-documented sources of primary material are faked, then what *isnt'* faked? How do you know that the stuff you've decided to believe is on the level? My usual answer to someone who tries to convince me of the 9/11 stuff, etc., is to lower my voice and say "Well, yeah, but that's just what they want you to think". It's a universal answer. You can't falsify it.
Too often, what happens is that someone chooses to believe the things that fit their worldview, and dismisses the stuff that doesn't. That's human nature, but scientific inquiry is alien to human nature. If you start in with the conspiratorial stuff, then you end up skipping through the fields of data and sources, picking a daisy here and a cherry there, until you've made a wonderful centerpiece out of little bits from all over the place. And you can end up telling yourself, "See, this must be real. Look at this wonderful thing I've assembled, all the parts fit together so well - how can it be anything other than true?" But beautiful sculptures can be made from all kinds of found objects. If you start by assuming your conclusion - they're covering something up! - then you can get there any of a million ways.
So try this thought experiment: how do you know that (Dr. Cassandra) isn't just a plant? A false flag? Someone who's been put out there to make his beliefs look silly and under-researched (because believe me, he does)? Could someone in the pay of the Mighty Conspiracy do a better job of bringing its opposition into disrepute? That's the problem with conspiratorial thinking: the rabbit hole has no bottom to it. I refuse to dive in.
So my correspondent and I agreed to disagree. He thinks that eventually I'll see the truth of some of his beliefs, which I very much doubt. And I have little to no hope that he'll ever accept any of mine. The points made above have naturally been made by many others who've examined conspiratorial thinking, and I don't see much of a way around them. When you get to the Vast Overarching Conspiracy level of some of these schemes, you really do wonder how the believers manage to function. It's only a short step to the sorts of worldviews depicted in Diane Kossy's compendium Kooks: A Guide to the Outer Limits of Human Belief, which is worth a look if you've never encountered 100-proof paranoia before.
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