Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Conspiracy Theologists

Where there is an event, there's someone to give an explanation on what happened. As the way we perceive and store information from the world around us is imperfect, the process of recollection and rationalisation is imperfect too. That's why to write history we look for empirical evidence and check for independent eyewitnesses. Yet despite all this more often than not we don't know the full story, not even in the age of media saturation and recording devices in everyone's pocket. In the movie Cloverfield when everything starts going to hell, people pulled out their phones and recorded it. Snapshots of the time, and that is very indicative of the information age we live in. But there are still gaps, and in those gaps we create narratives to explain them. In the past people used to put religion in those gaps. These days some still do but others who have since abandoned the supernatural aspect but kept the same ethos and come up with something just as implausible: the conspiracy theory.

Taunts and Tautologies
The similarities between religion and conspiracy theories are astounding, they work in the same basic way. It takes the unknown and applies something sensational to fill in that unknown, the narrative that works on a largely emotional level that somehow makes the implausible seem favourable. Like religion it plays on fears, a whole malevolent and nefarious contraption by those in power to control the population. Like religion there is no direct evidence, it's all hearsay and indirect links pieced together. Like religion it relies heavily on community support for it to spread and be maintained. And like religion it is quite tautological in that the absence of evidence is evidence.

There is a certain distrust of the government that helps fuel the fires that are conspiracy theories. And this distrust can easily be manipulated as the theories themselves more often than not play on the basic idea of control. It's an indirect play on one's basic fear for security, where the government who controls the population is much more malicious than they would like you to believe. There is no evidence to support this of course, but it's believable. The people who have the power want to hurt you, they don't regard your life at all other than a tool to further their own interests... Well not really but that's basically what it amounts to. If someone yells out fire in a theatre, people by nature will act on fear and get out of there regardless of whether their really is a fire.

The primary difference between someone yelling out fire in a theatre and convincing someone the government is out to get them and that is time. The fire is an immediate threat, there is no chance to assess it's validity, while a conspiracy is not. So when there is an absence of primary evidence, there needs to be secondary evidence to fill in the gaps. How conspiracy gets around it is by using a tautology. The absence of evidence is evidence, of course this doesn't stand on it's own. The main trick used is bombarding you with anecdotal evidence, stories that add the illusion of plausibility to the veracity of the claim. It's building little support structures, hopefully enough to hold their main argument up. But because people are so willing to believe anecdotally that really isn't as hard as one might think it would be.

Anecdotal evidence is vital to the success of propagation of the idea. If it's done really well, it's often becomes memetic, and creeps into the greater social conscience. By this stage the amount of evidence to support it is really irrelevant and thanks to the instant global media network ideas can spread quicker than ever without anything more than anecdotal evidence. Chain emails are the perfect example of how misinformation spreads, people see what is written, take it as fact then propagate it further. Honestly it's not hard to double check, but how many people do? Obviously not enough for it to clutter up my mail box. It's the same principle here but on a grander scale. Pass it on, and hope the other person is so taken in that they refuse to check for themselves.

Above all else, the most alarming exhibition of cult-like behaviour is the absolute mentality exhibited towards those who aren't part of the "truth movement". Where I see the division is that they feel they are on the side of the sceptics, after all they are questioning as a sceptic would. But because they are so willing to believe the absurd without subjecting that new belief to the same intense scrutiny they are laughed at by the greater sceptical population. Again the parallel with creationism is obvious. Yes, question the official story. But no, your beliefs are subject to that same questioning. That's why there is a strong focus on evidence to back up the claims in the sceptical field. I've been taunted about towing the governments line, just because I didn't think there was any evidence to suggest what they were saying happened. That absolutist mentality prevails to the point where the average punter wouldn't be able to oppose them. And that is the danger of movements like 9/11 truth, if there was strong backing I'd be all for it. But it doesn't spread through rational discourse, it spreads through fear and misinformation.

The Mundane and the Magic
Penn and Teller did it all before me, and better. When you have decades of experience in exposing bullshit, rank amateurs like me can only sit back in awe and hope one day that we we've got the skills to rival that of professional charlatans but on the side of truth. People like Penn Jillette, Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins and James Randi are all heroes of mine. And they are that way because not only are they able to see the frauds for what they are with evidence to boot, they are able to expose those frauds and provide a voice of empiricism in an anecdotal society. In the end, it could be anyone writing books or making TV shows. The person authoring doesn't matter. What is important is the empirical evidence behind it, and with that evidence we can determine reality in as close to an unbiased manner as possible. That's why I have such opposition to them, like religion they are fascinating stories. They make for entertaining television, The X-Files is still my favourite show of all time. But is it so hard to recognise they are just that - stories?

The narrative is very fascinating, the truthiness really shines out. It's very much like religion in that one person has "discovered" something more to life than there really is. It makes that person feel special, feel important. And you don't have to be an expert in that field with conspiracy theories, it's all about individual empowerment. While scientists, historians, etc have years of training to be able to be qualified to talk, these authorities are ignored for the sake of anecdotal titbits by people who's training is nothing more than a personal curiosity. I've talked before about confirmation bias and again it applies here.

Why do we need to mix reality with the extraordinary? We as a species seem to allow ourselves to get bogged down in the trivialities of life far too easily, it gets to the point where reality is a cruel place for some to inhabit. We are moving more and more towards an impersonal world as we become more and more a global community, as John Doe said in Se7en: "Wanting people to listen...you can't just...tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer. Then you'll notice you've got their strict attention." That is a sad reflection on our current state of affairs. Maybe people aren't being noticed when they ask for more information about say 9/11, so they make up a story that is the metaphorical equivalent to using that sledgehammer. Maybe there are things the government isn't telling us, though I'm willing to bet if there is, it's not going to be as the conspiracy theorists say.

Maybe it would be more pertinent to make time for others, to treat them with respect and actually listen to them. It should not take a fanciful story to get your attention, whether that story be about god, government conspiracies or even celebrity gossip. Humans crave contact and validation from others, it's part of the human condition. That contact and validation is how we've been able to thrive as a species. Life is magic as it is, sometimes we forget that and instead of working towards finding that magic in each other, we are pandering to magical tales as if they were reality. We need to make people feel special in the here and now, but I fear that in a world where television sells us the lie that we are all destined for something great it would be too little too late.

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