Imagination Over Information: Why Conspiracy Theorists Get It Wrong

| February 4, 2013

The Holocaust did not exist. The Apollo program? A sham. September 11th was an inside job and President Obama was born in Kenya. Aurora was a setup. Benghazi? A cover-up.

And then there’s Sandy Hook. At the rate conspiracy theories are being cranked out, people are disbelieving what they’re seeing in real time with their own eyes.

 You’ve seen the documentaries, the books, and the Facebook posts. You may have even researched some of the aforementioned so-called theories. As a lover of science, I hesitate to call them actual theories, however, and in at least two of those examples, the scientific community has thoroughly debunked the concepts. But that’s just not good enough for some people. They need more.

 For as long as we’ve had public access to the Internet, these kinds of conspiracies have been able to spread and metastasize at an unprecedented rate. Misinformation has always been a part of our history as a species, but now the situation is infinitely more complicated. Keeping up with, and debunking, the kind of messages that were once relegated to sandwich boards worn by scraggly-bearded street prophets is a never-ending task. And that only pertains to the conspiracies that are so far beyond belief that no debunking should even be necessary.

But why do people need to wrap themselves in I-know-more-than-you-do rhetoric and why are they so intent on spreading their beliefs? Am I truly to believe that the September 11th attacks were the result of controlled demolitions even though the purported smoking guns underlying the conspiracy are perfectly explainable using physics and have subsequently been corroborated by thousands of independent scientists?

 And now we’re expected to believe that the Obama administration hired and then recycled “crisis actors” for two different mass shootings? Never mind that the thousands of people necessary to pull off this supposed scam would actually keep quiet.

 And why do people even fall for this? It’s less complicated than you think. Conspiracy theorists believe they can actually rise above the mundane truth and can prove themselves smarter than you. It’s exciting being the life of the party and having people hang on your every word.  Yet to those of us who disbelieve the pyrotechnic fantasies it can actually be a blow to the theorist’s credibility and even intelligence.

 The ostensible Sandy Hook truther movement is the newest star in the constellation of crazies and electricity and an Internet connection has been bombarded by this new mind-boggling scenario.

 The American sociopolitical discourse involving guns has now devolved to the point where even crackerjack Examiner.com screeds about “false flag Illuminati psy ops” are seriously entertained. Meanwhile, drooling NRA-lovers believe it’s acceptable to heckle the father of a murdered kindergartner during a recent congressional hearing by shouting “The Second Amendment!” as a response to his asking why anyone needs military-style weapons.

 We have become so polarized that to suggest moderation is — at least for the folks on the “all guns, all the time” side of the debate — now considered inerrant proof of culpability in a vast disarmament conspiracy. Oh, you didn’t know that you were complicit? Well, that’s easy enough to address. Any hardcore conspiracy nut will simply tell you that you’re either lying, or that they possess some secret knowledge that blows the whole thing wide open. You’re such an idiot.

 And here we’ve arrived at one of the hallmarks of conspiracy theories: secret knowledge that can be used as a weapon against your perceived enemies, and specifically the belief that said knowledge elevates the believer above the rest. Call them what you will — the masses, sheep, Kool-Aid drinkers (though we all know the victims at Jonestown drank Flavor-Aid instead) – or what have you: In Conspiracy Theory Land, they figured it all out and you’re the buffoon.

 Occam’s Razor to the rescue. If your explanation is too complicated, it’s probably not the best. In fact, it’s probably stupid. If, when confronted with a mass shooting at an elementary school, you have to resort to some arcane blathering, which hinges on vast conspiracies instead of logic, then I don’t really have time enough in my day to deal with you.

 The sheer ridiculousness of the conspiracy premise is often defeated by the vastly simpler clarification. While the conspiracy theorist’s explanation grows into a three-hour Hollywood blockbuster with special effects and political intrigue and a booming soundtrack — the reality is often simple elucidation: a crazy kid got a hold of his mom’s guns and shot people.

 Now, the great thing about believing in conspiracy theories is that you can justifiably resort to ad hominem attacks on anyone who opposes you. What, a physicist debunked your pet moon landing hypothesis? Just scream “Sheeple!” and call it a day! It’s really as simple as that.

 Not all conspiracy theories are meant to scare us, however, and some even make for, if not cold comfort, let’s called them tepid comfort by way of scapegoating. Housing market got you down? Blame the Jews/global bankers! Don’t like the president? Just pretend he was born in Kenya, because every single person of African descent was obviously born in Africa: where else would they come from? Are you a casual admirer of Hitler’s racial ideologies because a Hasidic guy took your seat on the bus? Simply assert that “some reports” about the Holocaust were exaggerated! See? Conspiracy theories can be easy and fun, provided you don’t have enough properly firing synapses to see through them.

 In short, belief in conspiracy theories is so deliciously tempting for at least two reasons: the believer can feel as if they’ve been initiated into a secret club of those who know the “truth”, and anyone who disagrees with you can be lumped in with the shadowy “enemy”. It’s like the ultimate in juvenile pseudo-logic; all that’s necessary is paranoia and an overactive imagination. Rather than being bothered by studying the testimonies of experts like physicists, chemists, law enforcement officials, astronauts, witnesses, etc., all you have to do is turn over your heart and soul to some anti-social basement blogger and suddenly you get to call yourself an expert. How convenient!

But the real world, as viewed though a scientific lens, is based on some pretty simple principles — just look at e=mc2 That one-inch equation changed the world, allowing everything from a basic understanding of light as energy, to the foundations of nuclear physics. Most conspiracies can be whittled down that simply, as well.

 There’s a reason why the “official narrative” regarding the Holocaust is believable: it was documented. I’ve actually been to Neuengamme concentration camp and have seen what supersessionist lunatics can accomplish when they set their minds to it. I also embrace the “official narrative” that decades of astrophysical erudition culminated in not just one, but several successful ventures to the moon and beyond.

 Yes, I’m just stupid enough to believe that determined terrorists would train for years before hijacking and crashing passenger jets into buildings. And why? Because there is blatant evidence and no payroll is hefty enough to shut up the nearly one-million people necessary to plot and execute the controlled demolition of the World Trade Center, much less convincing government employees to fly planes into buildings. Oh, wait a minute, no one was on those planes and it was done by remote control? Silly me. Wait. There were no real planes? Now it all makes perfect sense.

Are you confused as to whether a given viewpoint represents scientific inquiry or fear-mongering conspiracy? Here’s a handy guide:

  • Science starts with a hypothesis, then collects data, and concludes with a theory designed to match the data. Conspiracies begin with a conclusion, then manipulates existing data into becoming ex post facto proof. There’s a term for this: it’s called confirmation bias.
  • Science is falsifiable, meaning experiments are conducted with the expressed purpose of disproving previous hypotheses and theories. Conspiracies pass themselves off as being incapable of falsification, as if only the existence of an idea were proof enough of its veracity. It’s an amazing way of thinking that works to disregard all evidence to the contrary as delusions perpetrated by a nebulous enemy, e.g. Illuminati, Jews/global bankers, Masons, reptilians, etc.
  • Science is cumulative and incremental, in that a gradual accumulation of data ultimately leads to an increasingly complete understanding of a given principle. Conspiracies tend to leap from beginning with a single over-arching hypothesis, such as “someone is out to get me,” and accelerate into a full-fledged conspiracy mythos.
  • Science is essentially the pursuit of the simplest possible explanation for natural phenomena. Conspiracies thrive on complex, drawn-out plans that demand acceptance merely because they have the illusion of being far-reaching and all-encompassing.

Remember, folks: if it sounds ridiculous, chances are it’s probably ridiculous.

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About the Author ()

Dave Bowman blogs to save the world at liberalcrusader.blogspot. He is also a liberal knight in the crusade against teabagging fanatics and theocratic fascists at facebook.com/StevenKohlbert. He lives in blank and really loves to blank a lot. (Please, "like" his Facebook page. It seriously won't kill you.)

Comments (2)

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  1. Colin says:

    The credibility meter falls when you’re talking about made up controversies and you cite a made up controversy:

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2013/01/29/neil_heslin_father_of_slain_6_year_old_jesse_lewis_heckled_by_gun_rights.html

    • Christina D'Angelo says:

      It’s not a made-up controversy. Here are the facts — this was copied/pasted from the article you cite:

      “‘Is there anybody in this room that can give me one reason or challenge this question, why anybody in this room needs to have one of these assault-style weapons or military weapons or high-capacity clips?’ Heslin said before pausing and looking around the room. He then continued: “And not one person can answer that question or give me an answer.” It was at that point that the cries of ‘Second Amendment’ can be heard.”

      The writer at Slate came up with his or her own interpretation of the incident. I fact-checked this article before it went to the copy editor and I watched the video twice and we stand by the above article. It was not just Glittersnipe that reported the story this way — it was also CNN and the BBC.