March 20, 2020

Dear Drama Observers,

In times of crisis, we naturally search for ways to explain that which seems unexplainable. When things are out of control, we long for certitude over ambiguity, predictability over randomness, and decisiveness over indecision. I’ll say more about all that but first, let me tell you a story.

Several years ago, I was talking with a friend who was espousing a crazy-sounding explanation for something that was going on. It was so long ago, I can’t remember the specific topic, but I do remember how worked up he was about it. And the other thing that sticks with me was his condescending dogmatism—his assertion that anyone who dared to disagree was either uninformed, naïve, or just plain stupid.

His explanation sounded implausible to me, so I nicely asked how he could be so certain his opinion was accurate. What evidence supported his conclusion? Like dangling one’s feet in a pond stocked with piranha, his response to my respectfully-delivered question was sharp and biting. “Well,” he proclaimed while shaking his head back and forth, “if you don’t believe what I’m telling you, there’s nothing I can do to help you.”

I obviously thought it best to drop the subject, but I remember having two internal responses to his edgy rebuke. First, “I wasn’t requesting your ‘help’ but thanks anyway,” and second, “You didn’t answer my evidence question.” I was simply to accept his opinion because, well, just because. End of discussion.

My friend’s explanation met the criteria for what we might call a conspiracy theory which Webster defines this way: “a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators.” A crisis, such as the pandemic in which we find ourselves, provides fertile ground in which conspiracy theories can sprout and spread.

Here are some features common to all conspiracy theories:

Facts Made to Fit Conclusions

Here’s the way it’s supposed to work. We start with facts, form hypotheses, test those hypotheses, and draw tentative conclusions. And we’re willing to reconsider those conclusions if facts emerge that don’t support them.

But for conspiracy theorists, all emerging facts are interpreted in such a way to fit the previously determined conclusions. Holders of conspiracy theories support their conclusions by appealing to the facts. In actuality, facts won’t alter conclusions which were previously chiseled in concrete.

The Theory is Unfalsifiable

Conspiracy theories are hard to disprove because we lack direct evidence of their falseness. For example, the belief that a large, upright, hairy creature with big feet roams our wilderness areas is hard to disprove because we can’t empirically verify that such a creature doesn’t exist. So, technically speaking, Sasquatch could be real!

Assumption of Sinister Motives

Most conspiracy theories work on the assumption that powerful and greedy big guys are out to screw the unsuspecting little guys. They’re up to something and we’ve caught them at it. That’s why they’re called conspiracy theories because someone is conspiring to do us harm.

Exploitation of Legitimate Fears

Post World War I Germany was a mess. The country had been defeated, its people were out of work, food was in short supply, the government was unstable, and inflation was stratospheric. Germans had legitimate reasons to be afraid.

Into this zone of panic stepped Adolf Hitler who dogmatized that Germany’s defeat resulted from having been “stabbed in the back” by Jews and Bolshevist sympathizers. He exploited his countrymen’s legitimate fears by illegitimately claiming that the Jews were to blame and, therefore, must be crushed. Having a desperate need to explain their out-of-control world, many Germans bought the theory.

Distortion of Reality

Once a conspiracy theory takes hold, an Orwellian world is entered where allegiance to the theory trumps allegiance to truth, leaving everyone in a state of constant confusion–where black is sometimes white and up is sometimes down. A conspiracy theory is like a magnet next to a compass making it difficult to get accurate bearings.

Arrogance of the Theory Holder

Conspiracy theorists are quite certain they have it all figured out. Their humility muscles are atrophied resulting in the stance: I’m right, you’re wrong, end of discussion.

Allegiance of the Theory Believers

Conspiracy theories can’t accomplish their purposes without willing believers. Those who espouse these theories master the art of manipulating others to participate in their alterations of reality and are gratified when successful. Those willing to believe are gratified by the security that comes from having ways to explain the unexplainable.

But it’s a false security.

So, those are my thoughts about conspiracy theories. I was on social media a day or two ago and saw someone respond to a friend who posted an article espousing some conspiracy theory. She replied, “Friend, you know I love you, but these posts are not helpful.”

She was so right.

And, by the way, if you don’t believe what I’ve been telling you in this week’s letter, there’s nothing I can do to help you.

Till next week.

10 replies
  1. Jeff Aman
    Jeff Aman says:

    Great post, Alan. I sure hope you are working these thoughts into a book, brother. – Jeff

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      I am actually. But it’s moving at a snail’s pace. Hope you’re doing well. Great to hear from you!

  2. Thalia Jemetz
    Thalia Jemetz says:

    It took me a bit but then I all of a sudden remembered that when you said, ” if you don’t believe what I’ve been telling you in this week’s letter, there’s nothing I can do to help you.,” that is like when the Bible says set your face like flint for was is true and right, versus dogmatism of deception or conspiracy

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      I did. This line was particularly prescient: “But if you do, what will you do when people start believing that the vaccine is also part of this conspiracy?” He wrote this several weeks before this notion became viral.

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