May 8, 2020

Dear Drama Observers,

I was browsing Twitter the other day and came across this exchange between three people I follow:

  • Person 1: “Help, my parents are spreading conspiracy theories on Facebook.”
  • Person 2: “Show of hands, whose parents are not spreading conspiracy theories on Facebook?”
  • Person 3: “You have finally said something I agree with.”

You might recall that I wrote about conspiracy theories a couple of months ago. They’re not new and vulnerable people have been easy prey for conspiratorial predators for a very long time. “Some people in times of crisis,” said professor of philosophy Brian Keely at Pitzer College, “look to far-fetched ideas with simple answers for complex problems.”

And in a time of crisis we are. Like a surfer floating idly until the big one comes along, a conspiracy theory may have little purchase until a crisis occurs lifting the theory’s power and visibility. Ask anyone to predict what’s going to happen in the next few months, and the most common answer you’ll hear is, “I don’t know.” Into that zone of uncertainty steps the conspiracy theorist who offers comfortable certainty in times of unsettling ambiguity.

In times past, the conspiracy theorist might be some eccentric crank down on the street corner wearing a sandwich board and shouting at passersby. But these days, as author and journalist Jonathan V. Last tells us, “They’re on mainstream television networks and the internet. They are not limited by logistics and practicalities. Instead, their reach is limited only by the demand for what they’re offering the public.”

So, the question I’d like to address today is this: How should we handle pandemic conspiracy theories? I have four suggestions.

Suggestion #1: Understand the workings of a conspiracy theory.

It’s a theory gussied up as fact. Conspiracy theorists are nothing if not certain as to the veracity of their claims.

They see themselves as revealers of concealed knowledge and the reason for the concealment is “they” don’t want you to know about it.

The “they” to which they refer stand to profit largely by keeping the truth under wraps. Their pockets are being lined while the rest of us are being lined up to die. But “they” don’t care.

The conspiracy theorist fashions himself as courageously speaking truth to power and warning the unsuspecting of what’s really going on.

They tell us that most of our major news sources are in league with “them.” The conspiracy theorist loves to remind us of what Joseph Goebbels once wrote: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” By their accounting, we’ve all been duped but just don’t realize it.

Technically, the theory could be true. A conspiracy theory is hard to debunk because we lack direct evidence of its falseness. To repeat an illustration I used a few weeks ago, most people reject the notion that Big Foot (or Sasquatch as he’s affectionately known) roams our wilderness areas. But we can’t say for sure he doesn’t exist because we lack empirical data proving his non-existence. So, a large creature roughly resembling our beloved deceased mutt, Shadow, who walks on his hind legs and is eight feet tall could technically be real.

Suggestion #2: Don’t try to reason with the unreasonable.

It’d be nice if you could say, “See here, conspiracy theorist, your theory has more holes than swiss cheese. Let me explain why I reject what you’re saying.” And after listening to your rebuttal, he’d say, “Wow, thanks for that explanation, level-headed person. I’ve not looked at it that way before, and there’s much sense in what you say. Why, I’m going on social media right now and retract what I’ve posted.”

That might happen on Neptune but not on Planet Earth.

Instead, most conspiracy theorists are impervious to any information that counters their previously-held ideas. They see themselves as truth-tellers and those who disagree simply refuse to see “the big picture.”

Every theory-confirming piece of information is to a conspiracy theorist what a cocaine hit is to an addict. Consequently, trying to talk a conspiracy theorist out of a theory to which they’ve clung is an exercise in futility. I know. I’ve tried.

Suggestion #3: Read widely and examine closely.

The conspiracy theorist, in effect, looks through a paper towel holder and the only information in view is that which confirms his theory.

We, on the other hand, should examine things through a fish-eye lens that gives us a wide range of information.

Quickly settling on a conspiracy theory explanation is lazy. Seeking truthful explanations, while harder and more time consuming, is worth the effort. After all, truth is our best ally.

Suggestion #4: Warn of its danger.

Some conspiracy theories—like a wackadoodle Area 51 tale, for instance—may be of little or no consequence. But some have life-threatening consequences if allowed to stand unchallenged.

Social media fist fights rarely change anyone’s mind. But well-reasoned, well-sourced posts offering counter explanations to potentially dangerous theories might be persuasive to fence-sitters.

The conspiracy theorist will conclude that you’re deceived and crazy. But others might be encouraged by your willingness to openly advocate for what’s true.

All this to say, beware of those conspiracy theories.

And, while you’re at it, watch out for Sasquatch.

Till next week.

7 replies
  1. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Sometimes one is labeled a conspiracy theorist just by having a different opinion. I find it interesting that if you accept what is offered with little questioning of its validity and unwilling to entertain the idea that 2 things can in fact be true at the same time, you are enlightened while someone who believes there is likely a more “real” truth somewhere in the middle, and that freedom is a slippery slope is drinking the conspiracy kool-aid.

  2. Woody
    Woody says:

    #5, read widely, examine your own prejudices, don’t forget some conspiracy theories actually are proved true in time.

  3. Jennifer Fournier
    Jennifer Fournier says:

    How does one know what IS true? It is true that those in power have abided it – even in the US. So how do we know what to believe?
    My brother thinks those trying to get everyone vaccinated are trying to institute a form of population control – that the vaccines are actually dangerous. How do you dispute this?

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      We all have to make decisions about which sources are most credible. Some people start with conclusions and search for sources that confirm those previously-formed conclusions. That’s called “motivated reasoning” or “confirmation bias.” My Suggestion #3 was to examine multiple sources from a variety of perspectives and then form tentative conclusions. The conspiracy theorist concludes first, examines second. We should examine first, then conclude.

  4. Adele
    Adele says:

    I can see how more subtle things get started and can escalate. History can repeat itself by making one person or group evil. This then can lead to any despicable act being rationalized as justifiable and essential for all to join in to fight this perceived “evil”. Some people can be quite gullible and easily swayed into bad actions in the name of the greater good.

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