Photo: Raquel Baranow, CC BY 2.0
With the rise of the Trump-Alex Jones-Breitbart paranoia nexus in recent weeks and months, I’ve seen a lot of conspiracy theories showing up on the national stage. Being a skeptic, I’m maybe a little more familiar with the anatomy of a conspiracy theory than most, so I thought it might be worthwhile to do a short series of posts on key features common to many, if not all, conspiracy theories. From the “flat” Earth to “chemtrails” to the purported New World Order (coming soon with or without “Reptilians”), they all have these things on common. And now, part two: when the absence of evidence becomes evidence itself.
Well of course we don’t have direct evidence — you think they’re careless enough to let that slip out?
It’s a logic that defies all explanation. All the “good” evidence is locked away or swept under the rug, but we know it’s there because it has to be, since we know our conclusion to be true. And we know that because we have (bad) evidence, and nevermind the fact that it’s bad evidence because there’s better evidence: they’ve just covered it up.
It’s a tautology, one that “begs the question” (or, it did, before “begging the question” came to mean “failing to ask the question out loud”): it takes its conclusion as evidence that other evidence exists, forgetting that the conclusion is supposed to rest on the evidence, not provide an argument for that evidence’s existence in the first place.
Take the “Big Pharma”–autism–vaccine conspiracy: millions of doctors say there’s no evidence that vaccines or anything in them causes autism, but many would have you believe that all the evidence has been hidden by “Big Pharma” in the name of profiteering. The absence of evidence has been taken as confirmation of the power of their imagined conspirators.
Yesterday I wrote about how, with a little narcissism, it’s possible to dismiss the very real evidence presented by experts, and to deny their expertise by implicating their education as a form of indoctrination. The same thing has to happen here: for all those millions of doctors worldwide who refuse to buy into the conspiracy narrative, the assumption is that despite their knowledge and education, they must be chumps. And if the difference between them and the people who can “see” the conspiracy is education, then maybe the education is to blame.
This, incidentally, is how conspiracy theories erode public confidence in the very systems set up to help society’s weakest. Anything that doesn’t agree with their theory becomes suspect, be it public education, public health, or, in the case of Alex Jones and Breitbart and their merry fact-free men, public reporting. Which brings us to the final part of the series (for this week, anyway): the Island of Self-Reliance.
See you tomorrow, everybody.
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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.