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 one: the paradoxical conspirator.
One thing you can rely on in a conspiracy theory is that those purportedly behind it are more than a little contradictory. They have to, on the one hand, be brilliant enough to pull off a usually global operation and hide it very well from the vast majority of people, but also stupid enough to let all their evidence be easily seen and properly interpreted by online theorists and their google searches.
There is, of course, only one fallback when this is pointed out, and that’s the fundamental narcissism of the conspiracy theorist. Only they and those like them are “awake,” only they are smart enough to see through to the truth. Not like “sheep” like you or I, gentle readers. No indeed.
This is patently obvious when it comes to, say, flat-earthers. The conspiracy must be immense — it’s almost hard to imagine who wouldn’t be in on it: anyone involved in launching satellites — public and private — as well as all national space agencies — even the ones that don’t get on with one another, including China, Russia, the US, and the EU, all of whom have sent people into orbit — they’d all have to be in on it. So too would all global shipping companies, all the ship captains and airplane pilots who circumnavigate the globe.
A vast majority of scientists would have to be in on it too — everything from climate scientists to GPS engineers to geologists, otherwise none of their models would fit. That is, unless they’re all (despite their degrees and experience) much, much dumber than the conspiracy theorists and can be fooled where the “truly enlightened” cannot.
Millions and millions of people are in on it, and they’re smart enough to convince millions of scientifically-educated and brilliant people — but they’re dumb enough to be exposed by armchair theorists without any of their education.
This can descend into a kind of self-affirming delusion, of course — maybe it’s the education that’s blinded them, they might say, doubling-down on their rejection of science and embrace of narcissism — all of which brings us to tomorrow’s segment: the absence of evidence as evidence itself. They can’t prove their points because the conspirators have all the really damning evidence locked away; only the bad evidence — the evidence you can knock down with a little logic — is left to be seen by the public.
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.