The Anatomy Of A Conspiracy Theory Part 3: The Island of Self-Reliance | Vol. 4 / No. 1.4

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 three: the Island of Self-Reliance, or “if I didn’t see it myself, I can’t trust it.”

The third hallmark of conspiracy thinking is the triumphalism of personal experience and anecdote over empirical evidence, or what I like to call, living on the Island of Self-Reliance.

See, there’s a reason they call people who don’t buy into their theories “sheep” — it’s because sheep are herd animals. They get along, think the same, move together. (This, at least, is the opinion of people who haven’t met sheep ಠ~ಠ. I see you, Bellwether. Anyway.) They buy into the collective good.

This is to say, they trust people.

Now the thing about living life in modern society is that sometimes you just have to trust people. You don’t have to trust everyone all of the time, but you do things, every day, that involve accepting things that are beyond your comprehension. Things that, if they were lies, would probably cost you your life. Maybe you don’t understand how planes fly, or how antibiotics work, or the basics of structural engineering, but you may well still have to fly across an ocean, or cure an infection, or go work in a skyscraper. You might not know how a car’s brakes, seatbelts, and airbags work but you have to trust that they do otherwise getting into a car would be completely, totally, mind-blowingly insane.

But for some people, and for some topics (only some), they just can’t shake the feeling that they shouldn’t exhibit that trust. “The Earth is round? Well, I’ve never seen it.” “Vaccines don’t cause autism? Well then you take them, I’m not taking the chance on my kid.” “Politicians are human? Sure, they look that way, but I know differently.”

People who live on the Island of Self-Reliance want personal experience of proof that counters their suspicions, and for some topics that’s very hard to get. It’s pretty simple with the flat Earth thing (seriously, just get on a boat and buy a pair of binoculars to watch as you approach land, preferably the white cliffs of Dover on a sunny day), but others are harder: how do you prove that vaccines don’t cause autism a tiny percentage of the time to someone who’ll only take them once. They’ll think they just “got lucky.” How do you convince someone that thinks politicians are shapeshifters with highly-advanced alien technology? They’ll always have an ability to fool us (we call that a “self-reinforcing delusion,” just for those of you playing along at home).

Which, of course, returns us back to the first post on this topic, the paradoxically brilliant-yet-stupid conspirators: because if they’re smart enough to always evade producing reliable evidence, they’re brilliant, but if it’s so obvious they’re doing it, they’re idiots.

Anyway, I think that’s enough on conspiracy theories and conspiracy thinking for one week. Or maybe for a lifetime. Elle’s up tomorrow with your regularly-scheduled #FeministFriday post.

Thanks for reading.


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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.