On Conspiracy Part 2 – Who are Fringe Thinkers?

There’s a lot of talk right now about Plandemic and people who believe in conspiracy theorists. I’m a skeptic and firmly committed to science and reason to explain natural phenomena but I also spend a lot of time engaging with conspiracy theories. So I wanted to make a series of posts explaining what I know about people with these thoughts. This is Part 2 so you may want to start with Part 1!

So I’m going to just right in with one of the biggest misconceptions people have: most conspiracy theorists, are enthusiastic fans of reason and logic and often science as well. I will agree that they may not have a wide breadth understanding of these topics, and if you look at the language they use you can’t really form any other conclusion. They use all of the trappings of someone making a logical argument.

Where they are lead astray usually boils down to the fact that they simply don’t have the same background as you. All humans, even those extremely and studiously committed to reason, are susceptible to their own cognitive biases. You can argue that conspiracy theorists are more susceptible than others but that doesn’t make them altogether too different from you.

So conspiracy theorists are fans of reason and logic, and they don’t have the same background as non conspiracy theorists – but what does that mean? Well, some people are exposed to formal logic – others aren’t. Some people are exposed to concepts like vetting sources – other’s arent. That’s all part of it, certainly.

But also, some people make a mistake in reason or science and the pushback they encounter fosters a growing interest in the field. Others either encounter a different message or perceive the message differently. To them, they have an experience of being separated or shunned from mainstream science and reason.

It’s at this point that you might be tempted to say “well that is their problem not mine.” And I absolutely have to tell you: you’re entitled to say and think and do whatever you like, but if that is your attitude you sit firmly in the “part of the problem” camp.

All people, whether you acknowledge it or not, want to be validated. At some point in time you experienced that validation and now you are a part of a community of people who trust science. They did not get that, someone invalidated their relationship to mainstream science. A different group offered them validation and they chose to stick with that one.

If you have the attitude that these people are fundamentally “less than” then these people have absolutely no incentive to be persuaded by your arguments or to ever change their mind.

This is not a failing on their part. It would be, frankly, unhealthy to seek out a group that makes you feel bad. No one is born knowing that science is good and right, they have to be taught. And, frankly, science is too important for the sole marketing arm to be grade school teachers with baking soda and vinegar. (More on that later)

It’s also important to understand that conspiracy theorists are also people. With lives and experiences. It’s easy to dismiss the things they say and move on – but it’s worth (both for your personal grown as a human, but also in keeping with the spirit of a skeptic) considering that to them something is happening.

When someone says “I saw a ghost yesterday.” If you reply “no you didn’t, that didn’t happen.” You would only be half right. This person did experience some kind of sensory input, they may have drawn the wrong conclusion but they did, in fact, experience something. The role of a skeptic is to ask questions, do research or lean on known facts, and present a reasonable explanation.

A scientist doesn’t say yes or no – a scientist gathers data and gives the best data based on what is available. Sometimes that is a yes or a no, sometimes not – but to proclaim any answer without facts is not science. Truthfully, you are committing many of the same errors in reason as conspiracy theorists whenever you jump to conclusions. It doesn’t matter if you jump to the right conclusion. Science is a process, a way of thinking – it’s not a badge of authority that makes your words the automatic truth.

Related to this – it’s important to understand that conspiracy theorists are sometimes totally right! Sometimes, they’re only right. And, yes, sure, often they have it all wrong – but again, being a good scientist means not dismissing these things out of hand.

The fact is, the government has experimented on citizens in the past and it is fair for some populations to be wary of that. When those populations were taken advantage of it was by scientists who abused their position of power – scientists who knew more about a subject and were able to present the information in a way that misled the citizens.

It’s important to point out there – I’m saying all of this regarding conspiracy theorists acting in good faith. There are certainly conspiracy theorists/fringe thinkers who may not believe what they are saying and are simply after fame or money. They absolutely deserve scorn and to whatever extent possible to have their ability to spread false science taken away – but the scorn should be wielded diplomatically, with measured words, because their followers will be watching – they can either be persuaded or driven further away.

And there are damaging conspiracy theories, I’m not saying there aren’t. But, again, these theories will spread farther and for a longer time if people continue to focus on attacking rather than winning people over.

In the next and probably final part I’ll discuss some strategies for how to best approach people you care about who share these things, and ways to cultivate more empathy on both sides to hopefully bring everyone together on the side of reason.

On Conspiracy Part 1 – What I Think I Know

There’s a lot of talk right now about Plandemic, a documentary that is spreading information that is not backed up by evidence. For every post I’ve seen on social media advocating for the documentary I’ve seen ten decrying those who share it as ‘dangerous’, ‘dumb’, or ‘crazy’. While I understand where this comes from, and I would never discourage anyone from expressing themselves – I can’t help but think that these champions of reason may not understand the harm they are doing, or they simply don’t care.

So I’m writing this series of blog posts just to get my thoughts out on the ways mainstream thinkers might be misconstruing conspiracy theorists and ultimately helping to perpetuate their worldview. In this part I’m going to define some terms and give my background that way we can all start on the same page in the next 2 parts.

I should probably explain where I’m coming from first. I consider myself a skeptic (that is to say a member of the Skeptical Movement) – I trust in reason, critical thinking and science and I also consider it to be intellectually bankrupt to dismiss an extraordinary claim out of hand. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and I believe it’s worth withholding judgement (or at least keeping an open mind) until the claims can be examined with a critical eye.

Conspiracy theories are a particular kind of extraordinary claim that centers around the idea that a group of people is responsible for something and you aren’t supposed to know about it. The Illuminati is a common conspiracy theory. So was project ECHELON. But they can also manifest in family drama, or office politics.

Fringe theories are extraordinary claims that differ from established points of view on a topic. Linking vaccines to autism is a common example. So was continental drift. But fringe theories also appear as out of the box business strategies, and they can even appear as solid science that is simply in the process of being vetted.

Personally, I think both of these concepts exist together in some capacity, that is, if one is present so is the other even if to a lesser extent.

I’ve always been fascinated by conspiracy theories, fringe theories and the paranormal. At various points in my life, mostly in high school, I dabbled in belief in these topics but only half-heartedly. I stayed in the various forums and subreddits long after I stopped buying into it, though. I find the entire culture incredible, I think the ideas are fun to engage with, and largely experience it as collaborative fiction that I get to watch unfold in real time.

It is difficult sometimes to read posts by members of these communities. Often their own hangups, shortcomings, and insecurities are very clearly influencing their points of view. It’s rare to get such an intimate peek into someone’s mind – in a lot of ways these communities are more open and willing to be vulnerable than other more “mainstream” communities.

These days I don’t visit the forums or subreddits anymore. Sometime in the 2010s the specific subreddits I enjoyed became overrun with misogyny and racism. While I still find the topics and most of the people fascinating, those are the sorts of views I find it hard to be around for too long. Nowadays I listen to podcasts, read blog posts, or dip into specific friends’ facebook feeds to catch up what the conspiracy theorists are up to.

I also listen to skeptic podcasts, and follow a number of skeptics on social media – I’ve found this to be an excellent way to keep up with the scene without having to invest as much time as I used to. And they tend to do a good job of weeding out the racism!

So there you have it. A bit of background to hopefully set the stage for this short series that – let’s face it, maybe 5 people are ever going to read!

See you next time!