Thursday 15 March 2018

The Real Lesson of Conspiracy Theories

I was born on the tail end of Generation X which means I grew up with just as many conspiracy theories as fairy tales (which explains a lot about me, now that I think about it).  The government was hiding evidence of UFOs at Roswell and Shag Harbour.  They had satellites capable of reading newspapers from orbit.  They were recording phone calls and keeping files.

5 across is SAVE not SAME!
Basically, there was a great deal of cynicism about the motives of public figures.  No longer was it assumed that people were acting out of altruism and public interest.  Sometimes they were covering up horrible crimes (such as taking bribes, or covering up abuse) and sometimes they were just abysmally uncaring of the consequences of their actions.

I look around today and it's astonishing how many conspiracy theories are out there.  From those who think that Big Pharma is concealing evidence that vaccines cause autism, to accusations that mass shooting victims are paid actors, to the ever popular lizard-people-in-disguise who run our governments.  But I also think there has been a significant change for how these theories work.

When we used to meet in coffee shops to whisper about conspiracies (don't judge), we were following the tagline of The X-files: The Truth is Out There.  We would get frustrated when people included obviously false or discredited information in their proof, as that undermined anything else they were presenting.  We discounted people who offered nothing beyond "it's all lies and fake evidence" as proof.  We applied critical thinking to what we were told, sharpening our abilities to see through plausible lies and self-serving misdirection.

Honestly, I think that was a good thing for us.  It is not in the public's interest to blindly trust the government or media, but it is also not in the public interest to automatically distrust authority and believe anyone with a website and an agenda.  We need to apply critical thinking to everything we're told, because it is appallingly easy to get caught up in lies, regardless of the source.

Conspiracy theories demonstrate how much we have to take things on faith.  Personal experience is always substantially more limited than the information we receive about the world around us.  If I'm not at a particular speech, I have to rely on other people to tell me what was said.  If it was recorded, I need to be aware of editing and what context may have been emphasized and what might have been left out.  This is how people are able to use the same evidence to support radically different points of view.  

Let's take the famous photo of the Roswell debris for an example.  At first look, it seems like a photo would provide some definitive evidence.  We can look at the photo and see what was found in the farmer's fields.  Sounds like it should be case closed, right?

Except it's never that simple.

Major Jesse Marcel, the man in the photo, said that this debris is not what he saw out in that field.  He claimed that this photo was staged to prevent panic and maintain secrecy.  He deeply resented how the government and the media represented him as a man who could not differentiate between an extraterrestrial craft and a weather balloon.

Counter-conspiracists (yes, it's a thing) claim that Marcel lied to protect his own reputation.  They believe that this photo is exactly what it appears to be on the surface: the debris collected in Roswell, New Mexico.  Nicer versions say that Marcel got confused in the dark and realized what was going on in the light of day.  Less nice versions accuse him of working up the public for his own purposes (revenge at being overlooked to pilot the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, desire for public recognition or a movie deal, the list is impressively varied).

Alternate conspiracists say that Marcel did in fact find something unusual in those fields but it was a classified airplane or satellite.  The weather balloon debris was substituted in order to protect defense secrets.

Lots of possibilities, some more plausible than others but they all hinge on one fact: whether or not the debris in the photo is actually what was found.  There's no way that any individual can know for certain unless they were one of the individuals involved in both the initial search and the photo shoot.  Everyone else is relying on hearsay.  But it's still important to remember that there is a truth under all of the elaborate stories.  Either that is the Roswell debris or it isn't.

It's exciting to think that we know something that others don't.  It's cool to be in the position of educating others about a new twist or fact.  But these theories can also cause a great deal of harm.  

Fears about vaccines causing autism have caused measles to return and some of those cases have led to otherwise preventable deaths.  The belief that mass shooting victims are paid actors has led to people threatening and attacking those who are suffering from trauma and grief and caused significant resources to be devoted to disproving the claims. 

The latter is the most common and most pernicious problem with conspiracy theories.  They waste time.  Millions of dollars, untold hours and masses of personal energy are spent debunking these theories over and over and over again.  And those who support them simply refuse to believe the accumulating evidence, dismissing it again and again. 

It's fun to speculate.  I still love doing it and that's why my series has a secret society and government conspiracies.  It can be a great tool to sharpen critical thinking and awareness of one's own personal biases.  But there does need to be a level of accountability and awareness of how these theories can cause harm.

Meanwhile, come and join me for a coffee and we can talk about how Bigfoot is secretly an extra-terrestrial entity who has come to save our wildlife in a pan-dimensional ark.

For more stuff on space, you can look at my previous post on the real-life heroines of Hidden Figures.

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