Hey, Travis, when everybody is out to get you, paranoid is just good thinking!
– Dr. Johnny Fever
If there is one group of people that I despise arguing with, it is conspiracy theorists. I find it even more frustrating than debating someone with strong religious convictions. Maybe it’s just because I can sympathize better with people with strong religious beliefs because I have been exposed to religion and have had family who have strong religious beliefs. Now both types of people are belief driven and in many ways there is no difference at least in terms of how neural pathways are formed and how the impact of reinforcing those neural pathways impacts the brain, but there is something about conspiracy theorists that seems more concerning. Maybe this is true only for religious fundamentalists in the west. In other areas of the world I would fear religious fundamentalists much more, but maybe it’s because with religion the crux of the debate falls to the supernatural and with the supernatural there is no way to disprove it. For those who have faith it’s tangible and real and this is what governs their thinking. A lot of times if you bring into the realm of the real world you can often find common ground and agree on things, even if you disagree on the mechanism. In fact I’m pretty sure I’d be less surprised if someone found actual evidence of the existence of God than some of the conspiracy theories that some people believe in as being real.
When it comes to conspiracy theorists, the troubling part to me is that all of what they believe is easily disprovable. There are no supernatural forces at work; it’s a conspiracy that involves this plane of existence. It’s physical and tangible in a very real sense. We can actually settle the debate. With God, you’re never going to settle it, because God cannot be disproven in a strictly logical sense (of course that’s because for something to exist the onus for proof is on those that would assert its existence).
I was talking to a colleague recently who is a geologist. He had told me before that his father was very conservative and does not think evolution is real. More than not accepting the scientific evidence he has invented a conspiracy theory in which all fossils are fabricated and made in a factory somewhere and then scientists plant them around the world so that they pretend they have evidence. It just blew my mind when he told me. The amount of fossils we have is enormous and the time and energy to make all of those, plant them all over the world, all so that we could tell a false narrative about the origins of life are astronomical for me to even wrap my head around it. Of course I’ve heard the general theme before that evolution is just a conspiracy to try and disprove the Bible and I literally don’t understand.
As an atmospheric scientist of course the one I deal with the most is the conspiracy associated with global warming. Thousands and thousands of scientists all banding together trying to get greedy off that alternative energy money and trying to destroy the poor fossil fuel companies who apparently are struggling to make ends meet. Debates usually go something like this:
Me. “As somebody who studies this and understands how the atmosphere works…” I list a lot of hard evidence, and explain how the greenhouse effect works.
CT (Conspiracy Theorist) Evidence ignored and the grand retort is “But other people are experts too and they disagree”.
Me. Thinking, ohh they want to try to take that right now “Actually not really, few people who deny climate change are actually atmospheric scientists, and none of them have been able to publish any scientifically sound papers in peer-reviewed journals on the subject. Such scientist’s research is always funded by oil companies.”
CT: “That’s because the journals are controlled by the IPCC and they prevent any contrary evidence from getting published.”
Me: *bangs head*
The back and forths are usually longer, but this was just a glimpse. One thing I have noticed that is common with all these debates is that they never address any scientific evidence you present directly. So in retrospect, debate is a bad word. They have no defense on the workings of antigens, the physics behind the greenhouse effect, or the random mutations of genes. There is always some larger organization involved pulling the strings, shadow networks, cover-ups, secret e-mails, vast sums of money involved. They post links to sites that reference other articles written by someone with equally little knowledge of what they are talking about. There are vague references to events that never happen, or if they did happen there is no way to prove that they happened. And why do these conspiracy theories always involve the government or scientists?
Governments are for the most part, simply incompetent. The level of organization they need to have to pull some of the shit off that people give them credit for is truly astounding. The really corrupt ones are so obviously corrupt and drunk on power there is no need of secrecy they do it right in front of your face. And of course I know many scientists. They are some of the finest people I know: curious, intelligent, and for the most part noble and compassionate. Corrupt scientists are few and far between and are easily exposed because scientists believe that what they are doing is valuable and important and have zero tolerance for those that would make a mockery of the scientific process and allow bad science to flourish.
Now certainly you might say at this point, while we have never proven the existence of a supernatural deity, there have been conspiracies. To that, I say most definitely and in fact that’s what makes conspiracies relatively short-lived and small. Because people are generally good and if there is some conspiracy that is causing harm to people, and lying to people it’s not long before somebody’s conscience gets the better of them and they get the message out. In fact, this would seem to put a natural limit into how large a conspiracy can grow. Once it gets too big or too harmful, whistleblowers will come out of the woodwork. And there will be tangible evidence of this conspiracy and unsubstantiated hypotheses are no longer necessary.
I have decided that I need to stop engaging such people. But it’s hard, because there some of the conspiracy theories, if allowed to spread, can cause real harm. Like ones related to climate change or vaccinations and then I find it hard to keep quiet because lives are literally at stake. Ultimately it feels like people who purport conspiracy theories enjoy the attention, the feeling of importance that they are part of the minority and they get it and everybody else has been duped. Perhaps it’s just ego. Perhaps it’s just pure and utter fear of a world they don’t understand. Perhaps it’s just people wanting to believe in something do badly that they will invent anything to rationalize that belief. I don’t know. I’d be curious to learn how some of my other readers deal with conspiracy theorists.
Note: A study was conducted to determine whether Tin Foil Hats really protect your thoughts being read. Turns out it makes it worse. At least that’s what “physics” tells us. (That’s the punch line if you don’t want to read the article).