As we begin a new year and approach a presidential election, I find myself wondering if the polarizing ideological conflicts that convulse our nation are going to become more extreme. I have read articles talking about how people used to be able to differ politically without also, apparently, hating each other. Yet today’s ideological differences are expressing themselves much less as reasoned disagreements than they are as vitriolic and insult-laden shouting matches, whether between televised talking heads or anonymous keyboard warriors. Rather than engaging in civil and open-minded debate, people align themselves with one position and cling to it ferociously, even in the face of rational arguments and clear facts to the contrary. I believe much of this has to do with the double-edged ease with which information now flows to people from so many different sources. I say double-edged because for every factual piece of information, there is a converse piece of utter nonsense, and because people are so easily swayed by their own confirmation bias (and I am not immune!) they find what they seek and then guard their bit of “proof” as tenaciously as a mother bear guarding her cubs.
One of the reasons I keep this blog is because I am practicing being a better critical thinker. No one is immune from logical fallacies, but by writing about them (and, I hope, making them familiar to others), I hope to keep them at the forefront of my mind when I am confronted by new information and, especially, differences of opinion. I am just as likely as anybody else to scoff at a headline or article that does not align with what I already (want to) believe; but with practice, I am learning to recognize these errors and try to overcome them. So, I try to remember to fact-check ideas even if they support my point of view. I explore further when I am confronted with information that refutes what I already believe. I am especially cautious about sources that I know to be ideologically aligned with what I already think – in other words, just because an article comes from Mother Jones or Think Progress or Vox, I am still responsible for approaching it critically. There are certain sources I have stopped consulting, even though they purport to be progressive or liberal, because I have found with investigation that they are exaggerating, distorting, or omitting the facts. No side is blameless when it comes to this practice, so you always have to be cautious. Of course, when a preponderance of the evidence supports a point of view, like any good scientist I am going to be supportive of that view. This is simple enough when dealing with factual information, but less so when it comes to opinions and interpretations. Still, if you have the facts to support the opinion, the ground becomes pretty solid. And, I am more than happy to debate with people who can logically and rationally employ (sometimes the same) facts and come up with a different conclusion. That is what good civil discourse is all about.
But now for the crux of this post: people whose beliefs in support of their ideologies have become so irrational and paranoid that no amount of countering factual information will possibly sway them. This way of thinking is called conspiracism, in contrast with rationalism. Do I mean to imply that conspiracism is irrational? Absolutely – but don’t try telling a conspiracist that. Just like belief in the supernatural, conspiracism is not subject to logical testing because there is always an answer to your rational counter-argument. As I noted above, every person is prone to using logical fallacies, but conpiracism elevates it to an art form. No lapse of logic is off-limits in defense of the conspiracy. You have a news account or article that refutes the conspiracist’s argument? That’s from the lame-stream media – you can’t trust them! Ask the conspiracist for factual proof in support of their hypothesis? I can’t show you – THEY are powerful and THEY don’t want us to know! Question the validity and objectivity of the conspiracist’s source? Of course s/he isn’t affiliated with a university or research institution or respected media outlet – OTHER people got rid of them because they were threatened by the truth s/he discovered! Just like people defending their belief in God, conspiracists have an answer for everything. Here are a few other characteristics of your typical conspiracist, courtesy of Michael Shermer’s wonderful book Why People Believe Weird Things (1997, p. 206):
- Absolute certainty they have the truth.
- America is controlled to a greater or lesser extent by a conspiratorial group. In fact, they believe this evil group is very powerful and controls most nations. (My addition: or, the conspiratorial group may be the government itself).
- Open hatred of opponents. Because these opponents (actually “enemies” in the extremists’ eyes) are seen as a part of or sympathizers with “The Conspiracy,” they deserve hatred and contempt. (My addition: the contempt often takes the form of the epithet “sheeple,” to describe people who aren’t “smart enough” to recognize the conspiracy – they are sheep).
- Little faith in the democratic process. Mainly because most believe “The Conspiracy” has such influence in the U.S. government, and therefore extremists usually spurn compromise.
- Willingness to deny basic civil liberties to certain fellow citizens, because enemies deserve no liberties.
- Consistent indulgence in irresponsible accusations and character assassination.
It’s no coincidence that at least five of these characteristics seem to apply to that idol of the far right, Donald Trump! (The only one I’m not sure of is number 2.) But at the same time, I want to be clear that conspiracism is not limited to those on the political right. Whether you are anti-vaccine, anti-GMO, or anti-fur, or a Birther, a Truther, or a Holocaust denier, there is enough conspiracism to cover the entire spectrum of ideologies. We can even include non-political conspiracists like flat-Earthers! Not every conspiracist has all the characteristics listed above, but it only takes adherence to a few. And these aren’t the only typical characteristics. Conspiracists believe that they are special. They, in amongst all the sheeple, have been able to resist the lies. Only they have the mental toughness and intelligence to recognize the truth. They are immune to the conspiracy, and they may even be in danger because of their special knowledge – which is why they really can’t tell you how they know what they know. They are members of an exclusive club of the super-smart, the super-aware, and the super-prepared. They can’t be fooled. Just imagine what a powerful feeling this must be, and maybe it starts to make sense why some people become adherents of conspiracism.
I don’t really have a point to end on here. Mostly, I’m dismayed at how widespread at least some degree of conspiracism has become. And let me stress that I’m not saying that I think every person who disagrees with me is a conspiracist! In fact, most of the people with whom I discuss opposing ideas do not fall into this category; or at least, they only exhibit one or two of the characteristics from the list. And I do have reason for hope. I frequently change my stance in light of new information, and I know other people do, too. Just this morning, I read this wonderful quote from one of my science heroes, Alfred Russel Wallace:
Truth is born into this world only with pangs and tribulations, and every fresh truth is received unwillingly. To expect the world to receive a new truth, or even an old truth, without challenging it, is to look for one of those miracles that do not occur.
A few days ago, a friend of mine and I civilly debated someone on her Facebook feed about an issue we feel passionately about (appropriation of Native American culture). He wasn’t buying our arguments, but the next day he posted on the original thread to say he’d done some reading and research of his own, and he had changed his mind. Moments like this give me hope – and I think when people are approached with civility and friendliness, when they aren’t insulted or bullied or accused but are instead invited to spell out their differences – well, when that happens, miracles CAN occur.