Why am I stooping to such a title? I have no overall opinion of Trump and in fact think he’s hit the mark dead on in some politically-oriented comments he’s made. But his most recent interview is emblematic of the pandemic of armchair conspiracies run amok, or simply put, bad thinking. The fact he thought a birth certificate might somehow indicate the religion of someone (now an adult no less) put him — at least in this instance — clearly questionable as a sane, educated, reasoning adult.
Conspiracy theories may lead to prove something completely real, or at least founded in some degree of truth. This isn’t problematic to a society, but a blessing of free speech, thought, and press. What IS problematic are the long lines of people eager to believe anything that catches their eye and then are unable to give it a second thought from that point forward — unless it reinforces what they already bought into.
Propaganda is just commonly understood enough (and technology so available) that pretty much anyone with some video editing skills can convince the masses that astronauts were never outside near-earth orbit, peanut butter disproves Evolution, or being a Muslim mandates the killing of unbelievers and any Muslims saying otherwise are lying. Yes, these are all real examples. Cutting room lies are no longer monopolized by fraudumentarists like [[Michael Moore]], and if you’re [[Zeitgeist The Movie|product]] is slick enough, you could even start [[The Zeitgeist Movement|a whole movement]] while college professors use your films to teach how to spot propaganda and poor critical thinking. No matter, there will be enough who will follow you blindly, pretending they are the ones thinking for themselves.
Why such widespread insanity? The psychological appeal of conspiracies is great. Those who believe are part of an instant clique, smug in their group assurance that they know something other people don’t, or aren’t “brave” enough to accept. Ironically, they find strength in numbers and sometimes use the “x number of people can’t be wrong” argument, forgetting that by the nature of conspiracy there will always be far more people who don’t agree — and need to be dismissed as ignorant, unenlightened, or simply not astute as the initiated. It is not that the masses may NOT know the truth or be able to accept it, but that the argument itself is not a logical argument at all, the result (and often intention) of which is to justify the rejection of contradictory points of view.
What are the symptoms? People acting like instant experts, albeit from the school of hard blogs and news snippets. Repeating what they are told rather than what they have fairly investigated without someone else connecting the dots. Such opinions and “facts” were never their own conclusions but borrowed from others as if they had an independent revelation. But then all sorts of nonsensical statements are passed around like viruses, arguments with caveats heaped and plotted upon them to make them infallible, or at least resilient to any and all contradictory evidence. And when confronted with logic or facts they cannot back away from quickly enough, they hide behind “experts” versus “you.” Who are you anyway to question experts? This logical fallacy, [[Appeal to Authority]], has given many a debating opponent the self-delusion of escape from someone more knowledgeable than themselves.
No open-minded person has a problem with differing opinions — that is not the criticism here. The problem is with bad thinking and propaganda that results in the closed minds such people will accuse any non-believer of.
I myself change my mind about the possibility of this or that conspiracy theory all the time, based on new evidence or facts I did not previously know. It’s a matter of how possible something is, and I only give it my time if it is first plausible beyond reasonable doubt. In other words, some theories can be debunked. Of course this upsets greatly those who cling to their beliefs like a life-raft and insist the jury is in and no further evidence could possibly be relevant.
Take the Birthers, Please
A perfect example of this is the [[Birther]] agenda to prove President Obama is not a natural born citizen. I had no knowledge of it before I got into a detailed discussion asking for a “Birther” to explain their point of view. And it was they who convinced me the opposite was true, after looking at every argument (and its flaws) and researching every one of their claims. Finding them to be obfuscations, misinformation, convoluted conjecture, and blatant denials of reality, I was left with not a single reason to believe the conspiracy true. They simply ran out of “facts” and stormed off, declaring me (laughably) an incurable liberal. That said, I’m not asserting I know for absoluteluy certain Obama was born in Hawaii, but that there simply is no logical reason to NOT believe all the reasonable evidence showing this is true.
This isn’t the usual grey area about what happened at Roswell or who was behind Kennedy’s shooting. I am confident I can prove this in a court of law with very little effort, and the process is a perfect case study in determining what is and is not reasonable doubt of plausability. If people could apply the common sense I am about to lay out, they would always have a BS detector, or at least compass to avoid straying into embarassment around those of us who can make the call.
Litmus Tests for Truth and Conspiracies
The following are some helpful criteria to determine the veracity of a conspiracy theory, or any position for that matter.
(1) Can a similar conspiracy be used (and believed) to “disprove” common notions that are not in question.
One way of approaching this is asking if the burden of proof is too high. By the Birther’s standards, for example, the citizenship of most Americans is in question. The details are tedious because of the next point.
(2) Is the conspiracy theory under constant revision?
As evidence emerges that does not fit the conspiracy model, the model is changed, often as many times as necessary, forever. This is not a mere debunking of counter-arguments, but the creation of new ones to compensate. In the Birther’s example, the various pieces of evidence are not proven to be false, but the insertion of even the slightest of doubt prevents acceptance. Evidence is assumed to be in question because an alternate explanation can be given. The unlikeliness of the alternate explanation — the remoteness of possibilities that would be required to account for the evidence otherwise — determines the weakness or utter lack of the conspiracy’s foundations.
(3) Did the conspiracy theory exist from the start, before becoming popular?
This is tricky and requires a little homework. The idea here is to determine if there was doubt or insufficiency in the details surrounding the conspiracy’s subject BEFORE the conspiracy theory came about. In the Birther’s example, the question is if the details were noteworthy or brought to anyone’s attention before the theory, creating it. I find no trace of this. The alternative inplicates the evidence and arguments as potentially contrived, finding “proof” after the assumption, putting the egg before the chicken. It is like looking for a crime you don’t even know happened and then trying to find victims and then pinning it on someone you don’t like.
(4) Does the tenor of the conspiracy not allow it to be disproven?
This is really a personal one, not about the conspiracy theory but its adherents. It deals with the logical fallacy of [[Unfalsifiability]], not in the specific structuring of an argument, but in a more general sense of making it so no amount of evidence can be sufficient. It could be called the “Litmus Test for Lost Causes”. Another reason I used the Birther conspiracy is because of this last point — the refusal to accept any evidence reviewed by anyone. It is a combination of all the above factors.
For example, even though an official birth certificate WAS released over a year ago, reviewed by independent journalists in person, posted online, and confirmed by state authorities, the request for its release never ceased. To Birthers it never happened or was “fake” with no indication that any document even signed by the deity of your choice would be accepted as “not fake.” Anyone can call something a fake easily enough, but in spite of the burden of proof issue, belief it is fake against actual credible sources saying it is not is an issue of bad judgment, nothing more. Flatly, if there is no way to satisfy someone with proof over unfounded accusation, it is a waste of time, and the conspiracy theory would probably only be right by some rare luck of the draw.
(5) The company conspiracy keeps
I list this one last because it is merely circumstantial. It is not the body of facts or smoking gun or arguments but the motive to believe and/or deceive at all costs. Do bad arguments and false facts surround the conspiracists agenda to the point of no credibility in general? With the Birthers, the answer is a thundering yes.
The central arguments all fail. They are about the differences between “Certificate of Live Birth” and a “Birth Certificate”, finding (unlikely) reasons to doubt the relevance of birth notices, and the social security number being from another state and year. A little research will show simple explanations for these that are not out of the ordinary. Incosnsitencies based on confusing today’s paperwork with those of the time in question were overlooked by non-thinking readers. Even the simple distinction between “short form” and “long form” was misrepresented, something any state employee could have clarified if they had been asked and the accusers had been honest.
It is also important to note that these arguments never go beyond instilling doubt about existing proof. There’s no evidence at all Obama was born somewhere else, just snippets of speeches out of context and casual statements being reinterpreted to the point of being just plain bizarre. After all, Kenyans calling him a “native son” because his father was Kenyan makes more sense when you are faced within the fact Kenyans find it silly that people think he was literally born there. Perhaps the most amazing intentional confusion is stooping to quote the laws and precedents of OTHER countries as proof that “natural-born citizen” doesn’t actually mean (in America) physically being born in the country (United States). Seriously.
But it doesn’t end there. Ask yourself this: are the people touting the conspiracy eager to believe and repeat unchecked information backing their agenda? What are the Birthers saying on auto-dial? The fact that Michelle Obama let her license to practice law lapse gives way to the urban legend she was disbarred. The huge, demanding, “unanswered” question of Barack’s driver’s license suspension turned out to be unpaid parking tickets. Questions with already known answers are constantly being asked to imply there’s a guilty secret.
The point is that a conspiracy cannot be taken as seriously when surrounded by information that is made up of disproven assumptions, facts in (purposely) misleading context, and other intellectual dishonesties, especially when sich things persist after fair, rational, credible determinations have been made.
To be honest, I at first suspected there was truth in the Birther’s camp for one simple assertion — that millions of dollars were spent obstructing an investigation into his birth certificate. But I didn’t forget a most basic lesson: don’t believe everything you hear without question. Look at everything with the same eye whether you want to believe it or not. So I gave it some thought. What exactly are these millions we are talking about spent on and who is doing the spending? If there are real dollars being referred to, is the intention of the use of them interpreted fairly or rationalized as something else, something appearing insidious? And I asked the big question and didn’t get an answer: Why should I believe the whole idea of Obama or others spending all this money isn’t just something someone said and is being repeated in the same vein as a juicy rumor? If someone could at least establish this one accusation, the debate would be reopened in my book, a crack at least.
But as being objective and open-minded are core values to me, I leave one final caveat, hinted at throughout. The arguments for any position may be bad and the facts may be wrong and the propogators may be dishonestly hellbent on “proof” and persuation toward a belief rather than discovering truth no matter what it may be. However, that does not mean there might not be truth in such a theory’s conclusion after all.
It only means that you’d be foolish for asserting your own conclusion based on such things.
Donald trump, I hope you are reading this.
P.S. There will be follow-up articles that dissect other examples, including “conspiracies” that have become mainstream. Stay tuned.