Conspiracy theorists make me bristle. It’s a narcissistic affliction of inflated self-importance. Somehow, only they are shrewd enough to see the cracks in the narrative fed to us by the MAINSTREAM MEDIA, which is controlled by all-powerful SPECIAL INTERESTS. (But apparently not powerful enough to shut down YouTube channels and blogs that expose their nefarious behaviour.)
I spent a few weeks as a member of a Danish Facebook group of flat-earthers who believe the world is a flat circle of land surrounded by an ice wall and covered by a glass dome.“Do your research,” one prominent user told me when I asked whether they really believed that NASA was a fake space agency, whose thousands of staff are all in on the secret.
How does he know who to trust, and who not to? Why does he trust obscure YouTubers over established experts? I suspect that conspiracy theorists are driven by a deep suspicion of power, and an awareness of the sheer magnitude of human power and wealth. Once you’ve got that in your head, you start to think, well, anything’s possible, isn’t it?
They’re not wrong that there are people with more money and power than we can possibly imagine. And they’re right that there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that we’re not aware of. I just don’t understand why, if we are both equally interested in knowing the world as it is, we have different facts?
When I talked to my Dad about this, he brought up the Austrian philosopher Popper. In his 1934 book, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Popper explains that disproving statements is much easier than proving them. “No matter how many instances of white swans we may have observed, this does not justify the conclusion that all swans are white,” Popper wrote.
So what’s the function of developing knowledge if not to know the truth? My Dad argues it’s about utility – we seek out knowledge because it helps us understand and explain the world, as well as make predictions about the future. When a new understanding arises that does a better job of explaining the world, then we ditch the old way and move on. The problem is that the old ways are sticky, and become encoded in cultural norms, religion, and so on.
For many people, it makes sense to have a coherent inner map of the world, even if it’s inaccurate and based on outdated ideas. And while some people actively shield themselves from information that conflicts with their worldview, algorithms on social media now do this work for us, by only serving us information that chimes with what we already believe.
As we become increasingly polarised, we shout our facts across the widening chasm. And in the middle lie conspiracy theorists (egotists who thrive on knowing better) and merchants of falsehood (purveyors of fake news who profit from division and sectarianism).
What’s at stake is the ability to take action on issues that affect all humanity, and to maintain the open liberal societies that grew out of the Enlightenment. And as long as we focus on who’s got the better facts, those who thrive on doubt will continue to win. How do I disprove that the Rothschilds are in charge, the moon landings were faked, that the earth is flat? No body of evidence will convince them.
Instead, we could try and tailor our messages to suit their worldview. Argue, for example, that even if climate change is a conspiracy, actions to combat it are worthwhile, improving health, wellbeing and ecosystem resilience. Even if Western governments conspired to create, then destroy, ISIS to sow doubt in Muslims that a caliphate is the best form of government, that Western Liberal societies offer minorities the most freedom and highest quality of life. That even if the Rothschilds are in charge, we are not helpless, and there are plenty of grassroots ways to create cohesive and happy communities.
On that note, a public service announcement. It’s June, and summer has started in earnest. That means two things. First, wear sunscreen. One in seven Danes contracts skin cancer, and it kills five people every week. Second, The Murmur is going on summer holiday, and will return in August. Perhaps then one of you can tell me how the seasons work on a flat earth? M