Conspiracy Thinking Is Cargo Cult Skepticism

Conspiracy Thinking Is Cargo Cult Skepticism February 2, 2017

Many skeptics in the states have been baffled at the election of an authoritarian science denier. Those of us who rely on evidence and reason have been dismayed that the current leader of the free world is a believer in demonstrable nonsense, he is both a climate change denier and he thinks that vaccines cause autism, among other things.  It’s not just science he denies, there’s other clearly false nonsense he buys into. After all, he was at the forefront of the racist birther movement, and he’s still pushing the unsubstantiated myth that he lost the popular vote because of voter fraud. Political opinions aside, he’s simply operating on alternative facts (also known as bullshit). Disappointingly, those of us who operate on evidence and critical thinking lost a battle to conspiracy theorists.

It’s apparent that the conspiracy crowd was a large component of why Donald won. You don’t see any conspiracy theories that Trump held a pedophile ring in a pizza shop, and it doesn’t take much digging to find an article tying some unsubstantiated new world order to Hillary Clinton (who is also a lizard). This is not the only reason Trump won, but it’s hard to argue it’s not a component. Alternative media like Breitbart validates a lot of conservative voters’ bigotry when the news site repeats the lie that Muslims en masse were celebrating during 9/11. Conspiracy monger Alex Jones has no problem spouting off to his millions of viewers that Clinton personally murdered and raped children. For those who don’t spend the time investigating these claims, cross-referencing information with other sources, or looking into any citations provided (good luck with that on these sites), all they need is for something to written down on the internet before they spread nonsense.

For better or for worse, I’ve recently been interacting with this brand of conspiracy theorist, and it’s one of the most frustrating activities I could possibly take up. I’ve taken to following Alex Jones and skimming InfoWars on occasion, I’ve joined a couple of flat-Earth groups on Facebook, I keep tabs on certain Trump voters on social media, etc. It’s really something else to interact with someone who simply does not operate on the same level of fundamental facts. For my own sanity I am forced to abandon any hope of convincing them towards anything close to a reasonable position. I wasn’t a stranger to conspiracy thinking before, as someone who consumes a large amount of skeptical media, but engaging directly with conspiracy theorists is an altogether new experience. Usually I have the added filter of critical commentary or a skeptic actively challenging someone with completely unhinged ideas. Without that additional component, I end up actively watch someone spew out harmful nonsense without any semblance of verifiable facts or citations, and it makes me want to tear my hair out.

What’s fascinated me is something that won’t be news to most readers here, but much of the attitude of conspiracy theorists appears to be directly appropriated from skeptical culture. Both the skepticism crowd and the conspiracy crowd have an air of questioning about it, and both populations pride themselves on having a critical attitude of any news item or piece of information passed around. Of course, far more often than not, both camps fall on completely opposing sides of any given issue. Unfortunately for the conspiracy crowd, their brand of questioning only resembles actual skepticisim in a superficial manner. In all actuality, conspiracy thinking is cargo cult skepticism.

I borrow part of this phrase from Richard Feynman, who in his Caltech commencement address in 1974 described a tribe of south islanders who attempted to collect supplies and cargo from airplanes by building landing strips.

“In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people.  During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now.  So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land.  They’re doing everything right.  The form is perfect.  It looks exactly the way it looked before.  But it doesn’t work.  No airplanes land.  So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.”

Richard Feynman. Image via Wikimedia Commons

This cargo cult had a method to gather cargo supplies, but they missed the fundamental reason why planes aren’t landing. They aren’t able to simply develop a runway and expect airplanes to land there. At a quick first glance, it may appear that they are making progress to achieve their goal, but in actuality they are only going through superficial motions that don’t really get the tribe any closer to the materials they want. Such is the case with conspiracy theorists looking for the truth. At some level, both the skeptics and the conspiracy theorists appear to be questioning the world around them and eschewing the mainstream narrative, but beyond these the similarities end. Once you abandon true skepticism, you trade away choosing the most parsimonious explanation for grand overarching collusion between enormous government or celebrity entities. Instead of attempting to account for biases and preconceived opinions, motivated reasoning is embraced. Instead of taking small anomalies and inaccuracies for what they are, they become hyper-inflated and evidence of malicious or dissembling intent. This is important to keep in mind, especially when we have conversations with those who are operating in a thoroughly uncritical mindset. It is not that they are the only ones who are thinking for themselves or questioning the world around them, it’s that they are doing it poorly.

For example, it appears that both skeptics and conspiracy theorists are critics of mainstream journalism and reporting. As skeptics, we know that the mainstream media doesn’t disseminate information in an ideal manner. We have good examples in the way mainstream media reports science, as it’s common to sensationalize small gradual results (the overwhelming majority of science discoveries), and it’s common to represent controversy where there is none. If the mainstream media were 100% accurate, then it would recognize that climate change exists, humans are causing it, and that there is virtually no debate among climate scientists. Instead, you see it presented as a partisan issue or something we are still trying to shake out. The media would also pay no credible attention to those who promote alternative medicine or think that vaccines cause autism. We know that the media is largely irresponsible on that front, and it’s part of our job to hold them accountable and make sure to correct misinformation when we can.

I use scientific findings as an example simply because they are clear-cut facts that aren’t really up for debate among laypeople, but this spills over to pretty much any other form of reporting. We see sensational headlines all over the place, and with a critical eye it’s often not hard to find where the author’s biases lie. As skeptics, we have measures to account for this. We know that any information we get from any given news source is provisional at best and always subject to change. We have good guidelines to determine whether something is sensationalized, fake, or sponsored content. If we really want to dig into a story, we need to find multiple sources to corroborate it. We avoid sites that rely on click-based content, and we try and follow stories to their original source. If we are doing our job correctly, nothing is taken at face value and everything is subject to change based on what evidence is most compelling.

Conspiracy theorists, on the other hand, go the nuclear route. According to them, the mainstream media is simply a mouthpiece for any corporate/government/[insert narrative here] entity to spew propaganda and blatantly lie to the public. Anything that’s a source of mainstream news is 100% untrustworthy, and we are all sheep for buying into it (despite using the skeptical methods detailed in the previous paragraph). As such, any alternative news outlet gets credit merely for not being a mainstream outlet.

This leaves alternative news consumers in an epistemological dead zone. When I ask them how they know that their sources are reliable, I don’t get any methodological answer. They don’t respond with their news outlet’s methods for verifying facts, they don’t bother with showing citations, they don’t go into any rigorous detail for why site X is better than news Y. All they have to do is present that it’s not beholden to mainstream interests and donors, and then they are able to deflect to the sins of the mainstream outlets. Mainstream news doesn’t even have to be consistently wrong, or even tell a bold lie to be crucified at this point. Any marginal inaccuracy that even I would disagree with is hyperinflated and evidence that this source is lying to the general population. One conversation with someone on my friends list used the fact that the New York Times predicted an 87% percent chance (at the time) that Clinton was going to win the 2016 election as evidence that the New York Times was completely untrustworthy and acting as a shill for the political left. Therefore, I should pay more attention to their favorite source (an anonymous blog and news aggregator). It doesn’t take much to see that a combination of ignorant statistical knowledge and motivated reasoning was a potent mix for validating their preconcieved notions.

Jumping on a narrative because it falls outside of the mainstream view is a pretty poor path to knowledge, but common pathway among this type of person. Theorists will often gather with a shared non-acceptance of the mainstream view even if their alternate models are mutually exclusive, as if the most important point is some dark overlords are lying to us, and that regardless of whatever we end up believing it’s most important to simply avoid the popular opinion. If you look at the flat Earth community, for example, you will find that they collaborate under multiple models of a non-Copernican view of our planet, but there’s many different mutually exclusive models of how the mainstream is wrong (an interview with a flat Earther exemplifying this is here, if you’re interested). There are flat Earthers who think that there’s a firmament enclosing the atmosphere a la Genesis, there are flat Earthers who think Antarctica surrounds the continents and spreads out indefinitely in all directions, flat Earthers who think the planet is a disk accellerating infinitely in space, and flat Earthers who think there’s a slight curvature giving the illusion of a sphere. It doesn’t matter which models are in conflict with each other, the mainstream is wrong and that’s apparently what’s important.

It should come as no surprise that this doesn’t really help us advance our knowledge, and it may be actively harmful. There’s a value in questioning even our most deeply held beliefs (as Bertrand Russell has pointed out) but we have to recognize that we have more or less settled some very basic questions. Skeptics are perfectly capable of questioning even the most basic questions without wasting time and resources spent on wild goose chases, but the conspiracy theorist regularly does this as if they are the only woke person in a world full of sheep.

One clear advantage that skeptics have over conspiracy theorists in our questioning is that we do a much better job of preventing ourselves from creating a narrative out of thin air. When there is an anomaly or an uncertainty in the facts we presently have, the answer is “I don’t know” and not an assumption that someone in the shadows is lying to you. It’s certainly beneficial for us to question why certain details don’t line up, and then further investigate, but if you have a conspiracy mindset you are able to exploit these anomalies to inflate your own narrative.

Theorists aren’t questioning properly when they simply spout off a narrative when something doesn’t make sense. Sure, they may be questioning what they are told, but that isn’t what skepticism entails. Skepticism requires contstructing a worldview based on the best available facts or evidence, and merely throwing the entirety of the mainstream story with the bathwater and substituting your own is completely insufficient. When a conspiracy theorist makes a YouTube video stating that depression is a made up disease so big pharma can profit off of selling meds, their lack of scientific literature doesn’t support their story. When someone claims that George Soros is paying off the women’s march and you ask for their source, they often don’t have anything to back it up. This is why this variety of cargo cult skepticism fails. Superficially, it appears that they are thinking for themselves and questioning authority, but not only does that not get them closer to the truth, they trick themselves into believing an entirely new falsehood of their own construction.

Ultimately, while both groups at least superficially value questioning what they are told, only one is actively seeking the truth in an honest manner. The conspiracy crowd may even see themselves as skeptics, since they know that there are falsehoods that permeate popular belief and they are able to see past many of them. But mere disbelief isn’t skepticism, skepticism requires work. Skepticism is hard because it is disadvantaged in the numbers game. There can be a practically infinite many stories for any given situation, and only one of them aligns with the truth. It takes work to sift through the evidence and discard any narrative we would like to believe. To bring it back to Feynman’s Caltech address, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” It does no good to you to disbelieve mainstream understanding if you’ve substituted it for something equally nonsensical, especially if you’ve resigned yourself to something even more nonsensical. In fact, if you think the fact that everyone around you doesn’t buy your bizarre conspiracies means that you’re the only critical thinker around you, then you’ve likely tricked yourself far beyond whatever any government entity could say to delude you.

Image by Randall Munroe
Image by Randall Munroe

This is all to say that one of the biggest problems with the conspiracy mindset is that its proponents have tricked themselves into thinking that they are the only true critical thinkers (think of anyone non-ironically calling everyone else “sheeple”). I’ll admit that I have no good solution to the problem beyond what movement skeptics are already doing, but there’s a value in diagnosing part of the problem. As with many things, we desperately need to focus on critical thinking at a young age, and demonstrating how to think instead of what to think. And we certainly need to emphasize that the best answer is often “I don’t know” instead of a convenient narrative. Perhaps once that becomes well-understood we can be better as a species of avoiding nonsensical modern fantasies.

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