In my self-help book, Better Living Through Selective Apathy, I frequently discuss the need for critical, objective thinking. I wish I had written an additional chapter, and might include it in a Second Edition if the book reaches enough people. The chapter titles in the book are purposefully crafted using dark comedy, if not outright sarcasm. The chapter I want to add, and the subject I want to talk about, is in reference to conspiracy theories. I would have named the chapter “They’re All Out to Get You”
They’re All Out to Get You
Paranoia isn’t anything new. People have used conspiracy theories, to explain that which is not easily explainable, for centuries. In other words, we’ve always hat batshit crazy people on the planet who convince themselves that something lacking any credibility or proof whatsoever is actually true. They do this because they’re unable to explain something that is causing them consternation.
While it’s not entirely unreasonable for anyone to want to be able to explain something, it’s irresponsible and sometimes even outright dangerous for them to try and fill in the gaps with nonsensical explanations that point blame at an innocent person, company, or even government.
What is Causation?
In the graphic above, we see a classic causation cartoon. Here is the thought process which creates the logical fallacy present in conspiracy theories.
Fact One: Hot sunny days at the beach can cause sunburn.
Fact Two: Hot sunny days at the beach make a lot of people want ice cream.
Fact Three: Excessive sunburn is a well known cause of skin cancer.
Correlation: People eat ice cream at the beach, and they also get sunburned at the beach, which can cause skin cancer.
Causation: Eating ice cream gives you skin cancer.
Dipshit Lunatic Conspiracy Theory: Ben and Jerry’s is in league with the pharmaceutical industry to kill Americans and force other Americans to be dependent on cancer medications.
At this present moment in time, the entire world has been effectively shut down by a rapidly spreading pandemic that has already killed hundreds of thousands of people. What we’re seeing now, several months into it, is that in the countries where the people actually followed scientific advice, they are greatly reducing the disease’s spread. In the countries where a number of irrational, irresponsible, and dangerous conspiracy theories are being absorbed as truth, they are seeing vast increases in cases and deaths.
This is happening because the virus is continuing to spread thanks to people purposefully not following scientific or governmental advice, but instead are basing their decisions on the dumpster fire that is the internet. There are people out there who have convinced themselves that being told to wear masks is (inexplicably) somehow a violation of their constitutional rights. It has even become a political left-right fighting point. It’s ludicrous, but it is actually happening.
The tragic thing is, if people had just worn the masks, it’s very likely we wouldn’t still be shut down. People refused to wear a mask to help stop the spread of the disease, all because they were pissed off that they couldn’t get their Hooters wings for a month. And now, they’re complaining that things are still shut down and will continue to be shut down.
The conversation has been going something like this:
Science: “We need everyone to shut down temporarily, eliminate any unnecessary contact, and wear a mask when you have to go out. If everyone will do this, we can bring everything back to normal within a couple of months.”
‘Murica: “I ain’t wearin’ no mask! You can’t tell me what to do! My Commander-in-Chief told me wearing a mask would somehow diminish my manhood, and my manhood is easily shaken.”
Science: “Okay, we’ll have to keep everything shut down for longer because you won’t wear a mask. And, more people are going to die.”
‘Murica: “It’s a Dumocrat left wing conspiracy hoax! You’re violatin’ my constitutional rights! I’m sendin’ my kids to school so I can go to lunch at Hooters and get wings!”
Science: “Um, people are dying because you… want wings, and apparently food delivery isn’t good enough. You apparently have to see big boobs in the process. (sigh) Okay, will you at least wear a mask?”
‘Murica: “Screw you, Science! ‘Murica! Land of the Free, baby! I heard on them interwebs that masks are a leftist plot to make people stay sick and so that Bill Gates can implant us with micropotatochips and shit.”
Science: “That’s… idiotic. And no one complains about ‘No shoes No shirt No service,’ but suddenly asking you to wear a mask to make all of this go away is something you won’t do? It will save the lives of other people. It will make this all come to an end.”
‘Murica: “Screw you, Science! OWN THE LIBS! The interwebs is the only truth I need! I ain’t wearin’ no mask to Wal-Mart. That would look ridiculous with my tie-die velvet leisure suit hoodie and pajama pants half pulled down to expose my American flag thong! Yer the scientists, you figure out how I can get my kids back to school and my ass back to Hooters!”
Science: (even heavier sigh) “So, you could end all of this by just wearing a mask, which would mean you’d get to go back to Hooters sooner, but you still won’t?”
‘Murica: “Screw you, you coastal intulectual eleetist! MONSTER TRUCKS! WAHOOTIE! FREEDOM!”
Science: “Well, it’s a good thing you know about all of the conspiracies. Did you also know that voting for a narcissistic sociopath Fascist will actually reduce the freedoms you have?”
‘Murica: “Screw you, Science! I’m going to tha beach! Tops off, baby!”
The dipshits of the world are feeling slightly inconvenienced by having to wear a mask. They feel like their autonomy is somehow being threatened, so they lash out and rebel, telling the restaurants that they’re going to sue them (which they aren’t). Someone films their ravings and puts it up on the internet, and the dipshits end up looking like the village idiot shouting lunacy in the public square. Rightfully so.
Most conspiracy theories are the result of someone looking for an explanation for something, seeing a correlation, and thinking of it as causation. What that means is, they see a piece of information, regardless of its veracity, and associate it with a different piece of information (correlation). They then make the assumption that the one is the cause of the other. It’s very simple to explain something with seeming authority and confidence, and people will believe it. Here’s an example:
In the migratory patterns of Canadian geese, they often fly in a ‘V’ formation. Scientists have determined this to be an energy conservation technique, reducing wind resistance for each bird in the formation. They also noted that one side of the V is always longer than the other. Scientists were able to determine this is based on their compass direction navigation, with the longer side of the V always facing west. This is because the jet stream flows from west to east, and the larger number of geese on that side works against the jet stream.
No, it doesn’t. One side of the V is always longer than the other because it has more geese in it.
Back in 1990, a set of press releases were passed around for a company called Rosebud Technologies, who claimed they would be unveiling a modem that would transmit data at the speed of light at an upcoming MacWorld conference. The press releases were a prank by the San Francisco Cacophony Society, which is an anarchic (very) loosely organized group of people who prank the general public. Here’s the thing: the press release was picked up and widely distributed. There were people who thought that this was real.
The danger of the internet is, bullshit artists like myself who excel in making incredulous things sound credible using logical and somewhat plausible explanations for things, are able to publish completely made up nonsense and present it as gospel truth.
Think about it. What defines a ‘credible’ news source? Production value?
Question Everything You See
As a photographer, I have been asked to do things in PhotoShop which turn real pictures into outright lies. Some of them are ridiculous, like having a Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing a wedding party. But some of them are more subtle lies than that. I’ve been asked to put someone in or take someone out of a picture more times than I can count. I’ve even been asked multiple times to put someone into a photograph who wasn’t even living. I’m so good at it, it’s almost impossible to tell that it’s not actually a photograph. This has become such a problem that news sources are now getting duped into running stories about things which never actually happened.
Another technique being used is what I call “association by continuity.” Politicians have been using this technique forever, and the public just gobbles it up. A piece of information can be taken out of context and used to force the viewer to absorb a completely different narrative. It’s one of the reasons I no longer allow interviews with me to be published until I have approved them. Sometimes this means the news source will refuse to interview me, and that is more than fine with me.
Look at a political ad sometime and think about it critically:
What is their goal? What are they trying to make you believe? Is the information they’re using to achieve that goal being taken out of context? Is the footage they’re using actually related to the topic, or is it being used to make you believe it’s related to the topic.
Because news sources are now basing their income on your interaction (clicks, subscriptions, etc.) their motivation is no longer absolute truth. Their motivation is to get your hackles up, to activate your fight or flight response, to pour gasoline on the internet dumpster fire and terrify you into not looking away. This isn’t truth. It’s marketing.