I’ve been fascinated with conspiracy theories for some time. It started back around 2012 when I was still an actively using meth addict, and watched various YouTube videos about the so-called “Nibiru Cataclysm”, where people believed that NASA had covered up knowledge, since the 1980’s, of a rogue planet that was going to either crash into Earth or pass close by, causing catastrophe. Some still believe it and this conspiracy has become part of the greater “End Times” paranoia. At the time, my fascination was rooted in trying to understand why people develop such delusions, and then cling to them despite evidence that the conspiracies are untrue, but in relation to my own mental struggles at the time, due to meth and my hearing voices and tendency towards being delusional myself – even though I knew at the time that the voices weren’t real. (See the parallel? I heard voices, knew that they weren’t real, but tended to believe them anyway. Likewise people believe in conspiracies despite facts that prove the conspiracies to be false. Seems to me the common factor is the psychology that drives us to use motivated reasoning, in this case ad hoc reasoning, so that we can dupe ourselves into continuing to believe what we already believe.)
Since then, and even though I haven’t heard voices for several years and am not near to being delusional myself (not any more) I remain fascinated with all such psychology, and my interest has also expanded to other conspiracies, which seem to involve the same kind of motivated reasoning such that conspiracists play mental gymnastics and continue to believe long after the conspiracies have been widely debunked.
Right now, with the world in the grip of a global pandemic, there are several conspiracies around the virus, and it has been interesting to observe their spread in real-time over the last two or three months. I don’t have a timeline and this is just off the top of my head, but to list the ones I know of:
- The idea that the latest coronavirus causing COVID-19 was developed in a lab.
- The idea that COVID-19 is no more dangerous than flu.
- The idea that the virus is a hoax.
- Then the idea that not the virus but the response to it is a hoax.
- The idea that certain pseudoscientific cures are effective and this information is being suppressed.
- And lastly, the idea that deaths attributed to COVID-19 are really caused by something else but the numbers have been inflated.
- Let’s not get into “Plandemic”, OK? I’m going to assume the readers here aren’t absolute fucking morons.
I’m not really interested in the first one above and think that has been thoroughly debunked. One could apply the ad hoc reasoning description below to the “Plandemic” conspiracy too, but I didn’t bother to watch that video. I’m more interested in some of the others…
The pseudoscientific cure, for instance, was pushed by a doctor who initially called the virus a hoax, and then later changed his mind when he saw an opportunity for profit. (Mainstream science is wrong, but one maverick hero has the cure and is being suppressed by Big Whatever. It’s a tried and trusted trope and suckers fall for it all the time. Another example would be disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield who started the anti-vaccine movement.) Likewise it was embraced by Donald Trump, who also called the virus a hoax, and then later implied that he really meant the response to it was a hoax by his political enemies, claiming that it had been politized… while politicizing it himself. His latching on to the so-called cure was more about covering his own ass (because he’s stupid and believes in conspiracies himself) after his initial downplaying of the virus and failure to respond, but of course this was before he hit on the idea to deflect by blaming the WHO instead. At this point, by the way, you have to be more than merely stupid to support Donald Trump.
The one that really interests me is the claim that people are dying from something else which is being falsely claimed as COVID-19. This is classic ad hoc reasoning, and goes something like this:
Twat: The virus is a hoax!
Normal person: But look at the number of confirmed cases.
Twat: No wait, it’s real but not as serious as even the flu.
Normal person: People are dying, bru!
Twat: OK, I can’t deny people are dying, but they are dying from something else! It’s a conspiracy!
Notice what they’re done? They’ve made their belief unfalsifiable… Every time you refute it, they move the goalposts and add another layer onto the conspiracy. The latest is that doctors are somehow being incentivised to falsely diagnose COVID-19 to get money, or claim deaths due to other causes are caused by it. You can’t refute this because they will claim it is being covered up. Thus if you have actual expertise here, you are part of the conspiracy, and they can ignore your relevant authority, whereas a lay person like me has no relevant expertise here so they can ignore blog posts like this too. (But that’s OK, cunts. I’m fascinated by you but I’m not here to provide evidence that you’re idiots. You do that more than adequately on your own.) YouTube videos are acceptable though, as long as you say what they want to hear.
This is exactly how flat Earth believers work… Every time you disprove their nonsensical claims, they add another layer of ad hoc reasoning to explain why the previous layer of reasoning didn’t work. Eventually you end up with a bunch of mutually contradictory claims that can’t possibly work together, and also claims that satellites aren’t real and the whole outside of the flat Earth is being patrolled by military to prevent anyone seeing the edge of the world. (Why?) Also all airports must somehow be in on the conspiracy and fuck knows how time zones or GPS work but no two flat Earthers will give you the same answer.
Ad hoc reasoning works similarly to pathological lies. Fabrications (lies) that tell us a complex narrative tend to unravel under scrutiny, and require more lies to explain them. Layers and layers of lies to cover up previous lies. But the best lies, the lies that more people believe, are always the ones that mix in some truth. I’m seeing that now too, making the virus denier conspiracists more difficult to spot. Although they share copious amounts of misinformation to support their views, they now also share outdated information, that is information that was until recently thought to be true. And during this time, information does abruptly get outdated. For instance, at first in the USA, the CDC advised against wearing masks, with the argument that it was unnecessary to wear a mask unless you had symptoms. They have since changed their position, and now advise everybody going out to wear masks. But people who choose to believe conspiracies are still sharing articles from a month or two ago citing the CDC advising against wearing masks. Of course if you have an agenda, it’s easy to find articles supporting your confirmation bias, thus now more than ever it is imperative that we apply critical thinking and don’t share every article we see if it tells us what we want to hear.
By all means, read those articles that tell you what you want to hear – just don’t stop there. Read other articles. Seek a variety of points of view. But most importantly, find out what the accepted science based consensus is. If the view you have contradicts it, that view is almost certainly wrong. Always go with the mainstream scientific consensus. Always. The same goes for climate change. 97% of scientists agree with it and only 3% disagree, basing their conclusions on bad or biased science. Guess who the conspiracists believe…
At least, in times like this where we all suffer in the global pandemic, if nothing else the conspiracy theories provide us with some much needed entertainment.
There is another interesting angle to this: The relationship between religiosity and the tendency to believe the virus was created. Because, you know, things being random and chaotic goes against the idea of everything being guided by some sort of higher power, or at least someone being in charge. But that opens a can of worms and this blog post is already long enough and I don’t want to go there. Not today; maybe never.
Update: Astute readers may wonder if I don’t always follow my own advice when writing, “Always go with the mainstream scientific consensus. Always.” If you’ve read much of this blog, you know that I don’t agree with the way addiction is treated… Narcotics Anonymous, 12 step programs and all of that. And, no, this is not a contradiction. 12 step programs are not based on evidence or science. They are mainstream and that’s unfortunate, but addiction treatment is generally based on magical thinking and woo.