Election time and conspiracy theories

Here we go again…
Somebody on my Facebook wall appears to be of the opinion that the only thing that can explain Hillary Clinton’s performance in last night’s debate is that she was wearing some device that magically dictated her responses (instantly, given the speed of debate exchanges) to every question from the moderator and every comment from Donald Trump. Althernatively, it was a device to prevent her from suffering seizures.
I also had to read somebody else on Facebook waving the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory trope, along with a list of some of the favorite authoritarian follower list of conspiracy theories. Before the election cycle is over I fully expect Son of Jade Helm or Daughter of Jade Helm to put in an appearance.
Look, I know it is hard for people emotionally invested in a candidate when that candidate suffers an apparent setback. Clearly you were so emotionally wrung out from the events, and from posting to Facebook, that you couldn’t have done some fairly basic online research.
But, if your first reaction to that setback is to fasten on to the latest cockanamie conspiracy theory that just popped up on the interwebs, this is not likely to demonstrate that you are smart or deep-thinking. It is far more likely to signal that you are a credulous follower desperately engaging in post-hoc rationalizations to explain why Your Guy did not do well. This type of motivated reasoning doesn’t give me a feeling that your assertions or arguments on this topic have any intellectual heft or seriousness. And if you continue to do it, you will start to look more and more like a gullible nitwit, which will probably in turn lead to me waving you goodbye on Facebook.
The internets are now the numero uno 24-carat repository and amplification device for every conspiracy theory invented in the last x hundred years (and in the time it took you to read this, somebody probably just published another one). Most of these theories truly do put the “con” into conspiracy. They rely on people suspending most of their skills in critical thinking and signing on lock stock and barrel to some weird idea of how Stuff Happened.
One thing that I discovered many years ago is that dedicated conspiracy theory adherents behave just like followers of religious cults. They brook no dissent, regard everybody who is not signed onto the theory as a dupe or sheeple, and when challenged, cycle slowly and painfully through the A to Z of motivated reasoning and post hoc rationalization techniques, usually trying to win a prize for the number of logical fallacies they can deploy along the way. In short, they are impossible to have a sensible logical discussion with, so by and large I refuse to do it. Life is too short etc. etc.
My favorite conspiracy theorist rationalization is “well of course there’s no evidence for the conspiracy – the conspirators have hidden it!”. I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to spot the logical problem hidden in that statement.
(Note for the historically inclined – Donald Rumsfeld’s quote from 2002 that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is a more subtle variant of this sort of claim. At the time Rumsfeld was using the quote to argue that even if there was no visible evidence of WMD in Iraq, that did not necessarily mean that Iraq did not have WMD. It was an attempt to neutralize all of the people pointing out the lack of evidence. However, if there is no available evidence to support a claim, then the claim becomes totally speculative and possibly hypothetical.)
The sad thing, as I keep finding, is that high intelligence and rational thinking abilities do not in any way prevent people signing on to conspiracy theories. Smart people are, in fact, the worst promulgators of conspiracy theories, not necessarily because they sign on to a lot of them, but because, when challenged, their intellect allows them to deploy a seemingly infinite number of smart-sounding rationalizations and explanations for why It Must Be True! They resemble a smart drug addict in denial, furiously rationalizing why they don’t really have a drug problem. I hear and read a lot of the same intellectual sophistry mixed with logical fallacies and the uttering of total bullshit.
In the same way that some people react to uncertainty by signing onto binary worldviews, some people react to inexplicable or utterly puzzling events by immediately concluding that there must be some conspiracy causing the event or events. The idea that no, there is no conspiracy is difficult for them to process since it implies that it is possible for Bad Stuff to happen without bad actors driving it. Sad to say, anybody who has lived in Corporate America or watched any government body for as long as I have will have seen plenty of examples of bad stuff or dumb stuff, but will also have realized that not everybody in a corporation or government is a bad guy. The world is full of cock-ups, and only a person with a vivid imagination and way too much time on their hands would be able to plausibly connect multiple cock-ups and make a cogent case that they are part of some conspiracy.
Are there conspiracies in the world? Oh yes, you bet there are. However, if you persist in seeing every event you don’t like as a conspiracy, you probably left critical judgment behind somewhere along the line. Cock-ups are much more common.


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