Ultimately conspiracies come from the fact that historically some information was suppressed or maybe unknown. I’m not a conspiracy believer as a whole but for a time I did watch a few of those ‘inside job’ films. They did make me question stuff too for a time, so I see how people do go down this path. This isn’t about whether you or I or anyone specifically believes one thing or another but rather why the popularity of conspiracy theories in general isn’t a good thing for anyone. Things like COVID and elections have brought out a lot more lately and I think it’s time to take a look at the phenomenon as a whole. This really isn’t aimed at getting anyone to believe something they don’t now even though I might mention a few specific examples. I think we need to ask ourselves who is served by perpetuating these divisions because I would argue it isn’t any of us.
They distract us from important topics
Most of the subjects of conspiracies are actually pretty important topics with a few exceptions. This means that we as a whole are distracted from the facts by unnecessary questions. If a popular enough conspiracy happens to pop up on a given topic it really muddies the water in a few very important ways. The first is that is divides our attention rather than just informing ourselves on the facts of the matter. If we look to inform ourselves on the subject we must then learn about the subject as a whole and also the conspiracy theory that surrounds it. This layer of complication does lead more than a few people to just giving up which is more than understandable. This is particularly disappointing when the subject of the theory is a really important issue that really you should be informed about. The discourse that is artificially created around the issue then can become central in discussions about it. Rather than having a lively debate on how to deal with the problem either as an individual or as a society we then spend all our energy asking is it even true?
A good example of this is climate change. So much time, energy and money has been wasted debating and arguing if climate change is even real that we’ve missed so many opportunities to deal with the issue. If we had taken even half of those resources and devoted them to dealing with climate change (even if only out of an abundance of caution) years ago we would be further ahead now. Had we realized that many of the solutions to climate change had just as many health, ecological and financial side benefits for people and society we would have a cheaper and low or no carbon energy and transportation infrastructure by now. We don’t and that’s in large part because we were so distracted from the issue for so long.
They don’t let people be ‘wrong’ later
The world and all the systems operating within it are incredibly complex and we are still inventing the technologies that allow us to understand it. Much like layers of an onion learning one fact leads to recognizing another and a pattern and uncovering a new understanding about what is going on. This means that sometimes we don’t have all the information needed to fully explain something yet and we accept a false conclusion because it seems like the best explanation at the time. Some problems also take a very, very long time to reveal all the information we need to even recognize the pattern. Take for example the health risks of smoking. Tobacco use existed for a long, long time before we had the tools to realize that it caused lung cancer so for many centuries it’s effects went unexamined and it was accepted as safe. Once imaging technology was invented we realized that many more smokers had lung cancer because now we were actually able to diagnose that cancer. It turned out that smoking wasn’t safe at all. Once we realized that we examined more faucets of the issue and came to understand that smoking negatively effects people’s health in many other ways too.
There is no one alive that has never ever been wrong and that’s true of scientists, the media and governments as well. How could they draw the right conclusion when it was impossible for all the facts of the matter to even be known at the time. Being wrong and changing your understanding are actually parts of the human condition but the black and white thinking around conspiracy theories doesn’t let people be wrong for a time and then right in the future.
In this scenario writing a person, or idea off as wrong because there was a change in understanding holds all of us back from ever understanding anything in the future. Think about a toddler that uses the information to label a dog as a cat for a time. The information they have at the time says small furry things with four legs are cats maybe because they have a cat at home. Then new information becomes available cats say meow while dogs say woof and now they come to the right side of the ‘issue’. Does that mean that toddler is stupid, useless and not to be trusted on anything, ever, forever because they once came to the wrong conclusion? No, of course not! Just like the difference between cats and dogs adults, science and governments sometimes get it wrong because not all the information available is known at the time. Conspiracy theories are quickly eliminating the possibility of every being right after being wrong and that’s just stupid if you ask me!
They can endanger people’s health
Some (maybe most) conspiracy theories don’t really harm people physically. That doesn’t mean they’re not hurtful but whether you believe man landed on the moon, that 911 was an inside job or the earth is flat it might hurt someone’s feelings but it really doesn’t damage anyone’s health. There could be a PhD thesis on the nuances of mental health but let’s leave that alone for today. However some conspiracies really do put people at risk. Anti-vax, vitamins C cures and anti-maskers can and to negatively impact people’s health. Really no further explanation is needed here but I will put it out there that this is obviously a bad thing.
They set up artificial divisions and judgement
I can’t believe I’m even bringing this up but … here goes… Was Obama born in the United States? Yes, No or maybe he’s actually a robot. Does it even matter? Let’s just say I think he was actually born in the USA and you don’t think so. How does that even matter in life now? Either way one of us is right and one is wrong, that doesn’t change the fact that he was president and for a time ran the country. You and I might very well have a screaming match about the whole thing, come to blows and hate each other for the rest of our lives after this argument because our beliefs on this subject are so different. We will probably both think the other is unintelligent and wrong about everything else too. This is a pretty common thing that conspiracy theories do to us. They become a short hand, super efficient way of dividing us. But for what good reason? How does it even matter to us where someone who is president either way was born?
The existence and acceptance of conspiracy theories by some and not others ends up dividing people needlessly time and time again. People are happier, healthier and society works better when people come together compared to when they don’t. We treat people better when we see them as just like us rather than totally different. Looking for similarities is always better for getting along rather than focusing on differences. Having a whole host of conspiracy theories out there just means we have all these new ways to stay separate from one another rather than co-operating and connecting with one another and I would argue that that is a very bad thing.
It makes us paint people as stupid
Part of this is because a conspiracy theory makes things that are very complicated and nuanced seem simple in opposing ways on both sides. Smoking is obviously dangerous however big tobacco had a vested interest in suppressing that information so they muddied the water. Modern conspiracies do the same thing on issues. If you happen to strongly believe one side or the other another group of people will write you off as misinformed or stupid. That may or may not matter to your relationship as a whole but being on opposing sides will put a distance between you. Most of the time the issue at the heart of the conspiracy theory is not even really that important but just knowing what the other person thinks makes you write them off entirely. I have to confess that I do fall into this trap for time to time. For example if I met someone who honestly and truly believed the earth was flat to say that I wouldn’t think highly of them is an understatement. But why does that matter? It doesn’t mean they aren’t a good person. I don’t think either one of us thinks the other is about to fall off but it would still make me think less of their intelligence. Really their belief doesn’t affect me at all and I don’t think my round earth leanings affect them either. Anything that makes you needlessly think less of a person isn’t a good thing.
Conspiracies make us distrust people who are there to protect us
I mentioned in the introduction to this article that a big part of the reason conspiracy theories are even popular now is because in the past important information has been unavailable or even suppressed. This can make us feel duped, angry and like people are lying to us, sometimes because they are. Big corporations have actively lied about and suppressed the fact that they are polluting drinking water supplies and even killing people. These sort of situations (of which there are so many) do and should make us continue to question the things around us and that environment has led to conspiracy theories. I think this is really, really understandable.
We also have examples where scientists got things, very, very wrong and hurt a lot of people like when Thalidomide was approved for the treatment of morning sickness in pregnant women in the 50’s and 60’s. 10 000 people were directly harmed by this mistake and 40% of those people even died. This mistake came about because scientists and doctors approved Thalidomide as a drug before they knew about how the different structures of the drug effected people. It was and is a very big mistake of science and is very, very real. It’s also totally understandable that things like this make people mistrust scientists.
Here’s the thing though ask yourself when important information is either unknown or suppressed who are the people that bring that to light? Overwhelming those people are scientists and journalists. Conspiracy theories often have elements that discredit these very people. Fake news and big Pharma reportedly play a role in so many of these theories because a necessary element of a good conspiracy theory is discrediting the source of the truth. In that way conspiracies as a whole make us mistrust the people who are actually protecting the truth.
Everyone has a right to believe what they want. Sometimes we have a tendency to write conspiracy believers as uneducated while they write off non-believers as gullible. I would argue that these theories are even more divisive than that. It’s unrealistic to think that they will ever go away completely but the explosion of theories and the number of believers seems exponential in recent years. I would encourage you to simply dismiss the emotions that come with them when the issue doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. As strongly as you believe that the shape of the earth is round or flat, that we did or didn’t land on the moon, where Obama was born, who was responsible for 9/11 or that we’ve been invaded by aliens or not maybe let the intensity surrounding those beliefs go. There is nothing you can do to change those things either way so do they even matter at this point? If you want to get your back up about one make it something that actually impacts people in the here and now at least. Do you believe in any conspiracy theories? Do you know someone who does? How to you think all people are most hurt by the prevalence of conspiracy theories these days?