Splitting Hairs: Conspiracy, ideology, and fact

The conspiracy theory makes for an amazing blog post because it hits all the check boxes; provocative title, fascinating information, a revelation about how the world works. This is the type of content that gets readers engaged and angry, even better if you can condense it in a .gif so your friends and family can share on Facebook. They will say, wow, here is a writer who has uncovered some dark secret, some perverse revelation about how our society really works. Next we stop to ask a very basic question, “If all this is true, why isn’t anyone talking about this?” And we get an unashamed ideological response every time. Without missing a beat we will be told that yes, the governing mechanism for a worldwide network of scientists claiming the earth is round is the same as that for why airlines are supposedly dumping chemicals into our air. Rational self-interest my friends. “It’s all about money.”

Greed is the modern Original Sin

The conspiracy theorist wants us to believe that they, and they alone, are not suffering from the all-corrupting sickness that is greed. To quote Milton Friedman “…of course, none of us are greedy it’s only the other fellow who’s greedy.” These arguments are powerful because the conspiracy theorist in this case has to do very little work, they are allowed to leverage an ideological argument that has already been won and move it one step further. They can say that their intentions are at the very least, more pure than their target by implying a tier-system to the depths of greed. It goes without saying, of course, that the conspiracy theorist is guilty of the most childlike greed of all, that of attention and social worth. Giving them this benefit, to agree that this attention seeking is less greedy than the greed we all engage in to pay our bills, is an unnecessary favor we as readers give. Erroneously, we may convince ourselves, that this is an issue of of severity, if the theorist is only earning 50 blog clicks for this theory and his/her target is earning millions in corrupt kick-backs then of course the theorist is more ‘pure’ than the target therefore he/she is more believable.

But any in-depth consideration of this argument will see it fall apart.

Where should we draw the line between the revelation of a conspiracy, say, the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child sex abuse to the production of an unfounded one, say the argument that vaccines cause autism? When the news first breaks on our computer screens, before any external verification can occur, how can we decide what to believe? Ideology warps and changes the way we view reality. If we were Catholic then we would possibly not believe in the Catholic sex abuse scandal, while a protestant would shrug and say it doesn’t surprise us. Similarly, a doctor would not believe in claims about vaccines whereas a mother who had an autistic child may be more apt to read more.

The method by which we understand and interpret our world is fundamentally an ideological one, even the fall back of differentiation here, that we can use science to disprove claims about vaccines, is reduced to its philosophical axiom; can you use human methods to discern objective (non-human) reality?

Who is an expert, who can be trusted?

Let’s take vaccines as an example, and pre-suppose a few things

  1. We can use science and scientific methods to understand our reality.
  2. This science must be done by experts following correct procedures and processes. While anyone is able to read science, only those who are trained in its practice can be trusted to explain if the results are actionable to normal people.
As people have increased vaccine usage…
Life expectancy has continued to increase. See how easy spurious correlations are?

Thus far, none of the above should come at odds with anti-vaccine crusaders. These are fundamentally, Liberal claims about how science should work. In the anti-vaccine arguments we frequently find claims to higher authority, discoveries of scientific studies which disagree with the orthodoxy, they leverage the expertise of people they presume are experts as claims for why given chemicals are dangerous. Now we can move this a step further,

  1. A scientific institution is corrupted by economic self interest, because of this corruption they do not follow ‘correct’ procedures
  2. The members of this institution do not speak out about the abuse of the above because they themselves are corrupted by economic self interest
  3. The government is complicit because they again are corrupted by economic self interest (insert lobbying)
  4. Institutional media is complicit because they are again corrupted by economic self interest
  5. I, someone who claims to be a doctor but is actually just a member of pseudo-science Chiropractor Association will reveal this to you.
  6. While you’re here, download my e-book, share on social media, visit my web page, while I am of course acting in economic self interest you can trust me as someone who is not beholden to all the corrupted institutions outlined above.

There is a lot to unpack with the above but the logical reasoning is pretty clear. Any and all institutions are corrupted, they are corrupted because economic self interest is dangerous and evil. But the arguments are not, institutional science is bad, it is that this particular offshoot of institutional science is bunk.

If the anti-vaccine crusader was so foolish as to fall into argument that all institutional science being garbage (I’ll buy essential oils to treat my cancer) they would likely be dead anyway. So instead we need to live in a world where only small pieces of the framework can become corrupted, something most people can agree with. We can stop here and ask well, what about all our other institutions? The response you will get is that it’s all garbage, but not much in line with how to fix it. But i supposed instead of going down that rabbit hole we can move forward to something more productive, the argument changes in a weird way, we turn around and say that if a small piece of this institution if corrupted (see this study that disagrees with this study) the entire thing is rotten. We strip away credibility from the institution to the point that anything is equally ‘scientifically valid’, even if that means taking data from the very institution we just claim was corrupted in the first place. Anti-vax documents, like the one I linked above, frequently quote CDC studies (in-fact, it does it on page 3) as if to bolster its argument that ‘well actually, even the devil agrees that sin is real’.

There are a lot of bold text and underlines, calls to rational argument while simultaneously doing the opposite. But we can’t let them escape from this fundamental ideological problem. What scientists do we trust to do this work and why? If all people are considered equivalently credible in their work, say a CDC scientist or someone who calls themselves a doctor but doesn’t work in scientific medicine, then how is it we can discredit the CDC scientist and assign credibility to the sham doctor? How can an anti-vaxer say that my snappy blog and web page aren’t credible? I can call myself a medical doctor, give a few anecdotes about how skeptical I am about authority and, by this reasoning, I should be 90% of the way to being an expert.

We know the answer of course boils down to this being a very anti-science and anti-institution movement, like all conspiracy. We cannot trust scientists because if the Catholic Church can do evil and if the U.S. government can lie to its citizens about Vietnam than anything is possible.

Credibility is becoming a very cheap currency in an age where it is so easy to strip away, but at the end of the day it is a very serious problem to argue that there exists experts who know more than us plebeians and that, conversely, no such method exists by which we can identify those people or trust that these people can become experts (except when they conveniently agree with me, of course). We are therefore relegated to the cult of the black sheep, someone who has nothing to lose and therefore, paradoxically becomes more trustworthy to the skeptical.

But if we are willing to strip away credibility from doctors and scientists with something as dismissive as, ‘you are acting in self interest’, then we must be equally skeptical of someone who has no reason to be truthful. Attention is currency in the eyes of the lonely and desperate, the ostracized or the frankly inept. Discrediting that social motivation seems to me, a sin worse than that of economic greed itself.

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