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Authentic and Conspiracy Theories

Posted on: December 06, 2020

Category: Theology

Authentic and Conspiracy Theories
I don’t know very much about pseudo-science, which is the basis of conspiracy theories, but I do know how to define these words. Pseudo (pseudein) is a Greek word that means to lie. Science (scientia) is a Latin word that means knowledge. Conspiracy comes from Latin and means to breathe (spirare) together (con). A conspiracy theory is a shared belief in fake knowledge. It’s really a troubling phenomenon, and it’s nothing new.

There are several reasons why it is hard to investigate conspiracy theories. Two reasons are obvious. One is that there are such things as real conspiracies. Watergate, in 1972, is a thing that really happened, and it did involve attempted coverups. The second difficulty is vagueness. What is a conspiracy to one person may not be a conspiracy to another. In ancient Rome, there was the Cataline Conspiracy, but it was a conspiracy in the eyes of wealthy Senators. For the poor, it was good news.

The problem with (fake) conspiracy theories is that they are usually somewhat believable and rely on common human skepticism. Skepticism is a natural defense mechanism, and depending on our personal histories, we have all had good reasons to be skeptical about something. My older brother probably saved my life, when I was about six, because he was skeptical. I was eager to get into a stranger’s car on the promise that I would be paid some money for doing an errand. My brother was there, and he asked this stranger for his identification. The individual immediately drove away. I often wonder what might have happened to me if at that moment my brother had not been skeptical.

While it is natural to believe things that seem initially reasonable, and while it is also natural to share skepticism about various claims, conspiracy theories take these natural inclinations and abuse them. We might all be skeptical of “big pharma,” but that skepticism is abused if proven lifesaving practices like vaccines are brought into question or denied to certain populations. In 2010, according to CBS News, Californian had its worst outbreak of whooping cough in fifty years resulting in over 9,000 infections among children and ten deaths. The cause was traced to a cluster of parents who were mesmerized by a patently false conspiracy theory that vaccines cause autism.

One problem, though, is that if you approach an anti-vax parent with information, skepticism will be raised about CBS or the claims of another “big cooperation.” Deep distrust is part of conspiracy theories, even when the conspiracy is demonstratively false and can cost lives.

One consistent feature of conspiracy theories is how the supposed perpetrators had an incredibly elaborate, cartoon-like plan with so many intricate happenstances apparently known well in advance. The “cover-up” of the conspiracy, by its perpetrators, is believed to be constantly deeper and more hidden rather than, as with a real conspiracy, exposed through the usual fumbling moves and obvious lying that real conspiracies have. In conspiracy theories, like a stolen election, elaborate reports, easily proven wrong with a reasonable investigation, are nevertheless accepted as true.

In the Trump election, the president highlighted the claim that ballots cast for him were found hidden under a rock. This happened in Arizona, and like a usual conspiracy theory, it is partially true. If we do not know anything of the incident, and if we rely on our natural skepticism, we are inclined to take the matter seriously. But the facts are that the ballots in question were stolen from mailboxes, they were empty ballots, and the people from whom the ballots were stolen were able to vote (only once, not twice or more) for the candidate of their choice. In this example, there was only enough information relayed by the conspiracy theorists to allow misleading information to flourish.
There are some guidelines important for recognizing a conspiracy theory and for separating it from a genuine or authentic theory. Because my background is in the Philosophy of Religion with a healthy dose of Biblical Studies, I can draw from theology.

One guideline is to ask the question, “What is the endgame?” The endgame is the final aim or desire a conspiracy theorist wants. An authentic theory does not have a particular endgame. Authentic theories are tough to hold because the attitude must be that no matter what is discovered, let the chips fall where they may. Authentic theories are open in this way. They do not know in advance what lies ahead. Even in a theory as solid as the Q Gospel, which is the evidence for a lost gospel called Q reconstructed from the parallels of Matthew and Luke, there is always a chance the theory will be proven wrong. For nearly two-hundred years now no one has proven the theory wrong. It’s just the best theory we have. Academics keep trying to prove the theory wrong not because they don’t like it but because a theory, to be open, must always be tested over again.

In relation to Q, there are deniers. Q deniers claim that there is no evidence “whatsoever” for Q despite the fact that they tend to be biblical literalists and that the evidence is in the Bible. In extreme instances, Q deniers become conspiracy theorists. Q is a leftist plot against Christianity and so-called Christian values. The endgame of such Q deniers is not religious knowledge. It is a desire to control a cultural agenda. Like any conspiracy theory, Q deniers rely on natural human skepticism to support the idea that universities and liberal seminars have secret agendas. The appeal to natural skepticism stirs up fear about changes to our way of life hidden behind a basic teaching in biblical criticism. From the inside of such a conspiracy theory, Q denier ideas are presented as if they are enlightenment. They coalesce together. They compose a cohesive endgame picture. These elements, though, are what make the denial a delusion.

The lessons to be learned from conspiracy theories are important even though the conspiracies themselves are usually nonsense. The first lesson is to never let skepticism collapse into delusion. Skepticism is a very important part of life, but it cannot serve humanity, let alone ourselves, if its power is diverted from learning to illogical obedience to false information. The second lesson is about fear. The reason conspiracy theories hold endgames is due to the desire to manipulate others and pre-determine outcomes. Fear makes us susceptible to manipulation.

As much as it is hard to admit, authenticity in life includes ignorance. We do not know the future, and part of maturity involves the ability to accept this. Spirituality, we might even say, is the ability to celebrate the unknown that lies ahead. “How happy are the poor” might well be a saying that emphasizes this celebration because the poor have little control over what lies constantly around the corner.

It is hard to write about conspiracy theories and pseudo-science because I’m not a scientist or an epidemiologist or an election official. There are many things I don’t know anything about, but I do know that I don’t know enough to hold an assured endgame. I think of Socrates and his questioning of people who thought they had the right knowledge or the best answers. When put on trial, Socrates claimed that he was wiser than such people. He was wiser not because he knew more, but because he did not know and did not think he knew.

©By David Galston

 

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