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Conspiracy theories fail the pub test

Conspiracy theories fail the pub test

Lance Lawton, recently retired Anglican Minister who blogs at Fullofgraceand truth has been examining the ideas that fuel conspiracy theories and finding them wanting. He peers into the gap between social media and truth. and discovers five false premises.

Part I (part 2 here)

Prologue [1]

Who’s ready for a cold war of the mind? Well, it may be too late to ponder. Perhaps it’s already here. I’ve tried to be an observer of cultural life and thought, particularly over the past 3 decades. I’ve detected significant changes in the culture of public discourse over that time, some positive or at least harmless, others quite alarming. I’m particularly concerned about standards for discerning truth and falsehood, in some sub-cultures especially, and the practical consequences in polarisation and loss of trust.

I’ve come to the view that much of both the good and the scary owes to the revolutionary changes brought by the internet. I believe our failure to keep up with where the online world has taken us is close to the root of the greater portion of what now divides our communities. This is not to say that failure has been willful or wanton on anyone’s part. Rather I think we’ve all been blindsided by the sheer pace of it all. But either way, we must address it as a culture, and quickly, if we’re to avoid some kind of protracted cold war of the mind or potentially even worse.

The distrust I’m speaking of has reached a new level in this present coronavirus pandemic season. I believe it’s built on a set of premises, presumed by some to be established fact. Even among my own valued friends, nearly all of whom are very sincere and principled people, whether Christian believers or not, there are some who have accepted one or two of these premises, and some others who have adopted all of them. Here below I attempt to address each of them. I’ve listed them in a deliberate order because I believe there’s a certain cumulative thread of logic linking them in a building block kind of fashion. But this doesn’t mean everyone who adopts any of them, will adopt them in that order.

So now to my “five premises” …

1

Premise #1: It’s a practical possibility and reality that the world is being 
controlled by a powerful “elite” (or elites) with sinister and dictatorial intent.[2]

If accepted, many (all?) of the other dissenting views on currently contested matters scientific or political, become possible and believable. ‘Possible and believable’ is not the same as ‘true’ or ‘proven by independent evidence.’ But once a person has accepted the premise, ‘possible and believable’ are commonly enough to engender certainty.

So the salient question is: Is the premise likely or believable in itself? Can I believe this is in fact the character of the world we live in and that I’ve grown up in?

Social commentators have identified many reasons to dismiss this premise. Chief among them in my opinion is the unimaginable complexity of sustaining and coordinating so massive a deception between thousands of perpetrators or compliant partisans, on a global scale, and over decades, with never so much as a leak or slip-up. Charles Colson’s reflections on the Nixon-Watergate saga seem instructive here. Commenting on the historicity of Christ’s physical resurrection (not my subject here) he said, “ … Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world – and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”[3]  The alleged conspiracy of “the elite” for world domination requires the sustaining of multiple lies by undefinable orders of magnitude beyond that.

So the salient question is: Is the premise likely or believable in itself? Can I believe this is in fact the character of the world we live in and that I’ve grown up in?

Impasse #1: The logistics of so big a conspiracy.

2

Premise #2: It’s a practical possibility and reality that the very great 
majority of the human population, including the millions of highly skilled and 
seasoned professionals are blind to “what’s really going on” 
politically in the world, whilst a few thousand unskilled online 
activists with little independent evidence are in command of the truth.

Is this possible? Well in pure theory, maybe? For centuries at least our culture has evolved thanks to the particular skills of the brightest. They aren’t ‘better’ than anyone else. But their particular contributions have seen to most of the technological advances that have improved not only the lot of first-world peoples but also of such advances as there have been in bettering the lives of the poor. Similarly in our economic and legal systems, in health, medicine and engineering. Advances have too commonly benefitted the rich more than the poor. The record of justice and morality has been chequered, to say the least. Yet for all that, these are they who in the main have led us forward.

Is it possible that right across the board the current generations of these our most skilled, informed and able, are just the ones least aware of the grandest schemes? ‘Possible’ it surely must be, since there have been times when the least have done the greatest and proven wisest, and since we live in an ordered yet fallen world where plans can be laid for the best or the worst. Possible certainly. But is it likely? What are the odds? And again, can I believe this is in fact the character of the world we live in and that I’ve grown up in?

Impasse #2: Blind ignorance among nearly all the brightest and best on a global scale.

3

Premise #3: All opinions are equal, and it’s therefore always a practical and preferred 
possibility for any objective truth to be established through open 
‘democratic debate’ in which everyone gets consulted all the way
(Anything less and battle lines may be drawn.)

This perplexing belief is a relatively new one in our culture, especially when applied to scientific or technological matters. The premise builds on the former two. The more people buy into the notion that there’s a big secret overarching ‘elite’ plan for control at work in the world, the less trust we have in anyone with authority over us. At least two groups are then in the frame of suspicion: governments and experts. The former because they are able to regulate our world and our lives and seem minded to do so. The latter because they claim to know stuff that may affect both. All further heightened when the former seem swayed by the latter.

That, it seems to me, is why science has become a fierce battleground in a relatively short time. We all studied science at school, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. But love it or hate it, growing up in an age of extraordinary technological progress enhancing our lives, most of us learned to respect scientific disciplines as a public good, and their practitioners as great contributors or even occasionally heroes.

But two current day developments, in particular, have changed the familiar rules and shifted the familiar goalposts. They are climate change and still much more recently the coronavirus. Both came seemingly out of nowhere and suddenly, to take centre stage. Both are heavily dependent on and driven by science and scientists. The expert solutions to both have dramatically disrupted human lives, livelihoods, families, businesses, careers and economic systems, locally, regionally, nationally and even globally. And still, further disruption is assured. Then to top it all off, the disruptions have been implemented by all levels of government through regulation on unprecedented scales (in modern history at least), all in consultation with, yes – experts. So now the experts, it seems to some, are taking from our lives not adding to them.

Two demographics, in particular, are conflicted, anxious and battle-ready — big industry leaders and libertarians, especially but not only in the US. It’s from those two demographics that most aggressive denial of scientific findings, anti-science sentiment, and even personal attacks on scientists have arisen. For industry barons, it’s their enormous profits and shareholder interests that are on the line, and that they will fight for by any means. The favoured and most effective means since the 1980s has been the commissioning and funding of free-market ‘think tanks’ to produce and disseminate intentional misinformation about the scientific foundations so that governments and voters would resist all moves for systemic and behavioural change. The strategy was perfected on behalf of Big Tobacco initially before being applied to other profit-affecting medical scenarios, and then all stops out to defend oil and coal profits from the implications of the science of climate change. [4]

The second latterly anti-science demographic are libertarians, in particular US political and social conservatives, driven by the twin doctrines of free-market capitalism and ‘small government’, the two held to be indispensable to a prosperous democracy. A doctrine further impassioned by a popular conservative interpretation of the historic US Constitution, centred around the potential for even an elected government to drift into tyranny, the just remedy for which being some form of popular uprising. To adherents of this doctrine, any significant government regulatory advances are grounds for serious twitchiness at the very least. Until relatively recently this doctrine was either unknown or an academic curiosity beyond American shores. Now however, in this digital age of competing metanarratives, creeping anxiety and distrust, less moderate conservatives the world over are universalising and absolutising this belief set, while seeing ‘government tyranny’ behind every ballot box. The more so in countries like Britain and Australia where American cultural ties and influences have been the strongest.

I’ve touched here on the science denial phenomenon. It’s a very important subject for our times. Doing it justice would require another written piece or three. Fortunately it’s being and been well researched and addressed by several leading scientists and communicators. Of special note is Dr John Cook. John happens to be an Australian and also a Christian believer. His faith convictions about truth and creation stewardship are prominent among his motivations. Any of the alarming number of Christian disciples taking up with gusto the premises addressed here, would do well to reckon with this.[5]

To return briefly to the opening words of this premise: “All opinions are equal”. When a whole culture or sub-culture has stopped trusting experts, considering them in fact the enemy, what then becomes the ground of what’s true and real? In the current climate of angst at least, the answer seems to be “everyone’s opinion”. Throw it all open to ‘democracy’. That’s now the authority. Though preferably ‘my’ opinion, unless ‘yours’ has been shaped from watching the same suite of YouTube videos I saw. And so it’s an outrage that the ‘opinions’ of scientists are being favoured over mine and yours, particularly in the shaping of public policy and implementation. Such arrogance, indeed tyranny. I have just as much chance of being right as those scientists.

This ‘democratic opinion’ benchmark comes from the public arts of politics and economics. It’s served our culture well over centuries of democratic discourse. It’s native to those fields of thought because there are few absolutes. Few things are objectively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. And indeed the open exchange of ideas may advance the public interest. The problem with asking science to get into line with that approach is that science and technology (or ‘STEM’ as educators now bracket it) are evidence-driven disciplines, not thought-driven. The heart of scientific endeavour is not the debating of opinions or ideas (though scientists undoubtedly have their share of both, as the humans they are). Rather it’s the study of observable physical world evidence. Fundamentally, scientific findings are led by external, verifiable evidence, not internalised ideas.[6] That’s been the case at least since the deeply Christian Isaac Newton brought the “scientific revolution” to full flower in the seventeenth century.[7] Findings may well have practical implications in public politics or economics (and the current bones of contention do have both, and in spades).  But no political or economic opinion has shaped them.

    Impasse #3: Anyone who wants science to be democratic needs to find another universe.

Part 2 of this essay  is here.

1 Although I’ve included a handful of supportive cross-references, the analysis I present here is primarily anecdotal. It represents a distillation of many years of observation and reading of trends in pubic life and media over the past several decades, as well as today. I make no claim to it being authoritative. Indeed quite a bit of the content lies well outside my areas of expertise.

² If one is among that small subset of Christian believers who are persuaded of a certain set of political interpretations of apocalyptic biblical texts, then this concept is readily framed in terms such as “one world government” or “new world order”.

³ https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/555921-i-know-the-resurrection-is-a-fact-and-watergate-proved

4  https://www.climatechangecommunication.org/america-misled/

5 In very brief, Dr Cook and others have derived the mnemonic ‘FLICC’ to summarise the core strategies employed in the denial of science. These strategies have been most prominent and extensive in the denial of climate change. But they’ve been getting quite a workout this year and last in libertarian resistance to Covid safety measures, especially vaccines. Without elaboration here, ‘FLICC’ stands for: Fake experts; Logical fallacies; Impossible expectations (of science); Cherry-picking; and Conspiracy Theories. I might add a further ‘C’ from my own observation – Character attacks. (Though it’s really a subset of conspiracy theories). https://skepticalscience.com/history-FLICC-5-techniques-science-denial.html . Readers might reflect on where or when any of these have been seen at work.

6 It’s not that scientific findings aren’t open to challenge or questioning (‘scepticism’). Much the opposite in fact. However it’s evidence not mere ideas that drives the scepticism.

7 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Newton

 

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