The willingness of a large percentage of the people across the political spectrum to accept unsubstantiated conspiracy theories is depressing. There are actual conspiracies taking place in our society and in the world, and it is important to be aware of that fact; but accepting conspiracy theories with little to no actual evidence can quickly lead people down a rabbit hole that can almost wholly separate them from reality.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a conspiracy is defines as “the action of conspiring; combination of persons for an evil or unlawful purpose.” With this definition in mind, I will be the first to admit that there have been, are, and will continue to be many real conspiracies in the world.
There is ample evidence that there are many true conspiracies in our past and present, and some of them are so complex and unbelievable in scope that it is easy to see why so many of us are quick to believe even the most outlandish conspiracy theories.
It is true for example that tobacco companies conspired to obscure the truth about the deadly consequences of using their products. The tobacco companies’ own internal documents have proven this conspiracy to be true.
It is true that chemical companies conspired to levy personal attacks against the marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson when her scientific research pointed clearly to the ecological and health dangers of the use of DDT, a pesticide that not only persists in the environment for long periods of time, but also accumulates in greater concentrations as it moves up the food chain. Even to this day, some attempt to disparage Carson’s work because they know what a watershed event it was in exposing the danger of inadequate regulation and oversight of industrial activity.
It is true that the oil and automobile industries conspired to weaken mass transportation systems throughout the country, deny the health effects of using leaded gasoline, and stifle the development of electric vehicle technology.
It is true that chemical companies and tobacco companies conspired together to promote chemical flame retardants as a way of diverting attention away from one of the most common causes of house fires, which was the use of cigarettes. They even paid persons who provided false testimony about the safety and effectiveness of these products. All of this has been meticulously documented by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their book Merchants of Doubt.
It is true that Exxon scientists in the 1970s predicted in very accurate detail what the continued use of fossil fuels would do to the earth’s climate and that it would put the continuation of a livable climate and all of human civilization at risk, but Exxon executives and other fossil fuel executives conspired to hide this truth and spend millions of dollars over time to sow the seeds of doubt about climate science so they could make trillions of dollars over time from the continued use of fossil fuel.
Sadly, we even have clear evidence that in 1962, during the Kennedy Administration, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the United States Department of Defense presented a proposal to implement a false flag operation that included perpetrating acts of violent terrorism against numerous United States’ military and civilian targets in order to garner public support for a war against Cuba. We also know that Kennedy wisely rejected the proposal.
It is also true that many persons and groups have conspired to systematically defund public education over the past 50 years. The Heritage Foundation, the Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the National Chamber of Commerce, the American Enterprise Institute, and countless other well funded and well-organized organizations and movements have been involved in defunding public common and higher education and so much more. I wish with my whole heart that this were a conspiracy theory, but unfortunately the facts are very well documented. I invite you to read the -“Powell Memo” if you want to see the blueprint for what has happened along these lines over the past 50 years.
None of what I just mentioned are “conspiracy theories.” They are actual conspiracies that we know are true because there is overwhelming evidence and documentation of their truth. With the existence of real conspiracies like these, it is hardly surprising that so many people from all walks of life in our society are so willing to believe such a wide range of conspiracy theories, especially given the fact that there have been so many real cases in which the truth has been stranger than fiction.
It is no wonder that one in five people in the United States believe in the core aspects of QAnon conspiracies. One cannot be surprised that 23% of U.S. Americans believe that 9/11 was an inside job or that at one point 25% of U.S. Americans did not believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States. It is no wonder that so many people believe the conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and the vaccines that were developed to protect us. And according to a 2018 international survey, approximately 17% of the people believe that governments are using chemtrails to either control the population and/or control the weather. Given the reality of so many real conspiracies out there in the world, it is not a giant leap to believe some of these widespread conspiracy theories, especially if they fit with one’s pre-existing dispositions or ideologies.
But here is the rub, the conspiracy theories I just mentioned are not corroborated by any actual evidence. This does not mean that there is a never a shred of truth in some conspiracy theories, but it is usually not a truth that is upheld by any demonstrative evidence that they are true, and therefore it is both morally and epistemologically irresponsible to act as if they are true and even more irresponsible to proclaim them to others as being true.
I have come to understand that there are no harmless conspiracy theories. When one begins to believe one of the many baseless conspiracy theories being spread, it is like a gateway drug that leads persons down a path of accepting beliefs and explanations of reality that are demonstrably untrue and that are often racist, anti-science, and have the capacity to motivate persons to bring great harm to others.
The spread of conspiracy theories is not only a problem of the far right. I have seen some people I know on the far left and across the political spectrum get so caught up in conspiracy theories about “globalism” (usually with significant anti-Jewish themes) that they end up aligning more with far right nationalism than with a progressive approach to addressing our global challenges. Some people seem to be oblivious to the fascist undertones of the anti-globalist tropes. It is bewildering to me watch so many people I know go down the fascist rabbit hole.
In the end, conspiracy theories are a danger to the well being of the human community and a threat to the flourishing of democratic societies. More often than not, these conspiracy theories are used as a tool of propaganda to divide and control us. This is why autocrats are so quick to use conspiracy theories about elections and all sorts of other topics in order to manipulate the masses. They are not concerned about the truth, but rather are focused on gaining, maintaining, and expanding power.
As we move forward together to address the very real and complex challenges of our time, may the search for truth be our guide and may love and justice be our motivation. This is the only viable path forward to beloved community. Conspiracy theories will never get us where we need to be in this one world house that we share together. May we continue to covenant together to “affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
Well said. Seeking truth before we speak, especially through widespread social media, should be a responsibility for us all. Thank you for your insights Dr. Davies.