Heard any good conspiracies lately? Global warming is a plot by scientists to get more funding and have an easy life? 2019-nCoV was developed in Wuhan as a bioweapon? NASA beat the Russians to the Moon by faking it all in Arizona? The US government is hiding evidence of aliens? President Kennedy was shot by someone else? Vaccines are designed to infect and are just outright dangerous. Conspiracy theories come in all sorts of forms, some just plain ridiculous, some are sufficiently possible that they cannot be put to sleep as they should. The Kennedy assassination comes to mind. Oswald was that good of a shot? A top-grade sniper with a top-grade weapon, yes, quite plausible, but Oswald? Then, just to add to the confusion, every now and again such a conspiracy theory will be shown to be a fair representation of the truth. Oops! So why do these theories emerge and spread so widely? The simplest reason is people do not trust the government to tell the truth.
Sophia Rosenfeld, a Professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, has written a book called “Democracy and Truth. A short history.” According to Rosenfeld, the occurrence of “fake news” has a long history, and the democratic ideal of truth never lived up to its promise. Gaius Julius Caesar was a master at promoting what he needed to get to the fore, and possibly the first to report about himself in the third person. The net result was the end of the Res Publica.
However, things are getting worse, through technology. Photos that have had serious adjustments, or are just plain fake, lies asserted to be true, truth “shown” to be lies, and the problem is, no single person can wade through this morass, yet the concept of representative democracy requires people to analyse and vote. What is supposed to happen is the wisdom of the crowd prevails, but what actually has happened for a very long time is information has been vetted and evaluated by an elite that controls what they do not want you to “know”.
Deterioration has got worse recently, and Rosenfeld argues this is because there is an increasing distance between the governed and governing classes. Because there has been clear evidence of the governing being less than truthful at times, the governed simply do not believe them. Sometimes those governing have been just outright clumsy. An example, in my opinion, is the Roswell wreckage. To assert it was a weather balloon was stupid when locals who saw the wreckage could clearly see it was not. Had they come out straight away and said it was a failed experiment from the nearby Defense weapons development site, everything would have been forgotten. “The military made something that did not work,” would have ended everything right then because it would be believable. Mind you, I gather it was not exactly a failure as Roswell is an otherwise unlikely tourist attraction.
Rosenfeld apparently believes science is part of the problem since science has “experts” and these are out of touch with the people. Maybe that is true. Whatever, the problem then is that people embrace emotions, intuition and “truths of the heart” over dry scientific evidence. Of course science can also be wrong, because it is based on the interpretation of observed evidence. The fact that scientists often resort to complicated mathematics does not help, and sometimes their explanations remind me of that TV show “Sledge Hammer”: trust me, I know what I am doing! Intuition will tell many people that if scientists did know what they were doing, they could explain everything in reasonably simple terms. The ordinary person can accept that he or she has to take “how they worked it out” on faith and a broad statement of the evidence behind a conclusion should be adequate. If the conclusion is wrong, other experts will clear that up.
Conspiracy theories tend to arise in part from attempts by ordinary people to make sense of often overwhelming information, based on personal values, and they do not wish to make the effort to sort out the truth. As an example, “Chemicals are bad!” Yes, some are, and here comes a problem: if the governing can be shown to be lying at some other time, then it is not a problem to assume they are lying now. Now, it is easier to spread distrust than make the effort to use logic. In my example, the statement is simply deficient. If we amend it to “Some chemicals are bad” most people would agree and there would be no problem, except that the conspirator would have to do some work and find evidence for the particular chemical. The bad news here is that many are at fault. The evidence is often either unobtainable or so widely scattered as to have the same effect; the government often wants to keep unpalatable news away from the voters; officials often conceal for no particularly good reason. So the governing tend to remain simply by spending more money on remaining., and that means those governing are even more separated from the governed. Positive feedback that makes the problem worse!