Preface: The first draft of this article started in early 2020, and attempted to equally highlight the mistakes of both conspiracy theorists and fake skeptics, or conspiracy deniers. But the situation has become so awful in mainstream media and discourse that the article’s final draft is ultimately more sympathetic to the “conspiracy theorists”. Any remnants criticizing conspiracy theorists are artifacts, and apply to the most radical and unbelievable of the lot (although, what seemed unbelievable subsequently and repeatedly seems to become real).
What one comes to believe about the happenings in the world can reveal their internal temperament. For example, a mind too smitten on shallow fantasy and unable to separate their enjoyment of it from external reality, a childish and simplistic mind, is attracted to conspiracies involving secret aliens, or creatures pretending to be human, or the earth being inside out. But an antithetical temperament, one extremely deficient in trait openness, will be unable to conceive of mass criminal cover-ups, or bureaucratic fraud, or espionage happening outside of the public eye. For them, anyone who entertains ideas outside of “expert” consensus is a “crackpot”.
This is a problem of ideology, involving a broken pattern recognition ability. The conspiracy theorist uncovers some instances of very real fraud, corruption, and bureaucratic scandal, so then is primed to see conspiracy behind every societal occurrence, even if he ends up dismissing legitimate situations. He would never want to become like those “sheeple” or “shills” he so despises by believing anything of consensus. Although, one can empathize with the realization that we are all being lied to on a daily basis; people become antagonistic to consensus in different severity, corresponding to their temperament.
The fake skeptic, that is, the bureaucratic authoritarian apologist who claims to advocate rationality, sees the ridiculous “tinfoil hat” conspiracy theorists and condemns their paranoid delusions, but then loses the ability to discern very real fraud, corruption, and bureaucratic scandal, or is unable to admit of its possibility, for fear he may come to resemble those tinfoil “cranks” he mocks so intensely.
We find what we look for. That is why fake skeptics find no evidence to support what they call “quackery”, and that is why paranoid people find evidence of everyone being out to get them.
Both caricatures are ideological mind “viruses” that infect the host and hijack their ability to evaluate contextually. They dehumanize each other and are unable to arrive at a reasonable case-by-case discussion because they both loathe what each other represents so much, and each hostile, futile interaction between the two camps only validates their preconceived notions of each other’s stupidity and encourages them to cozy up in echo chambers. ‘Why cast my pearls before swine?’, every frustrated ideologue thinks.
The stereotypical conspiracy theorist is aligned to an attitude of dissent against authority, never believing that institutional intentions could be anything but devious, dishonest, or evil. The authoritarian personality of the fake skeptic makes them rationalize on behalf of actual crime and tyrannical government action, since they worship of consensus in the tradition that “experts” set the standard of public belief by orating from their holy manuals, guidelines, or protocols, what is to be thought correct, and what is to be ridiculed.
Bureaucrat apologists like to dismiss the possibility of conspiracies by saying “people, even our leaders, are too incompetent to successfully pull something like that off,” but they fail to factor in the necessary consistency that their argument stands on: that of mass public incompetence and willful ignorance. If our leaders are stupid, as they say, then the general populace must be even stupider for letting these people secure power, laud it over them, and commit crimes under their noses. It’s not reptilians or evil masterminds plotting schemes; it’s greedy executives, marketers, and scientists cutting corners or exploiting opportunities, realizing that what they’ve done is going to hurt or kill people, then lying to avoid criminal charges and public outrage. The reality is much less fantastical and much more devastating and believable, for anyone actually willing to understand it.
The mainstream narrative takes advantage of the human tendency for polarity, black-and-white thinking, a desire to simplify and secure by choosing a side and demonizing the Other, despite the reality being far more complex than Us-versus-Them. Recently, mainstream controversies have presented profoundly opposing perspectives where a middle ground, mediation, or nuance is crippled if not rendered impossible.
For example, with vaccinations, the issue isn’t pro-vaccine vs. anti-vaccine, because the mechanism of vaccination has been used intelligently in the past, but once it became intertwined with profit and overlapping incentives, it’s become clear that extremely toxic adjuvants, excessive and unnecessary vaccination schedules, and allergic reactions occur as collateral damage, but the discussion never goes there, because when public discourse makes people choose a team, e.g. pro-vax vs. anti-vax, everyone’s reaction to an opposing viewpoint is going to be knee-jerk, emotional, and prejudiced, so nothing gets solved and issues within the complex matrix of modern vaccination aren’t addressed (Gherardi, et al., 2015; Hooker & Miller, 2020; Kiem, et al., 2021). The level of nuance required to discern such an issue is inaccessible to the majority of people, and there is no incentive for the media or the manufacturers to be wholly transparent, so division and confusion reign.
These neoliberal rationalists, these self-proclaimed science-believers, believe in a very specific, sterilized, bureaucratic “science”. They seem to be instantly triggered by the idea that dogma, corruption, and conspiracy exist in science, that the existence of competent rational intellectual experts making up the field would never allow such things to happen, but that is sadly not the reality. Having a reverence for science, it is important to be both an advocate and a critic, pointing out the existence of corruption and falsities within scientific consensus and legislation.
“Chance undoubtedly play[s] a role, as in every human event, but trying to explain history through chance is meaningless, and no serious historian has ever undertaken such a pointless endeavour. This does not mean that it is always necessary to speak about ‘conspiracies’. But anyone who labelled a historian who tried to reconstruct in detail the plots that triggered such events as a ‘conspiracy theorist’ would most definitely be demonstrating their own ignorance, if not idiocy.”
—Giorgio Agamben, Where Are We Now?, 2021
In other cases, what looks like conspiracy is moreso perpetuated dogma. To champion this dogma, it’s proponents only address the most pathetic low-hanging fruit of opposing arguments, such as the war of Neo-Darwinist biology vs. the evangelical creationist Christianity. The evangelicals have indeed been a nagging thorn in opposition to some areas of scientific discourse, but the New Atheist, Neo-Darwinist, genetic determinist scientists are seen as the correct viewpoint, since their main opponents are ridiculous, but just because creationism is obviously wrong, doesn’t make the Neo-Darwinists right. We’re already seeing evidence that violates the laws of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution (Cossetti, et al., 2014), rendering the current paradigm in need of an update.
Science and subsequent public policy, for example in nutritional guidelines, is so permeated by “conspiracy” and industry-funded ulterior-motive research, that protocols exist for declaring conflicts of interest in scientific studies, but the power of those compromised studies still works to influence the public and government policy. If studies are funded to show the benefits or harmlessness of some substance or product, by the very manufacturers, and the study twists the data to some pre-ordained result, is that not conspiratorial? That happens all the time.
The Kellogg Company funds studies that “find” that breakfast cereal helps kids lose weight. The meta-analysis in their 2013 study used evidence from 14 studies, 7 of which were funded by Kellogg’s and 5 of which were funded by General Mills (Hunty, et al., 2013).
The sugar industry conspired in the 1960s to blame dietary fat for heart disease, when sucrose was very much more to blame, and it worked, and most people still don’t know that, eating according to those fraudulent dietary guidelines (Kearns, et al., 2016). If we can’t trust the government’s medical guidelines for the food we put into our body, because those guidelines are motivated by profit, then why should we trust any other advice from the government?
In Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address, he warned of not only the war-profiteering military-industrial complex, but also the “scientific-technological elite”. He saw the danger of allowing scientific discovery and consensus to be steered by government contracts, with public policy then becoming captive to those elite interests. With the merging of corporate and government interests into a monopoly that decides what is called science, and with anything that contradicts it being called “misinformation”, Eisenhower’s fear has materialized resoundingly as the newest form of biopower. That may be a “conspiracy” or the emergent property of many operating entities, with some ignorant or misguided intentions, and some legitimate sociopathy.
“Scientific” marketing in the 1940s and ‘50s dismissed the concerns about DDT’s dangers, insisting that it was “so safe you can eat it”. One educational film from 1947, wherein a tribal leader rejects the DDT as poisonous, is used to imply these tribes are primitive and clueless about the wonders of Western inventions. British soldiers spray DDT on porridge and eat it in front of him, “proving” its safety, but we knew soon after that DDT’s insidious effects are long-term. The same dismissal occurred for above-ground nuclear bomb tests. I guess the assertion from fake skeptics is that these things just don’t happen anymore, or are so quickly self-corrected that it’s a negligible concern.
John Ioannidis, a doctor and scientist, reviews the many social impediments that render science as not necessarily self-correcting: “in settings where science is at a low ebb and massive destruction of evidence, production of wrong evidence, or distortion of evidence abounds, it is possible that the scientific environment becomes so perverted that people don’t even perceive that this is happening and thus they do not worry about it. They feel that their current science is robust and most correct. The Christian mobs destroying the Library of Alexandria, phrenologists, and Nazi eugenicists must have felt quite secure and self-justified in their dogmas” (2012).
Real conspiracies seem to almost always be more realistic but less compelling and fantastical than a conspiracy theorist is interested in. Profit, self-preservation, incompetence, and ego are much better motivators for conspiracy than an evil desire to destroy the population and enslave humanity, but those former motivators, left unchecked, may also lead to our enslavement.
The complexity and mundane truth of real conspiracies are under-stimulating and over-complicated for the stereotypical conspiracy theorist, but the fake skeptic exaggerates the prevalence of the former while also becoming a stereotype himself, one who throws the baby out with the bathwater in the most reprehensible and intellectually embarrassing fashion.
“[Throughout history], there are people and organisations pursuing licit or illicit objectives and then trying to realize those objectives by any means necessary. For those who wish to understand what is happening it is vital to know and think about these tendencies … Defining anyone who seeks to know historical events for what they really are as a ‘conspiracy theorist’ … is plain defamation.”
—Giorgio Agamben, Where Are We Now?, 2021
Further reading: “It Does Not Take a Conspiracy“, by the Ethical Skeptic
Cossetti, Cristina, et al. “Soma-to-Germline Transmission of RNA in Mice Xenografted with Human Tumour Cells: Possible Transport by Exosomes.” PLoS ONE, vol. 9, no. 7, 2014, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101629.
Gherardi, Romain Kroum, et al. “Biopersistence and Brain Translocation of Aluminum Adjuvants of Vaccines.” Frontiers in Neurology, vol. 6, 2015, doi:10.3389/fneur.2015.00004.
Hooker, Brian S, and Neil Z Miller. “Analysis of Health Outcomes in Vaccinated and Unvaccinated Children: Developmental Delays, Asthma, Ear Infections and Gastrointestinal Disorders.” SAGE Open Medicine, vol. 8, 2020, p. 205031212092534., doi:10.1177/2050312120925344.
Kearns, Cristin E., et al. “Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research.” JAMA Internal Medicine, vol. 176, no. 11, 2016, p. 1680., doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.5394.
Kiem, Cécile Tran, et al. “Benefits and Risks Associated with Different Uses of the COVID-19 Vaccine Vaxzevria: a Modelling Study, France, May to September 2021.” Eurosurveillance, vol. 26, no. 26, 2021, doi:10.2807/1560-7917.es.2021.26.26.2100533.