A vaccine for hazy conspiracy theories: “How many would have to be ‘in’ on it?”

A vaccine for hazy conspiracy theories: “How many would have to be ‘in’ on it?”

Check your living room for unidentified aerial phenomenon before you check the skies: you might be infected with an airborne virus of a different kind than the corona.

July 30th, 2020 at 7:41 am EDT

Some conspiracy theories are real. In September of 2019, the U.S. military verified one. A New York Times article reported two years prior that Navy pilots mid-flight had witnessed unknown objects, each significantly faster and capable of maneuvers as-yet unseen in military technology.

Here. Here’s extra sourcing to show you that I’m not insane.

For good measure, here’s a skeptic’s opinion piece on the events.

And to make the measure even gooder, here’s me conceding that one news piece, factual as it may be, has more than a baker’s dozen of sarcastic phrasings, manipulating if entertaining the reader.

Notice how I accept that the burden of sourcing should fall on me, the skeptic, the one bucking a norm-narrative that works and has remained evidence-based. What’s the narrative? That hard evidence is needed before we turn hypotheses about aliens into fact.

Notice, too, that the burden of sorting the evidence into categories and assessing each story’s worth and rhetoric also falls on me.

I accept these burdens, because I accept that I am a brand and I want that brand undiluted. I want people to believe me when I cry “wolf,” so I better only cry when I see a wolf, and I better cry at varied volumes based on how certain I am that, indeed, a wolf, sheep’s clothing or not, just exchanged an awkward glance with me.

I want my cries to be proportional to my certainty.

The phrase “conspiracy theory” is almost a misnomer, any science major undergrad will tell you. “Theory,” has a double definition, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s a confusing term and causes a lot of us to make mistakes when using it.

You see, in the sciences, a “Theory” is proven. There’s evidence out the wazoo. There’s study after study after study, control groups, peer reviews. A “Theory” in science (notice the capital T‘s) is more certain than most people are about where their remote is at any given moment. Theories stand the test of time in the sciences, because nothing gets named a “Theory” until it’s proven.

Newton didn’t theorize gravity; he hypothesized it. Over centuries, we did more than just drop apples to prove him right: we measured the damn thing. Gravity’s existence established, Einstein then showed it can bend time, a once-simple hypothesis from Newton not blown to bits, but augmented.

Our GPS satellites have internal clocks that correct for the fact that time runs slower in their CPUs relative to ours on Earth. Astronauts in our orbit even age slightly slower relative to ourselves. You’ve seen Interstellar. Meanwhile, apples still hit our heads when they fall.

We’ve designed the scientific method to augment old information as needed — but initial results read as fact in the public domain, science heightened to impossible expectation having been branded by its solid winning record.

We complain when the team bats .800 on average, or when their pitching coach says that he has a new follow-through that’ll work better. We grow impatient when scientists tell us, “Be patient — we need more research.”

And then when science amends its own conclusions, we write off the entire discipline, as if we were the ones in the labcoats, responsible for what’s new. The anti-science crowd loves to cite ancient, now-replaced results of the scientific method as evidence to disbelieve presently in even the most consistent conclusions, which we develop, because scientists, too, seek to disprove themselves by adding more and more evidence.

These science deniers also pop Advil with dinner. It’s an ocean of irony.

In such a dynamic climate, with a confused term like “Theory,” it’s not exactly surprising when conspiracy theorists mix hypotheses with fact and take themselves super seriously. I mean, don’t you take yourself seriously with all your own “theories” about Giselle from HR?

We should consider any and all hypotheses, about Giselle or otherwise, at least briefly, lest we become static, unliving. There’s value in skepticism, then.

There’s also danger in it. Conspiracy hypotheses can kill, or might attempt to, whether they’re made-up or real.

As an added bonus, here’s a hypothesis for you: this article will help your friend or family member the conspiracist understand your concern. Why? Because it finds an underlying commonality among both you and them that most people couldn’t spot.

The commonality: We all want to brand ourselves successfully.

To that end, we all would agree to check what we say and innoculate ourselves from invasive thought contagions as much as possible.

The trick is in the discerning.

Me? I’m not special. It’s luck and circumstance that I’m a bit more vaccinated than the next guy. I’m a middle-class white male with a Master’s, I’ve taught units on writing research papers for a decade, and my employer recently asked me if I wanted to teach a summer course and build my own curriculum on a skillset or subject I felt was important.

Can you guess what I picked?

If you guessed “conspiracy theories,” your hypothesis was close. I picked “Cognitive Biases,” same aisle, just a little further down. So I spent the last month researching ill thought and turning ideas inside out so I could teach my students well.

I want my cries to be proportional to my certainty.

Look, conspiracy theorists, you don’t have to kick the habit. Just alter your prescription to some theories that are less addictive. Stick to widely sourced material. Know the difference between the three main types of news: opinion, news analysis and hard news. The distinctions are less obvious than you’d imagine.

Opinion pieces are about the news and deliver the opinions of a writer or a team of them. They may or may not be evidence-based. Many start with a conclusion and attempt to work backward, the authors assuming they’re right before even attempting to look at the evidence — a fallacy called “apriorism.”

News analysis is a step toward Newton, the apple not-yet Einstein. These articles synthesize the news into takeaways for the reader. After interviewing several staffers on Capitol Hill, for example, a journalist might synthesize the idea that “Mitch McConnell seems to like milk in his tea,” but Mitch himself wouldn’t return any calls to verify the conclusion.

Or a news analysis article might break down serious likelihoods of a law or policy going into effect and causing a chain reaction. It might source dozens of experts and itemize established fact after established fact, laboring through the details so you don’t have to. By the end, out comes a really good hypothesis.

Objective, hard news without any detectable tone is the purest of the litter, the perfect black swans. While the rest of the birds open their big beaks, these swans remain elegant and poised. Two of these swans are named Reuters and The Associated Press. They report things that happen, and the journalists behind the keyboards are supposed to turn on personal invisibility modes, tonally untraceable. They betray their reputations rarely.

Let’s talk exceptions. The Associated Press, for instance, may for the sake of a quick news story, with just the facts, omit important causes for the central happening in the article, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks even if common fills would be inaccurate. Consider this brief AP article on the shutting down of United States Postal Service locations before November’s election, which highlights the organization’s insolvency but crucially fails to mention one of the main reasons why USPS is insolvent: Congress passed a law in 2006 that required specifically the USPS to pre-fund retiree healthcare plans 75 years in advance.

No other partially or completely federally-run agency was asked to do the same, not the CIA, not Homeland Security, not Congress itself. The law gave private competitors like UPS and FedEx an advantage in their efforts to gain ground on the ever-inexpensive and direct USPS. UPS or FedEx could shift to the public sector, too, federal and all, but as long as they aren’t literally the United States Postal Service, they would have a far easier time balancing their books.

USPS may have other expenses or unsavvy inefficiencies that add to their financial burden, like its set, low prices that allow most if not all Americans to secure their services, but in this law was one such, major burden.

Moreover, the expectations drummed up that the USPS must turn a profit are strange, considering that we expect not a single other federal agency to do the same.

It’s untenable to ask that the Associated Press and Reuters add layers of news analysis to every story. It is reasonable, however, to ask American readers to heighten their standards of evidence, especially when drawing causal connections. Black swan or not, the burden is on us armchair theorists to determine whether there is a second black swan, or an older black swan hidden in the background, like a hard news piece on the original ’06 law.

So that covers omission, then. How about bias? Can hard news still be biased?

Oh, yeah. The word choice of the journalist (think: “slams” or “admitted”) can affect how you perceive a situation, and if an article just so happens to be the first you read, you may “anchor” to the standard it sets. It’s what our brains have to do to make sense of whatever comes next — but it also can flip that pancake.

So to our friends, the conspiracy theorists, unless you can source with a lot of hard news, a lot of black swans, you’re not just possibly, but are likely letting others flip your mind like a pancake. As The Spectator put it when discussing apriorism, “Some people get horses and carts the wrong way round.”

Have you ever seen humans try to convince you that the carts go up front, figuratively speaking? I have. Some even convince themselves. It’s not pretty.

This all sounds like a lot of hard work, I know. That’s why I pulled a genuine news analysis here and synthesized a takeaway that just makes sense. You don’t have to take my word for it; try it on and see how it fits. Your mind is your own dressing room.

Ready? Recall how important your brand is to you. Now think of your favorite conspiracy theory, and answer this:

“How many would have to be ‘in’ on it?”

A brand saver, this question is.

I’ll try the vaccine on one armchair theory I’ve encountered in the wild myself. Right-wing radio host Alex Jones famously peddled the 1,000% debunked conspiracy theory that the massacre at a Connecticut neighborhood’s elementary school, Sandy Hook Elementary, was in fact a Democratic ploy to give just cause for an incoming attack from the left on the Second Amendment. He said the Democrats fictionalized the killings, just made them up, the kids’ names, the teachers, the blood in the pictures, the broken family members and other children sprinting and holding hands.

“Live from Sandy Hook,” news outlets reported. A gunman had entered, yes. He then shot dead six adults, and 20 children. The children each were only six or seven years old. The police zipped up their bodies. The parents buried their young. The spouses of teachers never saw them come home again.

So, if Jones were correct, “How many would have to be ‘in’ on it?”

  • An entire police department.
  • An entire community, neighbors.
  • An entire fake elementary school of actors.
  • Local morgues.
  • Local funeral homes.
  • Every local news agency.
  • Most national news journalists.
  • Federal investigators.
  • A heap of Democrats, some corrupt, some not.

You know, impossible. How many would Clinton and the Dems have to keep quiet to make it stick, so they can go rip guns out of people’s cold, dead hands? How many stopped leaks does it take to avoid the center of a conspiracy theory?

Getty lists 4,407 images for Sandy Hook as of July 2020. Scrolling through them takes the form of pain if you let yourself accept that this actually occurred. All those people.

All those actors.

See, I hear the name “Sandy Hook,” and I think of what that name meant to that community before all of those people were killed. I think of the trauma and devastation, something so pure turned into something so…

There is no word. We don’t have one for how horrible Sandy Hook is and was. We don’t really have a word, either, for how hurtful Jones’ idea virus became for those parents in mourning, his fellow Americans.

To witness your own child’s murder become an anti-authority talking point, and to see that point taken seriously, is an erasure not just of each innocent young life by bullet, but of each child’s memory, too. A denial of memorial.

Brand-breaking conspiracists sleepwalk around the country, bumping into other minds, their ideas like aerosols lifting their way through sinuses and straight to brains.

In a different kind of hurt, conflict-mediating obsessives straddle the line between their friend the conspiracist and their friend the evidence-based interventionist, a middle ground fallacy that preps the killing field for genocides of memory like Jones’. The “Eh, maybe” sails a thousand ships all on its own.

Perhaps the only lesson I wish I never learned in Kindergarten: “All opinions are equal.”

Sandy Hook conspiracies firmly debunked, the conspiracist brand overall will still not die any time soon, nor should it. The spry thing has legs, an occasional jump shot that avoids the rim and is pretty enough to keep the thing on our roster.

Meanwhile, our hazier conspiracy viruses and those who enable them will lose fans increasingly, rumors of trades amassing as field goal percentages plummet. The retirement days for these fringe viruses and their enablers alike will come with a whole lot of sourcing and in a more immediate space for intervention — “No, that’s not true. Here’s why.” New brands will be born from the bench, from the introspective, from the evidenced.

Let’s run another trial, on conspiracies hyper-immediate: “Haven’t you heard? The new 5G cell towers are causing Covid. And didn’t you see? Bill Gates is going to plant microchips in vaccines.”

In May, a YouGov and Yahoo News survey found that over 40% of Republican voters believed Bill Gates was planning to sneak microchips into the coronavirus vaccines to come, technology to track Americans’ movements.

And according to a May Cambridge poll conducted in the UK, 21% of those surveyed believe that 5G frequencies had something to do with the coronavirus pandemic.

Strange stats like these led the World Health Organization this week to speak out against what it’s calling a 2020 “infodemic,” digital and gossip ideascapes where the most absurd conclusions about the coronavirus seek shelter in hospitable minds. A pandemic that exacerbates paranoia puts out the welcome mat.

We need deadbolts, stat. There is no room for error or niceties when misinformation knocks in 2020.

So, “How many would have to be ‘in’ on the ‘5G massacre’?”

  • Cell phone company personnel, from the labcoats in research departments all the way up to the white collars of management.
  • Developed-world government workers and contractors worldwide — working together to suppress the truth — from the scientists and researchers who would have discovered the connection, to the top leaders’ desks on which the researchers’ reports landed.
  • The doctors in each country whom leaders then would have contracted to verify the concerns and the connections.
  • Any or all family members of the aforementioned who, despite security clearances, would have heard ominous whispers. “The towers, honey. All I can tell you, is to stay away…”

So, almost impossible, the equivalent of stuffing a hundred into a clown car instead of a dozen. You can imagine it, but there sure are a lot of joints going the wrong way. Best to wait for more information, then, if we want to preserve our brands.

And how about the ‘secret microchipping’? Who’d be ‘in’?

  • Bill Gates himself, now all of a sudden a complete psychopath despite his efforts in eradicating polio, insisting the rich give away half their wealth and his continual and public warnings about pandemic prevention.
  • A wildly large team of his own researchers and scientists who would be in place to make the nanobots functional.
  • Their families, for those sworn-to-secrecy employees who still spill half-truths over dinner.
  • The owners and operators of nanobot factories, so many in fact, that Gates would have enough nanobots to inject them into all 330 million Americans.
  • The workers in those factories who’d witness the microchips being produced, and the things being dropped into vaccines via some kind of dystopian assembly line.

So, impossible.

Ten miles off, conspiracists stand, proudly attempting to parch their thirst at mirages.

“There was this one time that the water was real, so…”

When they don’t stop their own thoughts, the rest of us have to waste time debunking at-sight, bogus hypotheses. In the exchange, we postpone the more important conversations our society needs to have, ones genuinely analytical and subtle. The conspiracists scapegoat and find easy, singular targets, as other, actual contributors to our problems go unchecked.

What progress have we sacrificed as a people, so that we can all hold onto our “opinions”?

Leave the mirage, switch your prescription, cry “wolf” less or softer, pick your metaphor — I don’t care. Just do something. Too many of you have made yourselves hypothesists as though it were the end goal.

No: a hypothesis is just the starting line.

Permanent skepticism is the noblest filter to apply when interacting with our environment and fellow humans, and we should use the habit of doubt to keep our leaders in check. All opinions are equally valid, and it’s because of our skepticism that we may better listen to others with open minds.

Yeah, so that backfired hard. All opinions are not equally valid. We are explorers, and our daily lives are new land. Treat your judgments, conspiratorial or not, for what they are: hypotheses. They are single pixels on a screen of nearly eight billion. Want to be taken seriously? Start taking your own brand seriously, and future-proof your words as much as you do your cryptocurrency portfolio.

IDEAS SIFTED: Confirmed unidentified aerial phenomena, crying wolf, Newton, Einstein, Interstellar, Journalism 101, the Sandy Hook massacre, coronavirus conspiracy theories.

Ryan Derenberger is a freelance journalist, a Journalism and AP English teacher at Whitman HS in Bethesda, MD, and the founder of 'The Idea Sift.'