A few reflections on conspiracy theories

I had a chat with a FB friend yesterday. It started out as an ordinary exchange about our lives, and then took an unexpected turn as he started proselytizing conspiracy theories of the more extreme varieties.

This led me to write down a few reflections about conspiracy theories, as I have in some previous posts.

WHY BOTHER WITH CONSPIRACY THEORIES?

Why bother looking at the dynamics of conspiracy theories?

For most of us, it’s often best to ignore conspiracy theories. They are distractions from far more serious issues in our world.

And yet, it’s worth occasionally addressing their dynamics for a few different reasons.

Many have gotten into them recently, for a few different reasons. It’s easier to find them online. Some governments (Russia) use some of them intentionally to destabilize other countries. And the pandemic led to many spending more time at home, and they went down internet rabbit holes.

Widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories has real-life effects on our society and democracy. We see this with the anti-vaccination conspiracies, and QAnon in the US and the storming of the US Congress last January.

Widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories is an example of what can happen when people have limited knowledge about society, history, science, logical fallacies, media literacy, and so on. It’s a reminder of the importance of children learning these things early on in life. A little knowledge is dangerous, and a more thorough understanding is often the cure.

Equally important, the world of conspiracy theories is a rich mirror for all of us. It shows what happens when we get lost in logical fallacies and more. We all have a tendency to hold certain ideas as true, in an attempt to find safety. We all operate on some logical fallacies. We all seek like-minded people and go into echo chambers. We all sometimes take something as true because someone told us so. We all have experienced holding a story as true, being faced with information that doesn’t fit, and then either doubling down on the story or finding a story that more accurately fits the data.

HOW I MAKE DECISIONS ABOUT THE VACCINE

First, a few words about how I personally make choices about what I put in my body, including the Covid vaccine.

In the FB messenger chat yesterday, my acquaintance brought up the topic of vaccines and the views from the more extreme vaccine conspiracy theories. He repeated the same arguments as most in that camp seem to use, and his responses mostly consisted of “dream on” and similar phrases.

How do I make decisions about whether to take the vaccine or not?

I do it the same way I make decisions about anything I take into my body. I make myself reasonably informed at a story level, taking in information from a variety of sources, and I evaluate the reliability of the different sources and look at my own biases. I check the pendulum. (Which is just my fingers these days, I abandoned a physical pendulum a long time ago.) And I check in more directly with the energetics of the substance and how my body responds to it – before I put it in my body.

In the case of the mRNA covid vaccine, I got a strong “yes” on the pendulum. And when I checked with the energetics I did notice a relatively mild energetic “clash” which I resolved through channeling (Vortex Healing) for perhaps 15-20 minutes and otherwise got a clear yes here as well. I assume an unresolved clash could have led to mild side effects, and as it was, I had just about none. If anything, I felt better after the vaccine, which happens for some people with long-Covid and ME / CFS.

Why do I trust the pendulum and direct sensing of the energetics? For me, it’s one of several sources of information. If it fits other sources, I trust it. If it doesn’t, I’ll have to take a closer look and see what makes the most sense to me.

I have used both daily for more than thirty years, and it’s been reliable. There is typically a close match between what actually happens and what I had sensed in advance. Although I am very open to it being off now and then, I honestly cannot remember a time it has been wrong when it comes to things I put into my body. (I do sometimes eat things that are not so good for me, but I do it knowingly.)

It is a bit ironic that he kept repeating that I trust and follow the mainstream, while I – in reality – trust and follow my more direct sensing. I take in information from a variety of sources, keep it in mind, and mainly trust my own sensing. From what he said, he seemed to largely rely on what other people have told him.

I am very aware that most do not see the pendulum and direct sensing as reliable sources of information, or as a source of information at all, and I completely understand that. Thats’ why I usually don’t mention it, unless it’s relevant as it is here. (I should also mention that in the Vortex Healing community, where many have developed and tested out their sensing, it seems that most or all sense the vaccine as beneficial.)

WE DESCRIBE OURSELVES

We all describe ourselves when we (pretend) to describe others. And the conspiracy theory community is a good mirror for us here.

They say about others: You are sheep. You just trust what you are told. You are manipulated. You are deceived.

And, in reality, they trust what someone told them. They say and think what others in their camp say and think. They often allow themselves to be manipulated and deceived.

As mentioned above, this was clear in the chat yesterday. He repeated that I trust what authorities tell me. The reality is that I base my final decision on my own direct sensing and not any outside authority. And he is the one who seems to trust what other people, with an agenda, have told him.

And, of course, when I have stories about anyone – including conspiracy theorists – I am describing myself. What I see in them, is something I know from myself.

These are universal human dynamics. What I see in conspiracy theorists reflects something in me. And what they see in the world is a reflection of something in them.

DISTRUST OF AUTHORITIES

There are many pop-psychology insights about conspiracy theories, and there are likely grains of truth in many of them.

One is that some who get into conspiracy theories have a chronic distrust of authorities based on childhood experiences. For instance, someone may have grown up with a father who abused his authority, they grow up distrusting authority figures in general, and conspiracy theories nicely hook into, are fueled from, and feed this pattern.

A healthy distrust of authorities is, of course, valuable. There are many historical examples of people in power abusing that power and sometimes putting a glossy and inaccurate image on it. (And if we are honest, we all may be able to find examples of where we have done the same, perhaps in a very different setting and with apparently less serious consequences.)

And yet, it’s good to be aware of this dynamic in ourselves. Do I have an issue with authority figures based on my own experience? How does that color how I see the world and authority figures in the world? Would my views be different if I didn’t have this issue?

The upswing in conspiracy theories is, in many ways, a symptom of a patriarchal society and culture with a history of abuse of power. More people are waking up to this, which is good. And some go a bit overboard for personal reasons.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES AND SPECIFIC PREDICTIONS

The history of conspiracy theories is at least as old as civilization itself, and it’s full of examples of specific predictions.

Doomsday cults have predicted the end of the world on specific dates. QAnon has predicted things happening on specific dates, which didn’t happen. And some anti-vaxxers predict that many (most? all?) of those vaccinated will die from the vaccine within one or a few years.

What happens when these predictions don’t come true?

There have been studies on this, and we see the classic responses these days as well.

The typical response is to create new stories explaining why it didn’t happen that fit the existing conspiracy worldview. They use the failed predictions to reinforce and deepen their existing views. Perhaps because it would be too embarrassing to admit it was fundamentally wrong from the beginning. And perhaps because they are invested in a particular worldview and community, and want to stay connected with it.

And a few, to their credit, get disillusioned and question the whole thing.

This too is a mirror for ourselves. We all predict things about the future which doesn’t happen, and some of us do it many times a day. How do we respond when it doesn’t happen? Do we keep going as before? Or do we question our assumptions at a more fundamental level?

CONSPIRACY THEORIES AS A DISTRACTION I

As I have written about before, the main reason I am not into conspiracy theories is that they are a distraction. What we KNOW is going on in the world is far more serious than the topic of most conspiracy theories.

We live within systems that maintain social inequalities and make the wealthy wealthier and the poor poorer. Where multinational corporations own a large number of other corporations and media. Where politicians often are in the pockets of Big Money. Where wars are fought for corporate interests. And most serious of all, we live within systems that do not take ecological realities into account and are destroying ecosystems we and future generations depend on. We live within a system that is unintentionally rigged for self-destruction and the destruction of our civilization.

No conspiracy is needed. The way our systems are set up creates all this, and we are all participants since we live and function within these systems. It’s up to each one of us to bring attention to this and support and bring into life alternatives.

How did this come about? In terms of ecology, our current systems of economy, production, energy, and so on, were all developed at a time where we didn’t need to take ecological realities into account. And now, with a much larger population and more effective technology, just living normally within these systems are destroying ecosystems and what we depend on for our own lives.

EASIER TO BLAME PEOPLE THAN SYSTEMS

One major fallacy of conspiracy theories is that they blame people rather than systems. The major problems we see in the world today are systemic. And, as mentioned above, normal people living normal lives are causing these problems just because we live within these systems.

I understand it may be tempting to blame people, and people are obviously involved, but in the bigger picture, a one-sided focus on individuals and groups is a distraction. The real problems are in the systems, and that’s not personal.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES AS A DISTRACTION II

Conspiracy theories function as a distraction in yet another way, and that’s on a personal level. If our life is not as we would like it, it may be tempting to get distracted by something – work, politics, religion, spirituality, collecting stamps, or going into conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theories are often compelling, invoke our emotions, create the appearance of good and bad guys, put us on the side of the good, create or support desired identities for us, invoke powerful archetypes, and so on.

And since they involve emotions and identities, they can blind us to our more grounded and reasoned side, and they are perfect for distracting ourselves from whatever we wish to be distracted from. They can distract us from what in us it’s difficult to meet, which is typically discomfort in the form of uncomfortable emotions and stories about ourselves and our life.

THE GRAIN OF TRUTH IN CONSPIRACY THEORIES

There are obviously a lot of things regularly happening in the world that can be called a conspiracy. Politicians act on behalf of corporate interests. Multinational corporations own a large number of other corporations, including media companies. Big Money has intentionally pushed neo-liberal thinking and policies for decades. The oil industry back climate-change deniers. Wars are fought over strategic footholds or access to natural resources and not the more noble goals they often present to the public. And so on. This is well known, has been going on – in one form or another –  since the dawn of civilization, and are often called politics or business rather than a conspiracy.

In this sense, the general idea behind conspiracy theories is correct: There are conspiracies going on in the world on a regular basis, at all levels from the smallest backroom deals to global business and policies.

There may also be grains of truth in specific conspiracy theories. For instance, vaccines do have side effects and some die of them. That’s widely known, and it’s a risk most are willing to accept. We are all already willing to accept far greater risks in daily life, for instance when we get into a car or regularly eat sugar or meat.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES AND THE NEWLY CONVERTED

I get the sense that many conspiracy theorists are relatively new to some of the ways the world works, including corruption, people pulling strings, the influence of Big Money in media and politics, and so on. (To me, all this seems obvious since I have been exposed to information about this since childhood and early teens.)

If they are relatively new to this, it explains both their naivité and their zeal. They lack critical thinking skills, they don’t have a very mature approach to the topic, they gulp up a lot of what’s presented to them, they are willing to assume the worst without very solid data, they tend to proselytize, and they generally go a bit overboard with their enthusiasm.

Again, that’s something many of us have done in one form or another – often early in life – when we discover something that’s new to us and seems important and possibly life-changing.

What happens over time with conspiracy theorists? And how will society respond to conspiracy theories? I assume some (many?) of the conspiracy theorists will wise up, ground, and find a more nuanced view over time. And it may be that society as a whole becomes more inoculated against conspiracy theories, especially as more people learn to recognize the patterns and common flaws of conspiracy theories.

INNER AND OUTER CONSPIRACIES

There are real or imagined conspiracies in the world, and we all also have internal conspiracies.

What are some of these internal conspiracies?

The most obvious one is to believe a thought, any thought. We conspire with the thought to hold it as true, prop it up, defend it, and so on. We ignore that a thought is only a question about the world, cannot hold any final truth and that there is some validity in a range of different views and thoughts on the same subject.

There are innumerable variations of this. For instance:

When we act against our heart, our inner knowing, because we hold a stressful thought as true, we conspire against ourselves.

When we make ourselves small, others small, and the world small, because we hold a thought as exclusively true, we conspire against ourselves.

When we act against our own interests because we hold a stressful thought as true, we conspire against ourselves. (Our own interests are what we are more aware of and seek when we come from clarity and kindness, and it’s inclusive of the interests of others.)

For some, it may be more tempting to focus on possible conspiracies in the world than getting to know our internal conspiracies. It may feel easier, even if it’s not in the long run.

THE PATTERNS OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES

There is a pattern to conspiracy theories, familiar from history and psychology.

The essence is obviously (a) a story of a conspiracy (b) believed by a group of followers.

And there is more. For instance….

Conspiracy theories are compelling. They are intriguing, fascinating, have good and bad guys, appeal to the emotions, and so on, just like any good story. They are entertaining and pull people in.

Conspiracy theories create insiders and outsiders. They can split existing groups like families, communities, and even countries.

The followers tend to have a good deal of zeal, trying to convince others of their views.

They tend to use the same language and arguments.

They accept stories as fact without solid critical thinking and examination of the source.

The source / originator / propagator often has an agenda. The conspiracy theorists are manipulated.

They overlook systemic factors and focus on people, perhaps because it’s an easier target than the abstraction of systems.

They get emotional satisfaction out of the conspiracy theory. They feel they know something others don’t. They are insiders and others are outsiders. They feel included in their own community.

Many conspiracy theorists feel like outsiders, and this reinforces that identity while providing them with a community of fellow conspiracy theorists.

If a conspiracy story can be checked, for instance, X happens by Y date, and it doesn’t happen (which is nearly always the case), they respond in one of two general ways. They either explain it away with a story that fits into their general worldview. Or they get disillusioned and leave the conspiracy community.

They see any contrary view as evidence that the person is deluded by mainstream stories.

They pride themselves on excellent critical thinking while committing a good deal of logical fallacies.

They tend to be less educated and may see themselves as having a less privileged position in society.

They accept the views of “experts” that have no real expertise in the field they are talking about.

The conspiracy community has many similarities with cults.

They accuse outsiders of exactly what they themselves are displaying: Lack of critical thinking. Parroting a story. Onesidedness. Being duped and manipulated.

When we learn this pattern, it’s much easier to recognize it when we encounter it online or in real life. And it’s far easier to not get pulled into it. That’s why conspiracy theory literacy, along with media literacy and learning critical thinking skills is crucial, and especially in schools.

When we recognize the pattern, it’s not so tempting to go into it.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES AND INSANITY

When people get lost in conspiracy theories, is it a kind of insanity?

To an outsider, it can certainly appear that way. The more conventional parts of me can easily say: He is either very stupid, or insane. The more empathic side of me responds: Or in a lot of pain.

So is it a kind of insanity?

The reality is that any time we believe a thought, it’s a kind of insanity. We perceive the world as if the thought is true, and although there is some validity to many thoughts, the world is always more than and different from any thought. When we believe a thought, we get stuck into that perspective and are less open to anything that doesn’t fit. And that’s a kind of insanity, and the more strongly we hold onto the thought, the more obvious the insanity is.

People who are into conspiracy theories obviously don’t see themselves as insane. They see themselves as having discovered something true and important, and other people are ignorant of this important truth. They see themselves as being on the side of the right and good. And that’s how it is for all of us when we hold onto any thought as true.

Why do we do it? Why do we hold onto certain stories as true? The short answer may be that we don’t know any better. We grew up in a family and culture where people did just that, and it’s normal and expected. We didn’t learn to relate to our thoughts more intentionally. We didn’t learn to examine them thoroughly to find what’s more true for us.

Also, we think we get something out of it. We assume it gives us safety, certainty, protection, and so on. While, in reality, it gives us stress and discomfort.

Finally, are people who go into conspiracy theories insane in a clinical sense? Probably not more than average. But I assume that after getting into it, some may develop signs of mental illness like paranoia and so on.

LIVING WITH CONSPIRACY THEORIES

If you held a conspiracy theory as true, how would it be?

How would it be to believe that a large number of people (governments, doctors, corporations) are intentionally injecting something into a majority of the world’s population in order to kill them?

I imagine it creates a lot of distrust, paranoia, inner and outer conflicts, a sense of isolation, and general distress and discomfort.

So why choose to hold these views? Why hold views unsubstantiated by any real evidence? Why hold views that seem so obviously absurd to most of us?

I am not sure. I assume it’s what can happen if you go down rabbit holes on the internet. Spend time in internet echo chambers, and perhaps some in real life. Leave your critical thinking at the door. Are generally gullible. And perhaps feel like an outsider already, and this fits your established outsider identity.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES & NEW AGE SPIRITUALITY

Occasionally, there is an overlap between those into new-age spirituality and conspiracy theories.

I imagine some who get into spirituality do so because they feel a bit lost and are looking for answers, and both spirituality and conspiracy theories offer answers, although often very different types of answers.

Many who get into spirituality are relatively open-minded and open to questioning their old assumptions, which also can lead to going overboard with conspiracy theories.

Some who get into spirituality feel a need to abandon most or all of their old views and assumptions, and conspiracy theories is one way to engage in a scorched earth approach to your old assumptions.

Some who get into spirituality have issues with authorities. They avoid established religions, and they are more prone to get into conspiracy theories.

And some who are into spirituality are just starting to explore this whole field of questioning assumptions, seeing through cultural beliefs and norms, and so on. They lack experience, maturity, and discernment, and are easy prey for certain conspiracy theories.

Again, this is a mirror for all of us. We may all feel a bit lost at times and look for answers. We may at first be a bit naive in what we take refuge in. We may go overboard in certain areas of life, at least for a while.

RETREAT PATHS

Conspiracy theorists, and especially those of the more extreme variety, tend to isolate themselves from family and friends who have little tolerance for that brand of nonsense.

The more they feel attacked and judged, the more they tend to retreat into their new views and identities. And the more difficult it may be for them to retreat from it when they later start to realize the nonsensical nature of the conspiracy theories.

So what’s the best way to relate to conspiracy folks? Ignore them? Tell them we are not interested in hearing about it? Try to have a rational conversation? Use stronger language and be more direct?

I don’t know. What I know is that it’s good to welcome them back if or when they realize what’s been going on, and avoid shaming or judging in that situation.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES AND CONFIRMATION BIAS

Many conspiracy theories have obvious weaknesses. (Although occasional stories are weird and turn out to be true in a conventional sense.)

The flat earth ideas are very easily punctured. It’s easy to see the curvature of the Earth on the ocean. Even the old Greeks knew how to measure the circumference of the Earth and we can all do the same experiment. A flat-Earth conspiracy would require a huge number of people to be in on it – pilots, ship captains and crew, astronomers, long-distance travelers, and so on. It’s extremely unlikely so many, and people with such a diverse orientation and interests would agree to uphold such a conspiracy. Also, basic physics tells us that large masses take on a round form because of gravity. And all largish objects in space – of which Earth is one – take on a round form. (Of course, I assume almost everyone into the flat-Earth conspiracy knows better and are doing it to troll others, including scientists.)

The same goes for many of the vaccine conspiracy theories. It would require a huge number of people around the world to be in on it. That may work in an organization where people agree it’s for the best to keep something secret. But it’s hard to impossible to imagine it would work on a worldview basis. Why would people with widely varying worldviews, values, political orientations, and so on all agree to actively join in? Why would countries with equally widely varied values and political orientations agree to collaborate? Why would Cuba agree? Why North Korea? And so on.

For instance, if what my FB acquaintance said is correct, and the vaccine is not a vaccine but aimed at killing off large portions of humanity, it would require the active cooperation of a huge variety of professions from all countries around the world. It would require the active cooperation of producers, workers, doctors, epidemiologists researching the effect of the vaccine, government officials, and so on. And not only within one country, but every single country in the world, each one with its own agenda and interests. Many of these people are people of conscience who are in their profession to help society and humanity, and they would never allow this to happen. They would not be silent.

Also, each one of these huge numbers of people would actively allow their loved ones – family and friends – to take the vaccine and be killed. (The alternative is that they warned them, which means a huge number of people globally warned, and in real life, many of these would speak up.)

This is an obvious example of confirmation bias. We seek out information that supports our existing views, and either ignore or explain away the rest. It’s something we all do, and the world of conspiracy theories is a good mirror for all of us.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES AND TROLLING

I suspect that quite a few people into conspiracy theories know what they are doing and are trolling the rest of us. They like to see people exasperated with the obvious idiocy of most conspiracy theories, and they especially like to see the “elite” – liberals, intellectuals, and scientists – riled up by it.

Especially in the US, it seems that conspiracy theories are used as a poke in the eye of the “elite”, and it’s done so by people who feel they are outsiders or have been left behind one way or another.

That’s fair. Although it’s worth remembering that conspiracy theories have real-life effects, and sometimes serious real-life effects at both individual and social levels.

Is it worth it? I would say no.

Even if people don’t consciously know what they are doing, they do know it somewhere. Somewhere, we all know when we allow ourselves to get into a story for emotional and other reasons, and that the support for that story may not be nearly as strong as we tell ourselves it is.

THE CONSPIRACY THEORIES WE ALL ENGAGE IN

As usual, the world is our mirror.

So what do conspiracy theorists mirror in me? And perhaps in most of us?

I have mentioned much of it above.

We all sometimes… Jump on a story without having good data to support it. Fill blank areas of our mental maps with unsupported and sometimes scary stories. Feel we are an outsider and find stories that fit and perhaps enhance that identity. Tell ourselves we know something that many others don’t. Get fascinated by stories because they are entertaining. And so on.

We also go into conspiracy stories in a more direct way. For instance, we may have a story that the world is conspiring against us. Or a person or group of people. And we may fuel and give these stories energy without thoroughly checking the stories – in terms of what they do with us, if we can know for certain, the validity in the reversals, how solid the data is, what fits the data, and so on.

We are all conspiracy theorists, sometimes and in some areas of life.

See also additional posts on this topic, with other points.

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