I try to figure out what really happened and what’s really going on by learning about conspiracy theories, why they’re so prevalent right now, and the type of people who rarely believe what they’re told, and how often they end up being true.
Skepticism and Imposter Syndrome
As I mentioned in the Ghost Hunting episode, I’m a pretty skeptical person, which makes me prone to question things I read and hear. This can be annoying for friends, family, and especially sales people when they feel that I don’t trust them but I don’t really trust any one person.
I went through a phase in my early 20s where I was very susceptible to conspiracy theories. I think it’s part of our development where the world opens up and the simplicity and truth of the first 20 years is eroded and the world being complicated and full of propaganda surfaces.
I remember watching the moon landing documentary on Fox that presented the landings as fake and believing it because it was on a reputable network. Surely there were checks and balances in place that would stop anything fake from being aired, right? I dove head first into the 9/11 truther conspiracy after seeing the Loose Change documentary, which set out to prove that 9/11 was an inside job and the proof was in plain sight. Get it? Plain sight.
I think part of this comes from me not trusting myself with what I think I know. This is typically known as imposter syndrome where you don’t trust your own knowledge and experience and worry you’ll be found out as a “fraud”. It’s usually more of a problem in professional settings.
For years I believed the moon landing to be fake and 9/11 to be an inside job. I’ve grown up since then.
Couple that with my need to research a lot of decisions, like what’s the best Indian place close to me to what hard drive should I buy to what book should I read next, I leave a lot opinions up for research to help with.
I think it’s at this point that conspiracy theories get a hold of people and it can be because of something called confirmation bias, which is the tendency for us to interpret or favour info that confirms our own beliefs and values. This is a really powerful bias that impacts us every day with all aspects of our lives.
For example, you send someone a text and don’t get a reply, you may think that person is busy or that they are ignoring you.
It affects the workplace from the interview and recruiting stage to performance reviews where we attribute behaviours to things we already believe.
It affects more serious aspects of our lives, like crime and witnesses, like with a dog attack, one person will see a vicious dog attacking someone for no reason and one person will see a dog defending itself from a threat.
It even affects science, which is thought to be objective, where results can be misinterpreted and cause significant, negative outcomes, like the famous 1998 study that linked vaccines to autism. Even though it was publicly retracted, we all know the rest of the story.
And then there is “fake news”, which has exploded thanks to social media and search algorithms that return results ranked in an order of what the search engines think will get your attention. The longer you spend on social media, the more posts that confirm your biases and the less exposure to other view points.
The more I learn about psychology, the more I believe that our brains are hardwired to be as efficient as possible and that it takes real effort to counter act the shortcuts we subconsciously take. We’re designed to think in terms of stereotypes – quick processing where we can categorize information we receive easily.
Confirmation bias does this by not making us potentially spend the mental calories reevaluating any strong beliefs, which could lead to a domino effect of reevaluating our entire belief system. It’s protective in a way: if this one thing is not true, what else do I believe is not true? If this person told me something that isn’t true, what else have they told me that’s not true?
Like I said, we’re all susceptible to this but those who are overconfident in themselves are more so and this is despite the amount of evidence that contradicts their beliefs. Now we’re getting warmer.
I grew up in a house where the belief was most important events were not what the media reported – there was always some geopolitical and/or economic motivation behind everything despite any other, more plausible explanations. That is the definition of a conspiracy theory.
Conspiracy theories hold up really well because they only get stronger when there is evidence against them and when there is no evidence for them. “You think Osama Bin Laden is dead? Where’s the body? Oh there are no pictures and he was buried at sea? And you believe that?” It’s that easy. It basically is a matter of faith where it’s not about getting proven or disproven.
Conspiracy theories weren’t really mainstream until the last hundred years and they’ve exploded in the last decade becoming part of our culture and is very much related to not trusting authorities and governments.
These theories can be grouped into a few types:
- The “Enemy Outside” refers to theories based on figures alleged to be scheming against a community from without.
- The “Enemy Within” finds the conspirators lurking inside the nation, indistinguishable from ordinary citizens.
- The “Enemy Above” involves powerful people manipulating events for their own gain.
- The “Enemy Below” features the lower classes working to overturn the social order.
- The “Benevolent Conspiracies” are angelic forces that work behind the scenes to improve the world and help people.
There are also three common classifications:
- Event based, like 9/11
- Systemic, like communism or the one world government
- Super-conspiracies, where everything is linked
True Conspiracy Theories
With all that said, there’s gotta be some truth there right? Well, I looked for a definitive list, which I’m skeptical of but here we go:
- Project sunshine – to understand the effects of nuclear weapons, the US government was collecting remains from young children, sometimes without notifying families, to use at test sites
- Poison booze – the government pushed alcohol manufacturers to put poison in drinks to dissuade people and bootleggers from consuming and creating alcohol
- Government mind control – MK-ULTRA was a government program designed to understand the effects of hallucinogens
- Dalai Lama works for the CIA – declassified docs show that the US did fund the Dalia Lama in the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars to help with the Tibetan resistance of Chinese power
- Governments are tracking you – this is common knowledge at this point with all the leaks over the years. If you post it online, assume it’s accessible by governments
- Golf of Tonkin – in 1964, a fake attack on the US was used as a catalyst to go to war with Vietnam
- Cigarette companies knew that they caused cancer since the 50’s but didn’t concede till the 90s.
Canadians, we’re not exempt. Here are two of my favourite:
- In the 60’s, the government hired a professor to create a way to detect if federal employees were gay. That’s right, they tried to create gaydar. It was a physical device that detected pupil size.
- Just last week, the military faked a population of grey wolves in Nova Scotia as a test of a propaganda by sending out flyers warning of their existence to residence and playing growling noises on loud speakers. They used actual wildlife division letterhead and that’s what lead to its exposure when he department confirmed they didn’t issue the letter.
We can’t talk conspiracy theories without talking about QAnon.
QAnon followers believe:
a cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats, Hollywood celebrities and billionaires runs the world while engaging in pedophilia, human trafficking and the harvesting of a supposedly life-extending chemical from the blood of abused children. QAnon followers believe that Donald Trump is waging a secret battle against this cabal and its “deep state” collaborators to expose the malefactors and send them all to Guantánamo Bay.
Within this theory, JFK, the Clintons, Obama, the Pope, and furniture retailer Wayfarer are all villains.
At its core, QAnon is rooted in the millennium old, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that the there is a Jewish plot to control the world.
QAnon believers have been growing in numbers with calls to violence. The FBI has listed them as a dangerous group to watch and they have been de-platformed from a bunch of social networks, like Facebook and TikTok.
QAnon is worrying because it seems to be infiltrating the right wing of the US and potentially Canada.
Conspiracy Theory Checklist
Learning the truth about history and system is important. As a hobby, it’s an interesting way to learn about history. As a consumer of news and as someone trying to make health decisions, it’s important to know how to know if what you’re reading or hearing can be trusted. As someone who is trying to make objective decisions and observations in general, how do you make sure you’re checking your confirmation bias?
Here are a few tips:
- What about this story makes me believe it? Wanting to believe something is a strong force.
- Is this article from a trustworthy source? To know if something is trustworthy, look for sources and motivations. Also see who else corroborates what you’re reading.
- What percentage of my news comes from this source?
- Do I feel challenged or reinforced by this story?
- How many friends or acquaintances do I have whose views differ from mine?
- Did I read the full article or did I jump to conclusions based on the headline?
- Have I considered that I might be wrong? What would that mean?
Besides these, the most important thing to do is to try to get out of your bubble. If you lean left, talk to people who don’t and try to understand their view point.
I’ve tried this with all sorts of topics and it’s lead to a bunch of arguments online, a future episode for sure.
I’m happy to have come from a house that questioned everything. Even though sometimes it lead to arguments about the dangers of canned foods or where protein powder really comes from, it’s a good muscle to have.
I’m thankful that I don’t have the confidence to believe everything I hear or read or even my own opinions. It’s much easier to absorb new information when I don’t have to fit it in a complicated puzzle of beliefs.
Of course, there are some beliefs I have that are pretty unshakable, like no one knows what they’re doing and everyone is trying to figure it out.