War on Science: Every unhappy conspiracy theorist is unhappy in their own way
The latest issue of the Atlantic magazine, Shadowland, focuses on a topic near and dear to us: conspiracy theories. Though not specific to climate, the parallels are clear and the fact that deniers are basically just motivated conspiracy theorists is, well, undeniable.
Jeffrey Goldberg’s essay looks at the difference between famous kooks like Alex Jones and President Trump (one “lives in the White House. That is one main difference”) and concludes that “nonsense is nonsense, except when it kills. And conspiracy thinking, especially when advanced by the president of the United States, is an existential threat.”
President Trump built his political brand on the not-even-subtly racist “Birther” conspiracy theory challenging the authenticity of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Adam Serwer pulls more on that thread, opening his essay with an interesting anecdote about how “the biggest irony of birtherism is that the guy who created it didn’t mean to.” But plenty of people meant to spread it, through Fox News, the GOP, and American body politic. It was never all that fringe either. Mitt Romney, the paragon of Conservative Decency, made a birther joke, which Serwer explains “makes the target responsible for the racism directed against him; if Obama did not want his birthplace questioned, he should have been white.”
In so many places, it would be all too easy to swap out climate denial for any of the other conspiracy theories. In this case, as Serwer writes, “birtherism was, from the beginning, an answer looking for a question to justify itself….You could call birtherism a conspiracy theory,” but given Trump’s agenda so far, “it could be more accurately described as the governing ideology of the United States.” Given that Trump’s governing ideology, such as it is, runs on a constant feed of new conspiracy theories to explain away the reality of climate change, or the coronavirus, or any number of other issues, denial may just be a close second.
The concurrent needs to reconcile ideology with reality, shared by climate denial and other conspiracy theories, are perhaps most stark in Adrienne LaFrance’s incredible exploration of the Q-Anon conspiracy theory ecosystem. Q-Anon was born out of the ashes of the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, which basically ended with the arrest of a heavily armed believer disappointed to find that a DC pizza shop didn’t have a child sex trafficking operation running out of its basement. In part, because Comet Ping Pong doesn’t even have a basement.
The internet has the “ability to shatter any semblance of shared reality, undermining civil society and democratic governance in the process,” LaFrance writes, describing how, like the idea that there’s a cabal of climate scientists cooking the books, it stretches the line between reality and fantasy to the breaking point. There have been so many instances of near-violence that one Qanon believer’s first words to LaFrance were literally, “we’re not a domestic-terror group.”
If not a terror group, what is Q-Anon? It’s the following of an anonymous person(s), dubbed Q, who claims to be a high-ranking security official that posts mysterious clues online for followers to decipher. In doing so, they learn about President Trump’s secret campaign to arrest the pedophiles that make up the ruling elite class.
Though it may be hard to imagine oneself falling prey to such wild ideas, Ellen Cushing offers some personal insight into how one falls down the conspiracy rabbit hole in her essay, I was a teenage conspiracist.
Cushing spoke with experts like social psychology professor Karen Douglas, who explained that conspiracy theories fill needs that people have for knowledge and certainty, to feel safe and secure, and to feel some sense of pride and superiority over others because “you have knowledge that other people don’t have.” Anyone who’s seen deniers foaming at the mouth over Al Gore and the IPCC winning the Nobel Peace Prize, or heard the condescending, sexist bile directed at Greta or AOC, will no doubt recognize that trait in climate deniers.
Is there hope to change their minds? How did Cushing get out? Her “stint as an Illuminati true believer ended,” she writes, “ in much the same way my Spice Girls superfandom had years earlier: Slowly, an obsession that had organized my life just slipped away, before I could notice it was leaving me.”
The experience of conspiracy theorists just “sort of getting bored with it” is something we’ve seen in the slow attrition of climate denial blogs, where a once-thriving ecosystem of conspiracy theorists has dwindled to a handful of entrenched parties with vested interest. That same spirit of an anticlimactic ending is also found in a paradox from Robin Sloan’s a humorous work of satire set at a future opening of a Museum of American Conspiracy Theories: No one has ever been “talked out” of their conspiracy theory, yet (nearly) every conspiracy theorist eventually drops their chosen belief. “What, if not rational discourse,” the piece playfully asks, “makes a conspiracy-theory believer drop the fluoride thing, the UFO thing, the ‘President Johnson is a robot’ thing? What, if not argumentation? What, if not information?”
“Oh, the answer is better than you can imagine. It’s boredom.”
Summarizing the incoherent, prejudiced, silly but dangerous spirit of conspiracy theories, we’ll leave you with a joke Sloan makes about conspiratorial reactions to the mind of a future-George Soros being digitized:
“Can AI be Jewish? According to the conspiracy theorists, it can.”
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(Crossposted with DailyKos. Cartoon by XKCD.)