Technology has transformed society in innumerable ways, but one thing that never gets mentioned is how it has transformed ignorance. Two centuries ago (and still today in parts of the globe), if you had a poor education, your world was one of superstition. You planted crops for a harvest that your life literally depended upon, and you appealed to a supernatural deity to sustain you and your family for another season. If you were the curious type and had questions about nature, you may have sought answers from a religious leader. Non-religious superstitions prevailed as well: lucky horseshoes, old wives’ tales, ghosts, goblins, and demons, not to mention your occasional witch hunt or burning-at-the-stake.
Naturally, with the advent of public education and mass communication, superstition in the developed world has waned. People in First World countries don’t go through life without learning certain things, for example what those little specks of light in the night sky actually are. However, ignorance seems to be roaring back — in a different, more insidious form.
Conspiracy theories seem to be taking over the role formerly held by superstition. The best way I can illustrate this is through the incredible “chemtrails” theory. (I had never even heard of this until I made a few videos about “9/11 Truth” in 2011.) Some people believe that the government is keeping the masses under mind-control by spraying the skies with soporific chemicals that are released at high altitude by jet aircraft. That’s what those supposed “condensation trails” are, you see, that can stretch all the way across the sky. Have you ever noticed how sometimes the trail dissipates quickly, and other times it lingers for the better part of an hour? And have you also noticed that low-flying aircraft never release these trails of chemicals? It’s a huge conspiracy by the government, you see. The only reason why you think it isn’t a conspiracy is that your mind has been successfully zombi-fied by the government’s chemicals. (Somehow the believers of the theory are immune to the effects.)
Of course, there’s a perfectly rational explanation for condensation trails, and it’s available for anyone to read.
Centuries ago, a widespread superstition or old wives’ tale might have been killed off by the existence of a high-quality information source that anyone could read, at home. (Sadly, there hasn’t been a good old-fashioned witch hunt in my village for years.) Religion remains widespread, but only because it forms a major part of many people’s identities. Life is tough for a fringe superstition these days; there’s just too much reliable information, and it’s too easily accessed, for most people to go on believing in witches and such. What’s a person to do if he wants to wallow in ignorance?
Reject the information. This is the prime strategy of the conspiracy theorist: The information that would debunk the chemtrails theory, for example, is part of the conspiracy. The “official explanation” has been created by the conspirators to keep you from asking questions. This is how an ignorant person attempts to propagate his ignorance throughout society: by telling others that “official” information is a lie, by denegrating the sources of the information (“science is just another religion”), by denegrating those who accept mainstream ideas (“go back to sleep, you sheep”), by appealing to anti-authority sentiments, and by appealing to common sense through oversimplification. I wrote about these techniques in an essay called The Bullshit Syndrome and How to Spot It.*
In the modern world, superstition can even morph into conspiracy theory. A few years ago there was a film called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, about how the “intelligent design” movement is being squelched by mainstream science. What was originally a superstition — God created all living things — has ended up being a vast conspiracy: God did create all living things, but “big science” (the term used in the film) has done everything to ensure that you think otherwise. Most recently, Rick Santorum announced that President Obama is a “snob” for advancing higher education. The word “elite” and “elitist” are interchangeably bandied about by politicians, who pander to voters by telling them they are naturally smarter than “Ivy League intellectuals.” Yeah, down with know-it-all snobs!
This trend is dangerous, but I don’t have a solution. In the past, ignorance went away when people were exposed to reliable information, but these days, information can have the opposite effect. It makes some people hunker down in their ignorance, as they confine themselves to echo-chamber talk-radio programs, blogs, and news sources. Perhaps ridicule and satire are the best way to go.
Note: This article was paid for by a generous grant from the elitists at the government, who don’t want you to think for yourself.
* In the “Bullshit” article I profiled an amateur physicist who believes that pi is exactly 4.0 and that green light doesn’t exist. Most of his articles are about how smarty-pants intellectuals don’t want you to understand how math or science really works. It turns out, he also believes that Obama isn’t a U.S. citizen, and that no commercial jets hit the World Trade Center on 9/11/01. And Wikipedia is the hugest conspiracy of all. None of this is surprising — these paranoid delusions are consistent with the profile I have described.