Friday, August 23, 2013

Conspiracy Manipulators, Pseudo-Critical Thinkers & Other Frauds

Having observed the psychology of conspiracy theorists over the last few years, I think the term "conspiracy theorist" needs to be changed. Modern propagators of conspiracy talk almost never actually offer any theories; they tend to throw YouTube videos and infowars-type links at you, spew some talking points, and invite you to "come to your own conclusions." They are conspiracy manipulators: With extreme prejudice, they propagate information from within their echo-chamber, and using surprisingly sophisticated rhetorical techniques, they shape their recycled cherry-pickings into a narrative that evokes (if not actually describes) a dark and sinister world of deceit and cover-up. The most successful conspiracy manipulators are filmmakers skilled in visual and soundtrack techniques; the Loose Change crew is a classic example.

This summer, the case of Michael Hastings (see my previous post) has brought conspiracy manipulation front-and-center once again. It has become frighteningly fashionable among liberals to casually assume that the journalist was murdered, even after his wife and brother have come forward to say that it was only a tragic accident. We now know that Hastings was on a path to self-destruction, but that doesn't matter to the conspiracy manipulators; they continue to post their "unanswered questions" in comments sections, such as why Hastings' car engine was found behind the crash site, a physical impossibility in a high-speed crash. (This online rumor has been repeatedly debunked, but again, that doesn't seem to matter.)

One might think that the rise of conspiracy manipulation and belief stem from a failure of critical thinking. But it's more troubling than that; the trend is a perversion of critical thinking. Conspiracy manipulators and believers will adamantly tell you that they are the ones thinking critically; their critics are not. Those who criticize are declared either "brain-dead sheep," perhaps tranquilized into mindless conformity by fluoride in the water (yes, some do actually say that), or paid-off operatives of a government with limitless funds -- "shills" or "disinfo agents" in conspiracy-manipulation parlance.

Such arrogance is a textbook illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect: the proven tendency of individuals who are less competent to overestimate their competence, while more competent individuals tend to underestimate their competence. To put it more colloquially, conspiracy manipulators wouldn't know critical thinking if it hit them in the head. To them, merely being "fringe" and dismissing all information from authorities (unless, of course, it supports their cause) is enough to declare themselves super-awesome critical thinkers. "Wake up and open your eyes!" they tell you. For all their talk of open-mindedness, ironically they are pseudo-critical thinkers, too self-impressed with their questioning of authority to notice their own pseudoskepticism. And, they will deny that they are conspiracy theorists as readily as crazy people say, "I'm not crazy."

Do conspiracies exist? Of course they do, and of course the government has lied to us at times. But the conspiracy manipulator takes these to the extreme, seeing conspiracies everywhere. He (or she) skillfully crafts language that is fertile soil for the impressions of cover-up and deceit to bloom, all while asserting their impartiality as a mere seeker of truth. In the same way that the sociopath masters the art of superficial charm, the conspiracy manipulator -- completely oblivious to their own intellectual dishonesty -- masters the art of superficial inquisitiveness.

It's quite easy to write like a conspiracy manipulator, and if things had been slightly different, I could have been one (video). So let's give it a try:
I have reason to question whether the milk from Berkeley Farms -- a local dairy in my area -- is actually from cows. There are so many unanswered questions, things don't add up. There's a note on the Berkeley Farms label: "Does not come from cows treated with rBST." Hello? They're practically admitting it right there. So I called Berkeley Farms and asked if their milk comes from cows. The person on the phone refused to answer, and she seemed surprised -- unnerved, even. She put me on hold, and guess what, the call was dropped. What is Berkeley Farms hiding? (Sure, their website says their milk is from cows, but Ikea's website never told us their meatballs were horse meat, either.) I don't want to believe I'm drinking pig's milk! So, I went to Berkeley, to visit their farms. I found a major university and a lot of built-up urbanization, but not one single farm.* I then compared the color of milk from a random gallon of Berkeley Farms to one from a competitor, Clover Stornetta, and discovered that they look different (see below). Several calls to Professors with Ph.D.'s confirmed my suspicions that cow's milk would probably look different than milk from a pig or another animal. It should be noted that the Clover Stornetta label depicts a cartoon of a cow; the Berkeley Farms label does not. Interestingly, when I Google "Berkeley Farms milk is from cows" I get exactly zero results, whereas Googling Berkeley Farms pig milk yields 20,400,000 results. An e-mail demanding that they release genetic-analysis reports was ignored. Is Berkeley Farms milk from pigs or some other animal? I don't know, weigh all of the facts and decide for yourself!

Do these milk samples look the same to you?

Of course that was ridiculous and I hope you got a laugh out of it. But imagine that instead of milk, we were talking about something beyond the scale of everyday human life (the collapse of skyscrapers, a high-speed car crash, jet trails in the sky, etc), and that instead of a local dairy, we were talking about something more powerful and nebulous (the U.S. government, the New World Order, or "big science" if you're a creationist). In that case, you might approach the situation with a pre-existing desire to believe an alternative view. And that's the key -- although it's a tall order to convince someone that cow's milk is pig's milk, selling suspicions of the government to an audience already suspicious of the government ... piece of cake. People will always believe what they wanted to believe in the first place. That's why it's easy to sell penis-enlargement pills to men who would like to believe they can enlarge their penis. If the pills said they could make you a foot shorter, even the dumbest guys would cry bullshit.

I always find it amusing when a religious person tries to get me to pray. "Just try it, what have you got to lose?" they ask. "Drop to your knees and cry out to God. If you truly believe, in your heart, then trust me, Jesus will speak to you." Yeah, if I truly believe, first. That's the kicker there.

And if you cried out to the dairy-conspiracy gods -- and you really, truly desired to believe that the milk in your cereal isn't what it seems -- then my Berkeley Farms conspiracy would probably speak to you, too.

* Inspired by the signs on their delivery trucks, reading, "Farms? In Berkeley?" (Of course, there are a lot of indoor farms in Berkeley.)


  1. "In the same way that the sociopath masters the art of superficial charm, the conspiracy manipulator -- completely oblivious to their own intellectual dishonesty -- masters the art of superficial inquisitiveness."

    Absolutely loved that comparison, you really nailed it. It would be great if hardcore liberal and conservative conspiracy theorists would apply their spectacular imagination and "inquisitiveness" to something worthwhile.

    The worst part is that some higher education institutions who should be at the forefront of efforts to teach critical thinking often hire sociologists and philosophers who seem to devote hours of their time to defend conspiracy theorizing (of the kind you describe) as a legitimate way of engaging in public debate (e.g. see G Husting and M Orr, "Dangerous Machinery: 'Conspiracy Theorist' as a Transpersonal Strategy of Exclusion", Symbolic Interaction Vol. 30 (2007), pp. 127-150).

    Their authority as (tenured) college professors leads their students with conservative/liberal/libertarian/anarchist preconceptions to think that they don't need solid evidence or basic logic to back their arguments, as the fact that they are challenging "the establishment" is evidence enough of their critical ability.

  2. I think you hit on the main reason for the rise in viral conspiracies, the lack of critical thinking. Of course this failure of critical thought can also explain so much of the other mind boggling things that are occurring.

    One that goes hand in hand with viral conspiracies is fanatic politics. Those people at the extremes of the ideological spectrum that have an all my way or it just isn't good enough attitude. Most of what they say can be quickly dispatched with a minimum of critical thought but it appears that so many do not possess the ability.

    Another realm is the state of our public schools. With the introduction of standardized testing and teaching-to-the-test our schools have been failing to inspire critical thought in children. This coupled with the net's instant access to information (or more often mis-information) many people do not feel the need to think for themselves.

    Then we move to science and a subject you touched on in another blog, the apparent inability of modern science to reexamine the core of hypotheses that do not appear to be going anywhere or to even entertain theories that challenge the establishment. (I also found Lee Smolin's book enlightening) I think that even though this covers many brilliant people it is still a failure of critical thinking.

    And of course the big one: Religion. No need to rehash this one.

    I feel that the absence of critical thought is one of the biggest threats mankind faces today.

  3. In your account you should find adequate payment, Mr. Current. Keep up the good work.

    And I don't have to tell you - don't let anyone else in on this private line.

    1. Well it's telling that conspiracy manipulators have to pretend themselves to be conspirators, and leave phony messages like this, in a manipulative attempt to keep these delusions alive. It's like pathetic desperate Christians leaving messages like, "This is God and I am real, prepare to spend an eternity in hell." (Of course, I apologize if the comment was facetious.)

  4. Just a reminder to everyone: Being a skeptic doesn't just mean being skeptical about the arguments questioning mainstream narratives, but being skeptical of the mainstream narratives themselves !