Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Conspiratorial conspiracies

I have once again been thinking about conspiracy theories.  This time, the culprit is "College Humor," the occasionally brilliant perpetrators of countless YouTube videos.  This particular one, called "Deceptive Deceptions," definitely falls into the "spot-on hilarious" range of the spectrum (see the clip here).  It makes wonderful fun of the Zeitgeist mindset, which is desperate to find clues and hints everywhere of a global conspiracy.  (And if you've never seen "Zeitgeist," my recommendation is "don't bother."  Just sit down, close your eyes, and spend five minutes contemplating the idea that the Illuminati are running the world and that a coalition between Monsanto and the Vatican is pulling the strings of everyone from Barack Obama to Quentin Tarantino, and try not to let the rational part of your mind interrupt with any busybody-comments about how unlikely it all is.  Then go sit on your couch and have a cold beer and give thanks for the forty-five minutes of your life that you didn't waste watching this ridiculous video.)

Unfortunately, though, there are a lot of people who believe this stuff.  We've discussed conspiracy theories in my Critical Thinking class, and the discussion has often centered around the idea of Ockham's Razor -- if there are two (or more) theories to explain something, and all of them account for the known facts, the simplest one is the most likely to be true.  Ockham's Razor is, of course, only a rule of thumb -- there have been times when some incredibly convoluted series of events turns out actually to have happened -- but in my experience, it works pretty damn well.

This still hasn't stopped websites like "Conspiracy Planet" from cropping up.  This website, which once again I would caution you from spending too much time with lest your brain turn to cream-of-wheat, is a bit of a clearinghouse for wingnuts.  Some of the high points:
  • The ultimate aim of the Illuminati is to have Arnold Schwarzenegger become president.  Evidently, the Illuminati are unfamiliar with the fact that you have to have been born a United States citizen in order to run for president, but hey, ultra-powerful black-robed secret world leaders need never let paltry things like facts stand in their way.  Another entry on the page for Ahnold states that he is the third Antichrist.  I didn't even know that we'd already had two, did you?
  • A crop circle, shaped like a human with butterfly wings, is a sign that evolution is speeding up.  It has -- and this is a direct, word-for-word quote -- "accelerated evolution on a quantum level, sending out ripples of transformative energy."  Reading this made me have to decide between guffawing and doing a face-plant directly into my desk, and the whole thing is leaving me wondering about my choice of spending over two decades attempting to educate children in the principles of scientific induction.
  • The whole, tired, "NASA faked the landing on the moon" malarkey, reworked and revisited and regurgitated.
  • Chemotherapy actually causes cancer.  This will no doubt come as a great shock to my friend who is currently recovering from leukemia after intensive chemotherapy.
  • Cold fusion actually is true.
  • You don't need flu shots to prevent flu. There is a new therapy which uses "resonant frequencies" to "shake viruses to pieces." Flu shots, in fact, are completely ineffective and were developed in order to keep money flowing into the pharmaceuticals industry.
And so on.  I can only take so much of this.  Believing in this sort of stuff seems to take a combination of factual ignorance, a desire to believe, and a huge dose of confirmation bias.  It's amusing to read about, but I keep coming back to the fact that for these websites, magazines, and so on to exist, someone actually finds it plausible.  I really should stop thinking about it, because despair isn't a healthy state of mind.

I'll just finish up with a quote by H. L. Mencken, which seems fitting:
The central belief of every moron is that he is the victim of a mysterious conspiracy against his common rights and true deserts.  He ascribes all his failure to get on in the world, all of his congenital incapacity and damfoolishness, to the machinations of werewolves assembled in Wall Street, or some other such den of infamy.

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