A Brief History of Conspiracy Theories
My brother and I were talking recently about, I guess, Q-Anon, which is, I guess, some sort of online group who believe that Hollywood stars are pizzeria-owning child molesters, and so are all Democrats, and that Donald Trump was sent from God or the Magic Spaghetti Monster to stop them.
That last part might or might not be part of their belief system, but I don’t care enough to look into it. It’s just not worth my time.
What IS worth my time, however, is ensuring that even they have a defender; not of their beliefs, necessarily, but of their general right to be heard, to exist, to fight in the marketplace of ideas and to try to win.
My brother called these people “conspiracy theorists,” but that term has become so watered down by overuse that I don’t even know what it means anymore.
But it would be useful, I think, to look back on some ideas that were once considered conspiracy theories. If for no other reason than to demonstrate the usefulness of outside-the-box-thinking.
The people who first concluded, published, and promulgated the idea that the Earth is round were, in their time, crackpots and fools. They must’ve been drunk, or pure agitators, or cultists to ignore all the best science of the time and the brightest minds; to disregard every textbook ever published.
How about this one: For most of Western history, going back to Aristotle, the accepted belief was that things such as loose bricks from buildings and leaves from trees fell to the ground because the ground was their natural habitat. Everything came from the ground, at one point or another, so when they died, they returned home.
Simple enough, even sensible in a certain, spiritual way. And imagine what it must’ve been like to the people who believed — nay, who knew beyond all doubt— that’s how the world worked, to hear about a growing clan, calling themselves “scientists” who had “evidence” and “mathematical equations” proving that a mysterious, invisible, un-feelable force-field existed EVERYWHERE, and that it was the reason bricks, leaves, and dare I say apples fell to the ground.
Sounds like some illuminati shit to me.
What about the first people who asserted that, on a rock 8000 miles in diameter, with constant winds and rains and hurricanes and floods that have haunted — and nearly doomed — mankind throughout our existence, things we humans do could have a measurable, even drastic impact?
What kind of crazy voodoo shit is that, amiright?!?!
There is, no doubt, danger in allowing nonsense theories out into the world. They might brainwash some, in the short term; they might even incite violence. On too many occasions, they’ve resulted in genocide. But the ones that are truly nonsense will run out of steam and go away like so many clothing trends and fad diets. The ones worthy of sticking will stick.
The greater, though more insidious danger is in silencing people, writing them off, by calling them “conspiracy theorists,” or, worse, in de-platforming them or passing laws to prohibit them from speaking. We mustn’t infringe upon their right to free speech, no matter how crazy they seem.
“If one person gets up and says, ‘You know what, this Holocaust, I’m not sure it even happened. In fact, I’m pretty certain it didn’t. Indeed, I begin to wonder if the only thing is that the Jews brought a little bit of violence on themselves.’ That person doesn’t just have a right to speak; that person’s right to speak must be given extra protection. Because what he has to say must have taken him some effort to come up with, might contain a grain of historical truth, might in any case give people to think about: why do they know what they already think they know?
How do I know that I know this, except that I’ve always been taught this and never heard anything else? It’s always worth establishing first principles. Come to think of it, how can I prove the Earth is round?
Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus and the feeling that whatever you think, you’re bound to be ok because you’re in the safely moral majority. ”
My brother made an analogy: He said that conspiracy theories were like half-court shots in basketball. Sure, anyone can heave one up from the half-court line, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do so, nor is it sensible for anyone to defend people who do.
But that analogy falls short, because in basketball, if you take a bad shot, it comes at the expense of a teammate’s good shot. After you shoot once, the other team will probably get the ball.
The better, though not perfect analogy would be to a different sport: hockey. In hockey, the best teams pepper their opponent’s net with shots. Some are good shots from close in. Others are poor shots from far away. Some shots miss the net entirely, and some are saved easily. Very few go in.
But it seems to me that the healthiest society is one in which as many people as possible are encouraged to shoot as often as possible — that is, to share what they believe and to practice what they preach.
For there is no Omnipotent Power capable of deciding what counts as a “good shot,” or as “good evidence.” There is no one person or group or entity smart enough to determine what’s an acceptable belief. Literally everything we believe today — “Someday, humans will be able to fly;” “Computers will someday run human life;” — once was a conspiracy theory. It’s worth tolerating — and defending — the crackpots in order, also, to defend future Wright Brothers, Newtons, and Galileos.
Trying to silence, de-platform, and make a mockery of Q-Anon people, or of Flat-Earthers or Climate-Change Deniers or Anti-Vaxxers might work for a while (although more likely, it’ll make martyrs out of them and backfire). But in the long run, it risks silencing all people with non-consensus beliefs.
That would be a species-level disaster, far beyond whatever threat — even hateful, violent, murderous ones — some so-called conspiracy theorists can pose.
If you enjoyed this story — and even if you didn’t — you should check out my book, Ticketless: How Sneaking Into The Super Bowl And Everything Else (Almost) Held My Life Together.