[Paul Brown is one of my best friends in the world and has been since fourth grade. He’s that friend I would call at any hour, no matter what, because I know if I needed help, he would give it without hesitation. We were out of touch for some years, unfortunately the years Paul describes here. I hope you read Paul’s post and offer it to any who need it, whether to understand better or to offer help for those stuck in a scary place.]
I was a conspiracy theorist. I spent years running in conspiracy theory circles. I’m embarrassed to admit that. Embarrassment is a small price to pay, however, if I can help others understand and hopefully escape it, like I did. To find out some specifics of how I entered and exited from it, you’ll have to read on, but I hope my experience can help foster a better understanding of this issue for anyone who chooses to read this essay.
“Conspiracy Theory” is a term with rightfully derogatory connotations, so why has it become such a prevalent issue in the United States today? The first thing people need to know is that conspiracy theory is less a matter of truth and information than it is a matter of trust. Second, because the position is rooted in trust (and distrust) and not truth, convincing a conspiracy theorist of your point of view through truth or information becomes all but impossible. Third, conspiracy theorists do not hold speculators of conspiratorial ideas to the same scientific or truth-telling rigor as they do professionals or credentialed people who hold a more consensus view.
Before I begin, let’s define some terms. Everyone has a pretty good idea of what a conspiracy theorist is, but what is an anti-conspiracy theorist? I devised this term to refer to people who believe in the world exactly as it is presented to them, for those who believe that all things outside the main societal narrative are conspiracy theory. They are the opposite of conspiracy theorists, again based on trust, not facts. Most people fall in between these groups, but the conspiracy theory group has been growing radically in the last 20 years.
In order to understand this world of conspiracy theory, people in the “real” world, and particularly the anti-conspiracy theorists, must come to grips with some uncomfortable facts and some disturbing ideas. There are many ways to enter the world of conspiracy theory, but first I will tell you how I entered it. The study of history and the search for truth are what led me into the conspiracy realm and they are also the things that brought me out.
One of the first things I learned when I really began to read a substantial amount of history is that most of what we have been taught is BS. Now, let me clarify that statement before you tune out. The facts we have been taught are accurate mostly, what isn’t, is the narrative constructed around the facts. Our history, like every other country’s history, is terribly myopic and carries a primary mission of painting the country in the best possible light. “The winners write history” is a maxim for a reason. World War II was the historical event that got me interested, then I moved on to the Korean War and Vietnam. During my Korean War reading the subject of the CIA came up and I started branching into that area along with NSA.
Once you start into the “alphabet agencies” as people refer to them, you can really go down the rabbit hole. You suddenly find yourself in a whole other world that is real, but few know anything about, and from this point on it can become self-perpetuating because of a few uncomfortable but incontrovertible facts that those who consider conspiracy theorists to be crazy-ass wing-nuts have a hard time swallowing. The first of these is that some things that have been labeled “conspiracy theory” in the past have indeed been true. I mean now acknowledged, documents declassified, straight-forward true.
The second is that the label of “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theorist” have been used to discredit information that powerful people do not want to become common knowledge. Third, some of this stuff is pretty unimaginable to the average person: testing LSD on military personnel without their knowledge or consent, spraying chemicals over cities again without knowledge or consent, infecting poor people in Central America with syphilis, conducting propaganda campaigns inside the country through ghost writers writing to main stream media outlets, denying the existence of military bases like Groom Lake (Area 51). These few are probably the most well-known, but there are many other less well-known incidents that are damned frightening. These were all considered conspiracy theory until information either became declassified or too much information was available to hide them.
Herein lies the problem: the narrative of truth becomes blurred. What people are calling “conspiracy” and labeling you crazy for believing actually turns out to be true in some instances. Now you begin wondering what is true and what isn’t, how much of what you know to be compromised history to begin with is outright falsehood? How much of what you believe and had believed is information fed to you to hide the truth? From there it isn’t difficult for people with partial information to construct a narrative that sounds plausible and seems defensible but in reality is usually guesswork and porous facts strung together into what we refer to as a conspiracy theory.
BUT–and it’s a big “but”–the difference between a person who studies this for a living and a conspiracy theorist is that the conspiracy theorist loses perspective and usually doesn’t have the depth of knowledge to regain his or her perspective. This is one of the dangers of self-study, I think, though I am a strong believer in self-study. When you are being taught history, professors give you a much broader view than what is simply written in a text. To use an English literature example (my area), I remember hearing several college freshman comment on how much they loved Shakespeare and that they didn’t think it was that difficult to understand. But Shakespeare, as are most other canonical works of literature, cannot be thoroughly understood unless you know the history of the time in which it was written. Oh you can read it and enjoy it and understand much of it, providing you have no trouble with the language, but there are so many inside jokes and comments on current events of the time and criticisms of politics that you will never appreciate unless you are taught it or are such a student of history that you are aware of the context already. A good history professor does the same, they teach you not just what is written, but what is going on all around it, and that gives you much better understanding and keeps what you are learning in perspective.
Most conspiracy theorists lose perspective. When they read about these few conspiracies that have turned out to be true, they usually begin to believe in almost all of them. At that point it should become obvious that your thought patterns have become irrational, but it doesn’t work that way most of the time. The fact that they discovered lies and propaganda cause distrust of information from most reputable sources, assuming that those sources are either being duped or are part of the conspiracy. At that point it becomes self-perpetuating: they won’t believe anything that they feel to be compromised, which ironically is anything that disagrees with what they believe. Eventually, almost everything is a conspiracy, nothing is real, the world is a lie.
Interestingly, one of the best pieces of information I’ve ever heard on conspiracy theory came from a physicist who was considered a conspiracy theorist because of his views on unidentified flying objects. Obviously, the man is quite intelligent (can’t be a physicist without being brilliant), and despite the world considering him a conspiracy theorist, he stated, “Obviously, 95 percent of these sighting are bogus, what I’m concerned about is how to explain the other 5 percent.” This shows me that he is not your garden-variety conspiracy nut. He admits most of it is garbage, misidentification, whatever, but the other 5 percent are things that get shoved in the bin under “we don’t really know what it was, but it couldn’t have been a UFO.” Most of the people I know and knew in these circles would never say something like that. It would be the reverse. They’d believe 95 percent of reports and say 5 percent were probably misidentifications.
Fortunately for me, I had several things going in my favor. I had read enough history and had studied a ridiculous breadth of economic, crime, tax and health statistics before I entered, so was able to recognize that most of the theories were partial truths and that, though there are quite a few conspiracies that have ended up being true and many more we don’t know about, they are a drop in the bucket compared to the number of conspiracy theories out there that have proven false over the years. In other words, perspective.
It’s very much like gambling addiction. You pump loads of money into gambling and then hit a big jackpot. But in order reach that “big win” you’ve lost a huge percentage of the time and more money than you won. Still the perception is that you’ve won. If you believe all sorts of pseudo-science and questionable data (and there are TONS of it out there), you are going to hit some big wins eventually, especially in our country where secrecy is commonly used to hide troublesome issues. What conspiracy theorists are willing to forget is how many times the theories are incorrect. Also, I am married to a veterinarian who can explain to me much of the medical information that shows up in medical conspiracies. Additionally, I am fortunate to know professionals or experts in several other fields who can clarify or explain issues in those fields relating to conspiracy theories.
Lastly, but most importantly, I have a burning desire to know the truth, not prove a conviction or ideology. When I began realizing that there are many unknown facts that conspiracy theorists learn, but that most of the theories they put together are anything but factual or truthful, that they rely to a great extent on coincidence and minimal evidence, then build extensive belief systems that are flawed from the beginning and get further from reality as they continue to expand from one assumption to another, I realized I would never find the truth there. The partial truth is a powerful tool. It works particularly well on people who are intelligent but without much deep knowledge of a subject. What they do have, though, is confidence in their own intelligence and their ability to recognize fallacy even without much knowledge, and thus they become ensnared.
When looked at from the outside, the world of conspiracy theory works exactly like a cult. It is a cult. When people think “cult” they usually think of radical religious organizations. What most of those have in common is that they control information, often by isolating cult members from society. By doing that they can tell them whatever they want and they will have no reference to dispute the information. Plus, the members trust the cult. But without interaction in society at large they lose their reference points, they cannot see what the lies are and no one is there to influence or guide them. In conspiracy theory, they do this by discrediting any source of information that conflicts with the theories. They create online spaces that become echo chambers for increasingly radical versions of reality. But once you are in this deep, you have usually completely rejected any sort of consensus from the other 7.9 billion people on the planet. Every scientist, every teacher, every doctor, every specialist, everyone who would potentially know anything has become a part of the machine to control you. Even worse than that, the people who become trustworthy are the ones who often have little to no knowledge, or are ostracized by their own professional colleagues, because, the logic goes, they must be telling the truth since they are being outcast. In short, the only professionals or knowledgeable people who are not compromised are those who defend the conspiracy theory. Essentially, they become critical of any error or falsehood from knowledgeable sources and label them compromised, but ignore the mass of errors and falsehoods from sources with little to no expertise. It’s a colossal logical fallacy that is endemic to the whole movement.
As ridiculous as this may sound to those who have never ventured into it, it can be extremely compelling. If you know a bit about something, the theories can sound airtight. Reinforced by some real conspiracies that have been covered up and some that are undoubtedly ongoing, it’s easy to fall prey to your own limitations and fears. Upon reading about a myriad of individual historical tales, most of them dealing with intentions and causation of commonly known historical events and contradicting the pious narrative we have been spoon fed, I fell into conspiracy. Many of the issues I had unearthed were at least acknowledged on these websites. As is always the case, the best deceptions are always based in the truth. There is no doubt that a large amount of individual facts, incidents, policies, etc. dealt with in the world of conspiracy theory are unknown to the general public andtrue. The problem comes in the stringing together of these individual facts using illogical and unproven assumptions, and putting a preponderance of value on coincidence, to create narratives that are untrue.
People do not handle the unknown very well. We are much more comfortable with answers. What you discover with covert operations research and undercover history is that there are fewer answers than you thought, much less certainty than you’d like, little hard evidence to go on, and a lot more underhandedness and double-dealing than you can imagine. It makes you feel like the rug has been pulled out from under you. Then along comes a sub-culture that puts that core back by reinforcing what you already believe and incorporating the uncertainty into a group of theories that lay blame for the uncertainty on everyone else in society that believes differently. It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of propaganda, completely self-contained and nearly unassailable to the initiated.
Then there is the allure of secret knowledge. When you read about CIA, NSA, FBI, there is a thread of this allure that runs through many people who become agents. Many acknowledge this desire to be involved in covert, secret, elite operations and be privy to secret knowledge, the real world that no one knows about. It’s a thrill and a feeling of camaraderie for some conspiracy theorists to live vicariously in this world. And it also draws some people who want to feel superior, to be one of the few who are really “in the know” while others are living in a fantasy world.
All of the above ironically give the conspiracy theorist the belief that they are gifted critical thinkers and that anyone who doesn’t see and believe what they do are “sheep” or “sheeple.” There are many definitions of “critical thinking,” all of which include rational analysis and evaluation, informed by evidence. Instead, what you find in conspiracy theory circles is an overwhelming reliance on synchronicity. There is usually little evidence to tie the conspiracy narrative together. In the majority of cases you have some facts and then timelines that coincide and from this they make huge leaps of logic and create narratives.
There is a radical difference between questioning everything and being able to assess data critically. Questioning alone does not make you a critical thinker. Additionally, from the conpsiracy theorist’s perspective their information, no matter how paltry, will always be better than yours, they have always “researched” more than you have, they have always “critically evaluated” better than you have, they can never be fooled by false information the way you have been, and their answer is always the right answer. They will tell you to “read a book” and if you say you’ve read 10, your books will all be from compromised sources and their one book legitimate. Like every cult, you can never break them out, they must want to come out, and tragically, many (or most) never will. The most disheartening thing for me is that those who most need to hear this, those I truly care about, probably won’t be able to.
Disturbingly, we have had a surge of both conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists in this country over the last couple of decades. As a fringe issue, conspiracy theory is somewhat innocuous (though not to the conspiracy theorist), but as a movement that is gaining prominence in our society it’s a totally different story. Left unchecked, it’s the death of truth. And with the death of truth comes the death of freedom.