Conspiracy theories and distrust of authority

I have a friend who likes a good Covid conspiracy theory, and he told me once, when he was finding that all of his evidence and arguments were failing to prove to me what he wanted to prove, that the difference between us was that I trusted the government and the media and the scientists absolutely, where he did not. The implication was that if a person doubted, at all, that all the people with authority in society were completely altruistic, then that person would have to end up agreeing with all the things my friend claimed to be true.

In hindsight, this seems to be an admission of what we all knew already, that conspiracy theories are based not on the arguments that are offered, but on a determination to interpret the authorities as devious and dangerous.

But even beyond that, I think his claim is just really silly.

Distrust of authorities cannot mean there is just one possible interpretation of what the authorities are doing, but rather, by its nature, such distrust itself allows for infinite possible interpretations of what the authorities are up to. It would be easy to invent endless examples of what I mean, but I don’t even need to; we can just look at the countless incompatible theories any group of conspiracy theorists comes up with to explain the same set of evidence.

Distrust also doesn’t mean that any given statement is false; a true statement can be used for greedy or ambitious ends as easily as false ones, and with less risk. I don’t trust the government, media, etc. absolutely, but I also don’t distrust them absolutely. There is a range of degrees of truthfulness that are possible. For me not to be absolutely trusting of these institutions does not mean I need to distrust to the exact degree and in the exact way as my friend.

Political systems with things like free speech and free press and independent scholarship and independent judiciary and federal government with geographically smaller state or provincial governments, all these things (among many others) make some kinds of far-reaching, world-shattering conspiracy far less likely. You can’t say it’s impossible because it’s not technically logically impossible or strictly unimaginable, but it’s everything short of impossible. The people who entertain this as a plausible explanation for the way things are in the world are not following what seems to be true, clearly, but only what they really really want to be true.

That doesn’t mean there’s no deception ever happening. There is, plenty, constantly. But it’s generally far more everyday and self-serving, rather than an epochal ideological secret takeover of everything with a carefully calibrated set of lies that scientists can’t see through but which a bunch of people on social media without credentials can figure out using arguments that don’t hold water but which happen to be right anyways.

So, the question isn’t whether we’re being lied to. The question is what kind of lies people are really likely to think they might be able to pull off.

Ideology and opinion

Socrates, in his philosophizing, starts with common opinions about politics and morality. We see Aristotle following a similar pattern.

In our day, to do what Socrates did would involve spending time thinking about political ideology. What sorts of things do people believe? Why do they believe those things? What are they right about? What is each side getting wrong or missing?

I used to be fairly uninterested in political ideologies, thinking I would rather figure out my views for myself than just accept what someone else had bundled together into a package. I think that’s a good attitude, but maybe a bad strategy. I mainly avoided thinking about what the partisans on the different sides had to say. That was a mistake, because on reflection, my experience has been that if you’re ignorant about them then you inevitably will be tripped up by them. Each side has plentiful arguments and examples and apologists to pull out, it can offer coherent programmes and narratives, and it comes with hordes of enthusiastic adherents mocking everyone who thinks differently.

If we don’t try to understand the main streams of the ways people think about politics in our day, then we just won’t understand them. They will affect us, they will seep into us, but without effort we won’t actually be able to grasp what they are or how they are working on us.

If we do make the effort though, in at least a somewhat disinterested way, then I think it’s not terribly difficult. It’s just a matter of paying attention to the different sides and reflecting on them. It takes time, but it doesn’t take brilliant insight to be able to follow the versions of the ideologies that are widely accepted. What it takes, more, is sympathy and imagination, and the ability to suppress biases. In my experience the great majority of us are very bad at that unless we work at it.

When we do make the effort to understand these political ideologies, it offers many benefits. It gives us a kind of intellectual protection from the partisan self-certainty of others, for one thing, which is a great benefit. You hate to see otherwise intelligent people who are unprepared to offer any mental resistance to the myriad reasonable-sounding fallacies that are so widespread.

It also allows us to test our own ideas against the plausible alternatives. Maybe some (probably not all) of the ancient or medieval ideas about politics or morality sound attractive in one way or another to some people today. Well, the ideas to beat at the moment are mainly the ones that are winning at the politically partisan marketplaces of ideas. It will be impossible to beat them without knowing them, and preferably knowing them really well, enough to understand not only their potential weaknesses but also their very real strengths, and what makes them so beloved to their defenders.

Antifascism and I

I really like antifascist researchers. The ones I have found and learned from tend to be very bright, and often quite funny and personable. I think they are asking a lot of the right questions, and I have learned quite a bit from them.

I don’t consider myself an antifascist. Maybe someone who knows more than I do will tell me I really am, and I’d be okay with that.

Where I feel like, in practice at least, I seem to part ways, is that I don’t assume quite as much as they do when they interpret people on the right.

I agree with them completely that there’s a real problem with the people they’re looking into. Some of the liminal figures though, who aren’t, for instance, full-on outright white supremacists, I think do deserve a level of nuance that sometimes seems to be lacking among the antifascists I’ve seen, and perhaps almost intentionally lacking.

Think of someone like Tucker. Anyone who reads that one text of his that came out will know that he seems to have some strange and troubling ideas about race. Still, that doesn’t mean everything he says is code for white nationalist sentiments. I’m not saying this out of affection for the man – I’m no fan. But I think people interpret things beyond what the evidence allows. And there’s no need to do that! We do already have the text that shows what he thinks about these things.

I think to be just to the person you’re interpreting, there’s a duty to search for plausible alternative explanations before lazily assuming the worst is true. It’s okay to say “such and such far right community will definitely hear this as” something, but that’s not the same as concluding it’s what the person is intending to communicate.

I think if the case can’t be made while being fair and honest and conscientious, then it’s not a good case. If it can be made while being fair and honest and conscientious, then just do that. It’s not only for the other person – it’s what’s best for you and your own image and your own cause.

At least, that’s what I would tend to think. I seem to be outnumbered though.

Finding a model, abandoning the model

An important step in the intellectual life is finding a model (or set of models) through which to consider ideas.

Another important step is reaching the point where you can let go of the model and focus on ideas without it.

At first we will certainly find our chosen model to be exciting, even exhilarating, when we look at the world through it. Letting go of (some portion of) the way we previously saw the world and replacing it with something we’ve judged to be superior is exhilarating. Beginning to practice seeing things in this new light is initially hard, but it is strangely, intensely enjoyable, somehow. Eventually everything fits together and we can respond to questions quickly, seemingly intelligently, and we feel like we’ve already at our young age solved problems that still perplex our elders.

We feel like we should be able to persuade the world. We might convince or influence a few people who are more ignorant and malleable, but mostly others will refuse to take us as seriously as we think we deserve, for a variety of reasons (but not necessarily for the reasons we think).

At some point, without even meaning to, if we’re lucky, we may find another model that seems to fit even better, possibly something extremely different from the first one. We might abandon, or half-abandon, the former, to focus entirely on mastering the latter, and that will, for a time, provide the same intense pleasure of clarity that we got before.

Maybe everything is economics. Maybe everything is mythology. Maybe everything is persuasion. Maybe everything is herd instinct. Maybe everything is science. Maybe everything is cognitive bias. Maybe everything is lust for power. There are lots of great and wondrous ways of making sense of the world. This list doesn’t begin to scratch the surface.

I don’t think we can really skip that step. It’s important, and valuable, and maybe just unavoidable. But I do think there’s a way past it. There’s something different on the other side, which many of us may never get to see. But it’s there.

Conspiracy theories and wanting to be a victim

It’s not your fault. The bad stuff is being done to you, by a massive network of powerful, evil, prideful conspirators.

I get it. If it weren’t for them, your life would be so much better right now. You’d be making far more money. Your family members would all like you. You’d be admired for your insight and good character. Think of that amazing life that has been denied you, for no crime of your own.

When you were younger, before you understood how things worked, you thought you might grow up to be rich and famous, or at least comfortable and respected. But it turns out, that was never even a possibility, not because of you but because of them.

I know that some people try to tell you that you have it pretty good, that you’re actually one of the lucky ones, but of course that’s not true. The truly powerful people, those who actually pull all the strings, hate you and your kind most of all. That means there is, in a way, no one who’s worse off and more terribly persecuted than you.

These omnipotent global elites don’t seem to be doing a very good job yet of barring you from getting a job or of having you thrown in prison, even now that you’re telling everyone about their plans, but of course that just shows how confident they are. They think they’re untouchable, that no matter what you do it will all play into their hands. If only people understood how terribly you are treated at their hands.

Lucky for you, being victimized like this gives you the moral right to defend yourself and fight back. They don’t know who they’re messing with, do they? Clearly they threw the first shot.

I get it. Yes, I feel sorry for you. I really do.

My new rules for discussing conspiracy theories

This seems like a good way of proceeding.

1. If you’re trying to convince me of something pertaining to a field that I don’t have any expertise in (which would mainly be anything outside of philosophy and theology, and maybe some history), then I will only be convinced you’re right if you can convince me that you have a consensus of the experts on your side. Just so you’re forewarned.

This is so because I don’t have the time to educate myself to a level of expertise in the field you want to discuss, and unless I’m something of an expert myself then I don’t consider myself qualified to disagree with the expert consensus. I don’t say the expert consensus is never wrong or can never be questioned, only that it’s probably a waste of time if the people doing the questioning are not themselves experts. You think you’ve educated yourself to the level of expertise, and I commend you for your truly remarkable self-esteem. I will not believe that is true, however, unless you publish something in a peer-reviewed journal in the field, which should be no great trouble if you’re as qualified as you think, and you will certainly not lack motivation to publish, since you think so many of the experts are obviously wrong and easily shown to have misunderstood something important.

2. We can still have a conversation if you really want to, knowing rule number one, but before we do, you have to tell me, clearly and specifically, what it would take to convince you that you’re wrong. What evidence would be compelling to you, if any?

Probably peer-reviewed science, controlled experiments, and mountains of expert explanations will not convince you. If that’s the case, though, it would be helpful for you to admit it before we start, and to tell me what sort of higher-quality standard of evidence you are looking for. Keep in mind that blogs, YouTube videos, podcasts, social media posts, and random anecdotal testimony are not high quality evidence, and even if it was then there is as much evidence against you as there is for you.

3. If there is any sort of evidence that could convince you, the last thing you will have to do is to show me that you have tried to find such evidence against your position and have good reasons for saying it doesn’t exist or isn’t convincing for some reason.

You aren’t serious about your beliefs if you’ve never looked to see what the best evidence is against them. That would show you’re either deeply lazy or scared of the truth, and neither is something I would welcome in a conversation partner, as you can understand.

That’s it. That should be easy enough to manage, right?

Problematic conspiracy theories

I’m forever wondering if there’s a way to have a conversation with a conspiracy theorist that could proceed rationally. It’s surprising how often possible methods come to mind, though I suppose it is doubtful that any of them would work very well, based on what I’ve seen of conspiracy people in the past.

So, conspiracy theory people seem in my experience to want to deny that what they believe in is a conspiracy theory. I wonder if there’s a way to work with that.

Surely there is some conspiracy theory that a person won’t buy into. It’s just a matter of digging. Then focus on that. There is such a thing as a conspiracy theory. It is indeed characterized by a problematic and unfalsifiable way of thinking.

If you don’t think your view is a conspiracy theory, could we try to figure out together a definition of a conspiracy theory before we talk, so that there’s no misunderstanding? What is a conspiracy theory? What makes its way of thinking wrong? Let’s try to agree.

That’s probably a hard job. It might go nowhere. But it would be okay if that’s as far as the conversation could go. I’d certainly consider that a good outcome.

If we can agree on a definition of a conspiracy theory, then we can focus on what differentiates the person’s ideas from a conspiracy theory. Rather than debating with the kind of evidence that a conspiracy theorist likes to use, we can say, “but that’s just the kind of evidence that a conspiracy theorist likes to use, what else have you got?”

Would it make for a more reasonable conversation? I doubt it. It could certainly be worth a try though, right?

Language groups for learning

I may have written about this topic before, but if so then it’s been a while. I’ve developed a list of languages I’d love to learn (whether I will ever succeed at it is a different question, but I’m trying!), in order of priority. I know why I want to learn each language. I’m interested to try to reverse-engineer for myself what priorities led me to choose and rank these languages as I have.

German, French. I think I’m mainly interested in these two languages because there is plenty of genuinely interesting philosophy and literature written in these languages and because learning them opens up a lot of secondary literature about philosophy, history, etc. I think I also hoped that learning German would help me understand English etymology a bit better, but having studied it for a while now I’m not sure that will really be an outcome of studying this language.

Greek, Latin. Obviously my interest in these two would come from a desire to be able to read classical and medieval texts that have been important in the history of Western thought (and again my interests are mainly in philosophy, history, and literature).

Hebrew, Italian, Arabic. I’m interested in these three partly because of their importance in contemporary world politics, partly for the historic works written in them, and in the case of Italian, partly for modern philosophy and scholarship. Hebrew has always felt like it is out of place here, ranked a bit too high for my actual priorities; it may have gotten a boost from the fact that I studied it for a couple years in college and on some level would just love to recover some of my knowledge of it.

Russian, Mandarin. These two interest me partly because of their importance for contemporary world politics, and partly from the hope that learning them could be a first step toward learning other languages (other Slavic languages, and older forms of Chinese).

Japanese, Hindi, Farsi, Turkish. These last four are not precisely ordered, although the first two do have a slightly higher rank than the last two. Hindi is a bit of a placeholder; I’d like to learn a language that is prominent in modern India that might also help me someday toward learning Sanskrit, and while I feel like Hindi would fit the bill, I also know India has many languages so I would want to confirm that this is the best choice for my goals before setting out on learning it. My hope with Japanese is that it might open some contemporary writing to me but also that it could be a bridge to reading older Japanese philosophy (though I don’t know for sure if older Japanese philosophy was even written in an older form of the modern Japanese language, so I’d also want to check that before setting out on learning the language). Farsi and Turkish seem like they might be interesting for understanding contemporary middle eastern politics and thought, and might also enable me to study older forms of the languages to be able to read some classic texts. Again, I’m not entirely sure about that last point; it’s more of an intuition at this point. These last four languages on the list are the ones that I have not yet started studying at all.

So it seems like my priorities for language-learning are something like: understanding western philosophy, literature, and history (in the originals and through modern scholarship); understanding contemporary world politics; and understanding world philosophy, literature, and history. I think that might be it. That was actually more straightforward than I realized. If I get to all these there are certainly others I’d love to add to the list as well, but for now even this seems much too ambitious for a single lifetime of study (especially with my having really embarked on it only in my thirties).

They might not disagree

There are real and meaningful disagreements between people and groups of people, and that is important to admit and to deal with.

But I truly believe that most apparent disagreements are cases where both sides are conceptually completely compatible.

Now, that doesn’t mean the accompanying social problems can be easily solved by pointing this out. Much of the time, the thing people argue about is more of an excuse to be angry with one another than anything else.

But I assume that at least some people might care if a lot of disagreements turned out to be just people describing two sides of the same coin. At least some people would take that knowledge and make a different choice as a result of it.

There are lots of ways an apparent disagreement can actually be an agreement. Sometimes people are talking about the same thing at two different moments. Sometimes they’re talking about the same population but emphasizing different subsets. Sometimes they’re knowingly using hyperbole in opposite directions resulting in an appearance of contradiction where literally there is none. Oftentimes a single metaphor is being used to refer to two slightly different things. Oftentimes an event is being discussed not as what it is but as what it represents.

It’s okay to use language in these ways. It’s unavoidable. When, however, we deliberately refuse to start off with a presumption of genuine disagreement whenever there is apparent disagreement, we can better avoid getting confused, misled, manipulated.

It’s hard enough to find the truth when there is so much falsehood, approximation, and misinterpretation out there. Let’s not make the problem exponentially worse if we can avoid it.

Thinking through or arguing for

I used to choose a position and argue for it tooth and nail. If I couldn’t convince someone else I was right, then eventually I would convince myself it was because there must be something wrong with the other person.

I think that was basically the mindset I still had when I started this blog. My earliest posts tried to make a case for things that I wanted people to believe.

That impulse is still not entirely gone from me. Perhaps it never can be.

But I think it has lessened considerably, and I think, furthermore, that that is a good thing.

When I was younger I was impressed by the figure of the champion of truth, who knows the right thing to argue for, and who can convince others to join the cause. I wanted to be that person. And since, happily, I figured I already knew what is right and true and good better than pretty much everybody else, all I needed was to figure out how to be persuasive.

I now think it’s much harder to know what’s right than most of us assume. Even when we do happen by accident to be right about something, we normally don’t know what makes it right and so we still can’t defend it competently when we’re challenged on it.

So my writing has generally taken on a much more humble and tentative cast in the last couple years, I think. Rather than speaking to persuade from a place of certainty, I’m exploring thoughts, and simultaneously questioning and exploring my own thinking in the process.

It’s been much more helpful and valuable to me. And given how few people I seemed able to persuade in my younger days, I might even be able to hope that this new approach could have a better chance of affecting people than the old one ever did.