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.