I have an hypothesis that I’m not in a position to test.
I began to develop this suspicion when I noticed that a few scientifically dubious conclusions seem often to show up in one another’s company, and a person’s fervency of belief in one of these three seems to relate to the likelihood of the other two being present as well. (There’s nothing special about these three beliefs; they’re just the ones I’ve noticed, but I’m sure there are others that could be included as well.)
The three beliefs that caught my attention are:
- Covid vaccines are seriously harmful, and contracting Covid (even in its least mild variants) has always been comparatively harmless.
- Global warming is not happening, or if it is happening then it’s not caused by human factors, or even if it is caused by us it definitely won’t be disastrous enough to merit any coordinated preventive effort.
- Saturated fat should not be kept from a human diet, since scientists (at least those scientists who aren’t hopelessly mired in the past) have discovered that it’s at worst harmless and perhaps at best even heath-promoting.
(I’m not saying that there is no room for doubt on any of these matters, especially for those of us who are not specialists. I’m speaking instead only about a group of people who have disproportionately strong opinions that go against scientific consensus.)
It would be easy to write this off as a pattern corresponding to low intelligence or anti-intellectualism. It is certainly not anti-intellectualist; those who hold these beliefs seem to feel that they are unusually clever, unusually discerning in their ability to seek out the small number of persecuted and brilliant scientists who dare to speak the unvarnished truth. Furthermore, there are some people who are indeed of above average intelligence who embrace such conclusions, though my impression is that they do not appear to be a majority either among conspiracists or in higher-intelligence populations.
My guess is that there is a type of person, representing some combination of inborn traits and environmental influences, disposed to accept conclusions rejected by experts, to reject established knowledge as willful deception, to consider themselves wiser even without education than others who have relevant training, and to be tricked by misleading arguments (precisely because of their lack of relevant training). This group has been acted on in a small set of particular ways at our historical moment.
How does conspiracy enter into all this? There’s an idea among this group, today, that a class of wealthy, highly-educated (“brainwashed”) people in positions of power and influence are promoting bad science and a campaign of propaganda for purely ideological reasons. Ideologically, this class likes equality a little too much, failing to recognize natural inequalities among people and humanity’s healthy inclination toward respectful, efficient hierarchies. They like equality so much that they even want us to treat animals and natural habitats with a level of dignity worthy only of humans. They are socialists or, to put it more bluntly, communists and marxists, set on establishing a global state; they are tree huggers, fussy puritanical vegans who want to depopulate the earth of humanity, weaklings who are all probably either grossly obese or else skinny runners with negligible musculature. They are ignorant of how law works, of how the market economy works and how favourably it compares to other economic approaches, ignorant of history, of democracy and freedom and rights, of what it takes to win a war or live a healthy fulfilling life, and clearly, ignorant of good science. This is the conspiracy theory, the theory of the world, which is not often stated explicitly, but is constantly gestured toward. It cannot be proven in its entirety, but there are, in the news, enough minor pieces of evidence for every part of it that a person can feed themselves on a constant diet of new examples to reinforce their conviction.
Not all of these conspiracists are Christians, and certainly not all Christians are conspiracists of this sort. Still, this population seems to show up unusually often among practicing Christians. My pet theory here is that creationism in previous decades helped prepare the ground for our current conspiracist situation. There is a family resemblance, without question.
Left-wing prejudice might want us to expect that there will also be a lot of racist or antisemitic sentiment in this population. That certainly hasn’t been my experience, though maybe something like it (eg anti-immigrant prejudice?) is somewhat more common beneath the surface. Still, it seems not to be a major factor at all, from my observation.
Now, accepting that there is this group of people who are susceptible to being influenced in this way: who is actuating their potential? The kindling is set aflame by a variety of groups who hope to benefit from it; big business is a prime example. In the past, tobacco companies were at pains to fund misleading studies and have scientists on payroll who would represent their interests to the untrained public. Similar tactics continue to be employed by food and farming businesses (eg junk food, fast food), and by oil and gas.
There are also politicians and news organizations who benefit from having a visible, outspoken, enthusiastic body of supporters and donors. Politicians like Maxime Bernier have been seeking to leverage this population to their advantage in Canada, with some limited success. In the States, Desantis of Florida (despite his personal belief in the benefit of the vaccines) has shrewdly managed to maneuver himself into a position of remarkable strength by playing to this same crowd.
Disinformation in a country is of course especially desirable from the perspective of hostile foreign powers, who wish to see as much chaos and division as possible among their enemies. Think for example of how Russia has been promoting vaccines to its own citizens while amplifying antivax rhetoric outside its borders. Sometimes as well, left-wing politicians from within the same country seek quietly to foster and promote the crazier side of right-wing politics in order to alienate centrist voters toward their own side; think of how Hilary Clinton initially wanted to have Donald Trump as her opponent in the presidential election of 2016.
I suspect that none of these groups is seeking to help the others but that each, rather, is acting only selfishly. The junk food company isn’t trying to form a body of citizens susceptible to being radicalized for or co-opted by political causes. They just want to increase their profits, or protect against a loss of profits. Each group is unintentionally benefiting the others, and is in turn benefiting from the others, if it does indeed turn out that being ensnared by any one of these things increases susceptibility to the others as I’ve suggested.
A few disclaimers. I’m not trying to say that this is the only pattern of disinformation out there by any means, only that it may be (or become) a particularly dangerous one. I also definitely don’t mean to paint all on the right with a single brush; I consider myself to be overall to the right of centre. I do think, however, that it’s an issue that people on the right need to find a way to handle, though I don’t know any easy way to deal with it.
And all this doesn’t amount to an argument. I’ve been forthright from the beginning that this is nothing more than a string of guesses, tied together from my observations of acquaintances and of voices that I observe on social media. If a reader dislikes what I have said, keep in mind that there is nothing here to disprove. Just ignore me.