Commentary

How can someone believe tabloids and conspiracy theories at the same time?

People who can’t imagine that a website would routinely make up clickable lies (its bread and butter) believe in much more elaborate schemes of lies, cooperation and secrecy: conspiracy theories. That doesn’t make sense.

My friend was teaching second grade in 2006. One evening he received a phone call from his cousin, a tabloid writer. “So what’s going on? Tell me something, some gossip!”

My friend told him that nothing was going on, he was just filling out paperwork because his class’ textbook didn’t arrive on time. “Sorry, can’t help you.”

He hung up the phone and next day he woke up to a big tabloid headline screeching that there’s a devastating, nationwide shortage of textbooks. He got good an angry. No, not at his cousin for making up lies loosely inspired by real life events to meet deadlines in the middle of the night, or else he gets fired. No. He got angry at the textbook distributors, the schools, the government. Despite the phone call the night before, or maybe because of it, he assumed that whatever he was reading in the paper was true, and other teachers were also not getting their textbooks. Even though he didn’t know of anyone else.

He told me the story years later, still not sure whether the acute textbook shortage of 2006 actually happened. After years of cooling down, he started wondering whether he was really the only teacher his cousin “interviewed” and whether it is possible that he made up the rest. But he kept his doubts to himself. Saying them out loud would make him look stupid.

I have been in countless conversations trying to convince people that there can’t be a steady supply of 500 outrageous, clickable pieces of true news every single day (the amount or posts tabloids routinely churn out in a day), only if the typists working there (misnamed as journalists) routinely make them up. Maybe those stories are loosely inspired by real events or the existence of real people. Like celebrities.

But how can I win such a debate when even celebrities, who routinely read made-up stories about themselves, believe the pieces written about others?

Conspiracy theories are based on the existence of much bigger and more complex lies, widespread secrecy covering them up, and the impossibly smooth and unfailing execution, requiring the cooperation of a huge number of people, institutions and even states.

How can one believe that a tabloid scribbler would never totally make up stories to keep his job – but hundreds and thousands of people would conspire to tell lies, execute schemes, and be able to keep the secret, while never, ever failing to execute the plan exactly as it was?

So here are a few rules to evaluate conspiracy theories:

 1. Just because someone benefits it doesn’t mean that they were he ones plotting it.

Just think of evolution. A species that benefits from an environmental event is not the one plotting that event. It is just the one that happens to be best equipped or the most willing to adapt to it. Species don’t design their own DNA that allow them to thrive under changing weather conditions, nor do they plot meteorite showers to drive their competitors extinct. But they can still eventually benefit from the event.

In the same spirit, if China manages to take advantage of the pandemic, it doesn’t mean the Chinese leadership had unleashed the virus on purpose.

Just think about how nonsensical this sounds: “Let us manufacture a virus, unleash it on our own people, then quarantine the city – and then sit back and see how western governments frantically copy our quarantine methods, kill their economies, then something … something … something … and then we benefit.”

At the very least you don’t have to manufacture a virus yourself for it to bite. Sloppy hygiene at a lab is enough to unleash it. (Not to mention that the sloppy hygiene theory stands the scrutiny of both Occam’s razor and Hanlon’s razor, while the ‘let’s attack ourselves and expect the whole world to shoot itself in the leg emulating us‘ theory fails both tests of logic.)

Similarly, observing that the pandemic was a godsend for incompetent western politicians trying to distract from whatever disaster they have been building for the last decade and also an excuse to blame for the upcoming economic downturn doesn’t mean that they have sent mercenaries to unleash a virus in China that they can emulate in its autocratic response to the pandemic.

The simple and elegant theory of sloppy hygiene and incompetent western leadership is both more likely – and in the case of the leadership qualities of current western politicians it is also heavily grounded in evidence.

Evolution means opportunism and adaptiveness to the new situation – not planning to be the beneficiary, nor plotting a scheme to win. Granted, humans can plot. But here is where other problems arise with conspiracy theories.

The post continues…

 

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