It is a conversational moment that I have come to dread over the years, the moment I learn too much about what is going on inside the head of a new acquaintance whom I so much want to respect.
The other night my girlfriend and I were chatting convivially with a new friend of ours about many topics, and the two of them were finding with greater and greater rapidity and excitement that they shared opinions and even a mindset; they were having an “I knew I knew why I liked you” moment, and our new friend even said those very words out loud.
I sensed what was coming. Our friend’s shoulders relaxed, she drew us in closer and spoke loudly because of her new confidence in us, “I knew I knew why I liked you. You think like me! You probably know all about the chemtrails and what they are doing to our water and food.” My girlfriend continued smiling but betrayed no such knowledge. “You know, how they’re killing us for money. It’s outrageous what they’re doing to us all.”
I was surprised but not shocked. It was not the first time I had heard someone I thought was a rational-minded person with unimpaired critical thinking skills give voice to approximately three conspiracy theories in ten words or less.
(There are real outrages in our world and society, of course. Before those of you who feel legitimate outrage about “Big Pharma” and its effect on modern medicine … or those of you with gripes about corporate agriculture and its effect on our ecology, economy, and general health … or those of you who feel that our various layers of government present heavy-handed restrictions on fair-minded business people or restrictions that are infuriatingly not heavy at all … before you decide to take up arms and keyboard and aim angry words attempting to correct my insouciant attitude about the legitimate threats these pose to our greater welfare, please re-read the clauses opening this extra-long sentence. And please read on. There are legitimate dangers in this ever-complicated world and I am outraged by them. I vote my conscience. I write letters and this blog, and I sign petitions. I have marched and I will again. (Well, maybe it’ll be in a wheelchair.) We do not need belief in ever-complicated conspiracies posed by a mysterious and infernal “them” to get in the way of believing that maybe just possibly we can affect what “they” are doing to our lives.)
(I am glad I found that soapbox nearby; can someone help me down from it?)
When one lives in the Northeast, as I do, during every winter storm one hears this sentence at least too many times to count: “Heh. So much for global warming.” I have heard people who have explained to me fairly complex physical realities (okay, indoor plumbing) utter this inane sentence as if they do not understand the difference between our Hudson Valley weather on a given Tuesday in January and a global climatological condition. Come summer, these people inevitably give voice to the opposite idea, without minding the contradiction, when they note, “Summers seem warmer than when I was a kid.”
We all want to feel in possession of some special insight or know that our facts are more fact-y than other peoples’, to feel that we know more than the people “in the know”—our elected officials, our scientists, our religious leaders. Because there is so much dogma in our daily lives, we think that everything we read or hear is dogmatic. From Will Rogers to Lewis Black through every heroic iconoclast of the last several generations, we have taught ourselves that we “know better,” that we must “question authority,” but without questioning one authority: our own. We may in fact know better, but that only comes through a skeptical weighing of all evidence, including my own state of mind and knowledge.
I admit that as a skeptic, I question questioning authority. I question my own, which makes writing this post a tad ironic. What do I know?
I am by nature a non-confrontationalist, so when I learn that someone I have been getting to know possesses a conspiratorial mindset—is a person who treats beliefs as facts—I shut down and do not involve myself in a debate over the merits of the thinking. If you already think that water fluoridation is a part of a government plot to make people submissive subjects, instead of what it is, I am not going to get into a detailed discussion about the number of gallons of distilled water we need to start consuming.
Instead, I will make slightly agreeable-sounding sounds that can be easily mistaken for words and statements by my interlocutor but in fact are not. I will find the soonest conversational exit, which is what my girlfriend and I did with our new friend the other evening. Before we learned too much about her worldview, because I still wanted to have some intellectual respect for the friend and myself.
Maybe I should engage people more forcefully and in the name of logic and skepticism … no. No. Because, oftentimes, the other person has come to these insights and beliefs by employing the tools of critical thinking, which is the shame of it. They think that they are questioning authority by reflexively denying the possibility that the facts as presented by authorities are the facts. This is a way of thinking as blind as automatically assuming that anything we are told is true.
It is as if there is an item on the critical thinking checklist that is ticked off every time we declare ourselves a “skeptic,” but only of the official line. By believing that there is something more complicated going on than we are being told. We cheer ourselves believing we are thinking for ourselves.
I love thinking that does not involve thought. It gets me to really not work out those mind-muscles at all but still use my gym membership to get in the sauna. For me, some forms of gambling scratch the same itch in my head and feel the same way as conspiratorial skepticism: the game of roulette, for example. There are books and pamphlets outlining patterns one should be aware of and gambling practices one should adhere to at the roulette table. But you know what the most detailed, complicated thought I have ever had at the roulette wheel is? “I like 4. I think I’ll bet on it.”
It is not critical thinking to posit that simply because the “government denies it” certain fabulous tales must be true. In logic, there is a principle called “Occam’s razor,” which simply states that among several hypotheses, the one requiring the reader to make the fewest assumptions is the one to pursue. Are those lights in the sky vehicles from light-years away? or something earth-based? The earth-based explanation might be less complicated but more frightening.
Are the patterns of condensation left in an airplane’s wake a part of a nefarious plot to poison the populace into a submissive agreeability from the sky? Without evidence, this asks us to assume quite a few things.
Is our government poisoning us into a state of dependence on it? I do not know, and I do not see evidence to support it, but isn’t the idea that corporate agriculture, in the name of the profit motive, producing food with ever less nutrition per volume in fact scarier? Yet that sentence is the one that asks us to take action and do something for ourselves, because we can still. Somehow, underneath it all, I am an optimist.
My conspiracy theory of conspiracy theories is that the powers that be prefer us speculating wildly about hidden plots and nefarious powers “behind the scenes” and thinking that the knowing is enough. They love it when we think we are doing something but aren’t. In the ’90s, one of my co-workers at a bookshop used to angrily relocate the paperback sci-fi books inspired by “The X-Files” TV series from fiction to non-fiction. My conspiracy theory is that this is exactly the sort of fight corporate America wants us to wage. Because then, the only causes we are taking to the streets over will sap us of our “precious bodily” intelligence.