On Conspiracy Theories - Worth the Mental Effort?
Modern internet discourse just wouldn’t be the same without conspiracy theories. Whether it’s people taking a stab at the Flat Earth Society, someone spotting a triangle and shouting “Illuminati confirmed!” or the far more serious anti-vaccination movement, these fringe ideas have been catapulted from the ramblings of a crazy uncle at a dinner table to hundreds of websites, forum groups and YouTube channels dedicated to “uncovering the truth”. Now, if you’re a subscriber to any particular conspiracy theory (maybe even one of the three I will discuss below), you might’ve felt that the previous sentence was rather condescending. That does indeed betray my thoughts on the topic on a more casual level. Coming across a website claiming to have news on the Illuminati will inevitably cause me to chuckle, true, but I will not do much of that here. I do not believe conspiracy theories as a whole are inherently wrong. Many theories of the past have come to see the light of day and became known to the general public as the truth. While some conspiracies of today are pretty dumb, others hold some merit. How do we distinguish which is which?
The number of conspiracy theories out there is ridiculous, and if we paid full attention to each one, it’d take over our daily lives and make us go insane. At the same time, scepticism and open thinking are valuable and ought to be encouraged. There have been several instances when I was presented with a fringe claim that wasn’t entirely impossible, but that I chose to not pay attention to. It feels bad to dismiss a claim, but at the same time, our “processing power” is limited, and we have to make sure to use it effectively. At that point, pragmatism takes over and in my case, I decide that whether a conspiracy is true or not doesn’t matter much to me, so I simply won’t bother delving into the rabbit hole and will remain ignorant. What really doesn’t help is that conspiracy theories vary significantly from one another. The belief in a powerful elite group exerting influence over most governments and, by extension, most forms of media and culture is very different in both its scope and argumentation to, say, the belief that the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic has been manufactured in labs by Chinese scientists. However, there are some similarities that I feel are worth exploring. I will go over a few examples to hopefully build up a framework with which one could begin to tackle such theories in general. “Tackle” here doesn’t mean proving whether or not they’re true, but assessing their worth, seeing if the claims being made warrant investigation.
The Earth is Flat
Let’s start with something simple – the belief that the Earth is flat, rather than round. That belief in and of itself is not a conspiracy theory. It is a claim that can be supported or unsupported by scientific evidence. It morphs into a conspiracy theory when this belief meets with the overwhelming opposition from just about everyone, and its proponents claim things like space agencies faking or manipulating photographs taken from outer space to add curvature where there is none, or that the governments and educational institutions are aware of the Earth being flat but hide this information from the public. These claims are problematic in that they are very difficult to prove or disprove. Any number of accounts can be fabricated to stir up controversy or damage the reputation of a person or a group of people. Even if a true account existed out there, separating it from the pile of lies would require great effort. Furthermore, the shape of the Earth is not something obtuse, it isn’t a subatomic particle that requires specialized labs worth millions of dollars to study. It’s something that can be examined with relatively simple means through a variety of experiments. Keeping something like that a secret from everybody would require enormous effort on behalf of the parties involved. Even if all of France was “bought out” and its top scientists treated the Earth as round, it would be a silly effort if the rest of the world, or even half or one third or one fourth of the world had reputable evidence to the contrary. For it to work, the illusion would have to be upheld by everyone, which would require undisputed international collaboration, something that could only be done with the help of, say, the illuminati. Now, to be clear, manufacturing a lie of this scale is theoretically possible. Most people wouldn’t notice it, as the shape of the earth is not really that important to them. At the scale of everyday life the earth is just too large for its shape to be relevant. However, it does become relevant anytime you need, for example, a map for navigation, as different projections of a globe will have vastly different properties. The common Mercator projection, for example, maintains a constant distance between the latitude and longitude lines, which results in a convenient rectangular shape to print and display, but leads to horrible distortions in size the further you are from the equator, as demonstrated by Canada, Russia, Greenland and Antarctica. A flat earth, on the other hand, would be able to be projected perfectly onto a map, preserving the size, shape, distance and everything else. If the earth wasn’t a globe, but projections of the globe were upheld as true, anyone involved with navigation, which includes pilots, ship captains or just plain old travellers, would no doubt spot the discrepancies between what every map is showing and what’s really going on. Each of these people would’ve been raised being told that the earth is round, so they’d either have to be continuously bribed, taking great effort and resources, or we’d have thousands of them revealing “the truth”, but we don’t really see either. One could say that, if there is such an extensive conspiracy going on, then they also have the resources necessary to silence such people. But the fact that the flat earth theory is widespread, not so much in adoption but in awareness, contradicts this. Simple internet searches, despite being controlled by gigantic corporations, can turn up dozens of pro-flat earth results in less than a minute, which suggests that either there is no such censorship going on, or that access to such knowledge does not cause problems to the perpetrators, effectively making resistance futile. It is a rather scary idea: that, with the help of psychology, one could defeat the opposition not by silencing or destroying them, but by making everyone dismiss them as crazy.
All of that was discussing the matter of “how”. If true, how would such a conspiracy be upheld and concealed. A more important question remains, the question of “why”. Why, if the Earth were flat, would governments and educational institutions claim it to be round? There are a few responses I’ve heard to this question. One of them talks about implementing some sort of satanic agenda, as a round earth collides with several sentences from the Bible. This a slippery slope of religion I’m not really willing to go into, especially as it is rather Europe- and America-centric, and wouldn’t work in most parts of the world without a majority Abrahamic religion. Another common argument goes something like this: “Well, if they get you to believe in a round earth, who knows what else they might be able to get into your head?”. This, again, is a slippery slope, that acts more as fear-mongering than a legitimate argument. Worse yet, it is not specific to flat earth. Both of these arguments are something to watch out for because they are not specific. They suggest a false dichotomy, of the earth either being flat or being round, and thus any evidence to make one alternative look spurious is an argument in favour of the other. This isn’t the case, however. If the world believed the earth was flat, but it was actually round, the “round earth society” could make the exact same arguments, without changing a single word. If the earth was actually a cube, or if it was being carried on the tusks of a giant elephant, or if we weren’t even talking about the shape of the earth but about pretty much anything else, the exact same arguments could be made, and they would have just as much validity (that is to say, basically none). But let’s treat them as valid. Let’s assume that the people in charge of the world indeed seek to bring about a satanic agenda, and that they seek to test their ability to make the entire population believe something that isn’t true. The previous paragraph, talking about what it would take to put such a conspiracy into practice, hopefully showed that, although possible, round earth would be an incredibly costly and complicated lie to uphold. And if you think about it, there are a multitude of other things that such a ruling elite could do instead to achieve the same goals for a fraction of the effort. Talking purely economically, round earth isn’t worth it. That, to me, is the biggest blow to this conspiracy. However impractical, it is possible, but there just isn’t enough incentive to actually go through with it.
Let’s move on to a different theory – the illuminati. The granddaddy of conspiracy theories, the idea that there is a secret group of people that stands above the law of any country, above the laws of any government, and one that manipulates these countries to their advantage, no less. A group that holds, in principle, unlimited power, that nobody can stand up to. Whose resources are unlimited and whose jurisdiction knows no bounds. So, how would such a group work? Well, at the end of the day it’s just a group of people cooperating with each other. Just like I can talk to just about anyone in the world through the internet rather easily, or meet someone in person to discuss mutual interest, so could the presidents of influential nations and leaders of government organisations and gigantic corporations. Because the core idea of the illuminati is rich people talking to each other, the “how” of it all is rather simple to answer. Now, how such a coalition may be kept secret is a bit trickier, but only marginally so. There are many things going on in many countries that are hidden from the general public. Some of these things are rather innate, for example records from the census office, but many can be dangerous or ethically questionable, like documents compiled by intelligence agencies, and it wouldn’t be difficult to squeeze in some illuminati dealings among these. As I’ll discuss later, there are good reasons “why”, which also makes the “how” of it easier. Unlike the flat earth, there is much greater reward for people in the conspiracy to keep it hidden, and much greater punishment for those who choose to speak out. Edward Snowden was able to escape to Russia after becoming a target for the United States, but if the theory is to be believed, there is no place on Earth or off Earth that you could go to, where the illuminati wouldn’t be able to follow you. A group with such omnipresence and omnipotence could (and, according to some, does) control every aspect of your life, making any kind of dissent impossible. But, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s often more convenient and more effective not to silence people’s voices, but to deafen people’s ears. To make people hear about the illuminati and react with laughter and disbelief instead of taking seriously. Perhaps that’s why we can talk about them openly.
So, about the “why”. This is also rather easy to figure out, since it follows an idea that we’ve seen throughout history and in modern times, as well. Be it trade agreements, diplomatic talks or corporate cooperation, people tend to seek out similar people or groups of people to involve themselves with, for some sort of personal gain, be it money or influence. I may be a free citizen, but the kind of goods and services that are made available to me are controlled and limited by various national agencies, which in turn are controlled by various ministries, which in turn are regulated by laws and legislations. These laws and legislations, while ultimately decided on by politicians, are still influenced by the likes of the African Union or the United Nations, depending on where you live. The illuminati would simply be a layer above that, the main differences being that the layer is hidden from sight and is not elected, ruled or influenced in a democratic manner (from what we know, at least). Just as people in North America thought it useful to combine the different states under a single banner of the United States, and people in Europe thought it beneficial to establish the European Union, the illuminati would be a natural extension of the same principle. For people in the group, it provides benefits in the form of greater international cooperation. It also helps make sure the things they believe to be just or valuable or plain fun do not become outlawed. This may sound like a very childish or simplistic explanation of the kind of power such a group would hold, and it betrays my lack of knowledge on both the illuminati and the wider political system, but I hope you can provide better examples for yourself. There is also strong incentive to keep it a secret. The branches below it do not invite nearly as much protest because there are ways in which people may influence them, through voting or contacting politicians or spreading information, but the illuminati has no such mechanisms in place. Italian citizens may not like being ruled by their government, but as long as they believe change is possible, they’re kept in place. Being told that they are subject to a group of self-appointed leaders whom you can’t influence in any way, that basically decided to play god because they can, would not go well with most. In summary, there is a strong incentive for individuals to create a group like the illuminati or become part of one if it exists already, as well as an incentive to keep it hidden from the public, both of which form the core of this conspiracy theory.
The illuminati certainly has greater chances of being real than the flat earth. And in the process of writing this I struggled to think of any good arguments against it. That, ironically, is the biggest flaw of the theory. While something like flat earth has a verifiable theory at its core, the earth being flat, which you can tackle without ever delving into the conspiracy part, the illuminati doesn’t have that. Think about it – whether you believe in the illuminati or not, how would you go about finding evidence against it? Can such evidence even exist? The shape of something that we know exists can be observed and studied, but the existence of something? How would that work? Can you find any evidence that I do not have a stash of broken lightbulbs hidden somewhere? Can you show that Angela Merkel has never eaten sauerkraut? Or a more classic example, can you show that there does not exist a small teapot, drifting through space as you’re reading this? These are things that can be proven, but can’t be disproven. The closest one can come to disproving a statement like that is by doing a thorough investigation and finding no evidence of it. We can talk about what evidence would be satisfactory, for example a photo of Merkel eating some dumplings with sauerkraut, but no matter how hard you look and how many times you come up empty-handed, one could always say that you haven’t disproved anything, that you just haven’t looked hard enough. As a side note, I know nothing of Angela Merkel’s eating habits, she can eat all the sauerkraut she wants, so please don’t get hung up on that. The claim that the illuminati exists can be supported by evidence, but it is not falsifiable. Furthermore, evidence for its validity, if it exists, can either be false or pointless. If illuminati exists and it controls the global flow of information, that means any information you see anywhere had to somehow get through them and they’d be aware of what’s being said about them. They not only have access to this data, but can change it however they want. Long story short, everything you’ve ever heard or read about the illuminati was either false, given that they don’t exist or, given that they do exist, altered to suit their needs and/or judged by them as a non-threat. Where it gets really troublesome is how this control of information, which is a premise of the theory, is used to validate the theory, creating a trap for the adherents. If you are not yet convinced of illuminati’s existence, you can swing either way, depending on the information you find. But if you are already a believer, if you interact with the world with the assumption that such a group exists, then any information that favours your position is a leak, a piece of truth slipping through the cracks, while any information that opposes your position can be treated as a piece of propaganda, fabricated by the illuminati to hide their operations. It effectively shuts down dissent, makes it impossible to argue effectively, no matter what evidence or how much of it is presented.
The belief in the illuminati can be incredibly dangerous if it’s allowed to grow out of control. Because the illuminati is said to have such overwhelming influence on just about every facet of our lives, it becomes impossible to differentiate between truth or lies. I trust that you’re familiar with Edward Snowden, who leaked secret documents from various US government organisations, revealing many ways in which the CIA and the NSA have been spying on people all over the world. The government didn’t appreciate that, of course, but suppose that it’s all been staged. Suppose that the “leaked” documents were meant to be released, and that Edward Snowden is secretly in cahoots with the US government or the illuminati itself to create this story of betrayal, guilt and justice. The purpose of it was to test how the general public reacts to the information that they’re being spied on, to determine how far they can push global surveillance without risking massive revolts. Let’s take another example. Some people claim that global warming is a hoax, meant to scare people. Let’s suppose that climate change is real. It is not a hoax created by the illuminati, but instead they are responsible for the lobbying and insufficient action that we see surrounding it. Their goal is to worsen the climate as a form of population control, or to use the crisis to grant themselves further power, or to step out into the open with reforms that counteract climate change, so that they’re not seen as oppressors, but as saviours. These are two theories that I just created, that (to me, at least) make logical sense, as long as you’re willing to accept the premise of the illuminati being real. Hopefully, they illustrate how such a belief has to be kept in check, so that even if you believe that the illuminati exists, you have to remain very sceptical of any actions attributed to it.
So, can illuminati exist? I have no reason to say otherwise. There are strong incentives for its establishment and the execution would be rather simple, too. Does illuminati exist? That is a trickier question, one that I can’t really answer as I lack any knowledge on the topic. But regardless of it, I can say that it’s like the methamphetamine of conspiracies, and it will consume you if you’re not careful. If you’re not convinced of its validity, try not to get too deep. If you’re already convinced, reconsider whether your approach to it has any merit and value, or if it’s simply a waste of time and energy. I always find it humorous when I come across sites purporting some famous or influential person to be a member of the illuminati. Of course they are, what do you expect? The illuminati (given that it exists, of course) would never allow someone who’s not a part of it or at least affiliated with it to take on an influential role in society. But people still make image sets and websites dedicated to “exposing Donald Trump as illuminati” or other stuff like that. It’s about as meaningful as calling water wet…
The third case study will be chemtrails. The idea is that aeroplanes release chemicals into the air, which you can see from the ground as trails on their path, hence the name. The official explanation of the phenomenon is that these are not dangerous chemicals that are sprayed intentionally, but instead water vapour created by the temperature difference between warm air inside the engines and cold air outside them. They’re called contrails, and their composition is pretty much the same as clouds. So, according to the conspiracy theory, why are chemtrails a thing? There are several reasons, and their acceptance varies from person to person. Some that I’ve heard include weather control, managing energy from the sun, testing biological warfare technology, population control, and negatively affecting people’s health to benefit pharmaceutical companies. They’re often not just accepted together, but mixed together, so one might for example claim that negative effects on people’s health can be achieved not just directly through the spread of chemicals, but also indirectly through weather control. Excluding weather control and managing energy from the sun, I find these reasons to be significantly flawed, because for the chemtrails to be spread, there need to be pilots willing to fly the planes and spread them. Pilots are not an elite group deployed by the government, but normal people with families and lives outside aviation. Even if they were government officials, that wouldn’t change the fact that they would be affected by these chemicals just like everyone else. Hundreds of thousands of pilots would thus be knowingly poisoning hundreds of millions of people, which I doubt more than a dozen of them would consent to. Air and soil are something that every one of us depends on. It doesn’t matter how rich you are or what your position is, at the end of the day we all need clean air to breathe and good soil to get our food. Whereas something like the illuminati creates a situation favourable for the elite, every negative effect of chemtrails on the general population would also extend to whoever would be responsible for their spread. You might say that they are spreading it unknowingly. That perhaps the systems onboard manage dispersion automatically, without informing the pilots. You may also say that the elite is not affected because they secretly use vaccines or other preventative measures to negate the health effects. That would significantly complicate the execution of the scheme, and it still leaves thousands of people exposed to the truth in the form of engineers responsible for the design, assembly and maintenance of the planes. No matter how you slice it, at least several thousand people would have to be in on the conspiracy, and many hundreds of thousands would have to remain oblivious for years on end to the things that the planes they’re paid to understand and control are doing. Going back to the other reasons, both weather control and managing energy from the sun are typically put under the general umbrella of work related to climate change, either trying to mitigate it or fabricating its supposed results. If chemtrails were meant to stop (or at least slow down) climate change, that does not seem like a bad thing, in the sense that there would be no reason to keep something like that a secret. A certain piece of evidence circulating in conspiracy groups even claims that Germany admitted to doing just that, but while I don’t have the specific source at hand, it seems unlikely given how just about every government institution or educational facility that mentions chemtrails in any way, including German ones, continues to denounce them as not real.
The reasons for “why” chemtrails would be used are, frankly, not very good. But let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that at least one of them really does hold. There is a reason and an incentive for chemicals to be released into the atmosphere. I’d like to ask a different question - what even are chemtrails, and who is spreading them? “Chemicals” is an umbrella term, and can technically include anything from water to radioactive isotopes of heavy elements. The use of this term in many conspiracy theories often feels to me like an appeal to nature. Now, regardless of what your stance is on the topic, whether you believe that natural inherently means better, is not something I’ll be talking about. However, it is a very appealing proposition to most people, and thus can be used as a marketing ploy. Phrases like “all natural” and “100% juice, not from concentrate” can be seen on many items in grocery stores, often without delving deep into the meanings behind them. Is juice actually better than concentrate? Does “all natural” really mean what we often imagine it means, or can an all natural product still be full of pesticides, preservatives and other “chemicals”, provided they do not come from a lab? This kind of nature-washing is strongly at play here. Most people hear about chemicals being put in the air, and they immediately imagine toxins, narcotics or other such unpleasant substances being injected into the air they breathe. However, dispersing a mixture of ozone and nitrogen will have vastly different effects on health and the atmosphere than a blend of methane, aluminium oxide and polonium, yet they can both be put under the term “chemicals”. As for the perpetrator, this is also often left vague. You’ll often hear proponents of the theory say phrases like “they put chemicals in the air”. “They” leaves a lot to be desired. Who are they? Antisemites will say it’s the Jews. If you live in the US, you may point to your government. Someone living in a country bordering Russia will say that it’s Putin’s scheme. Others will say it’s China. Others still will claim that, at the end of the day, it’s all work of the New World Order. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you live, someone will come to mind when you hear “they”. You and whoever said the sentence may agree completely on its contents, despite the two of you having vastly different perpetrators in mind. It’s not like these questions have no answers, of course. If I pry it further, I will be told what exactly is being released, and who exactly is doing it. But this kind of wishy-washy language is used for a reason, to make the core claim more easy to agree with and accept. It’s a psychological tactic that can be seen in many conspiracy theories, and even in many discussions in everyday life. Once you’re onboard with the core idea, it becomes easier to convince you of the stuff surrounding it.
Now, you might be looking at your reports of chemical containers on planes, or at your galleries of UN officials making illuminati hand signs, and thinking that I haven’t proven anything. And you’d be right, I haven’t, because I wasn’t trying to. As I’ve said at the beginning, I’m not trying to prove or disprove anything, but merely provide a framework for evaluating theories. Imagine that you’re just going about your day, when someone mentions to you a theory that you’ve never heard before. Do you just accept it because it’s supportive of your worldview, or reject it because it feels uncomfortable? Do you go online and gather every single piece of information possible, then evaluate each and every one? Even if it’s a topic you have no experience in? I don’t want to just accept it or just reject it, as that gives prejudice priority over skepticism, which is the biggest cause of misinformation in our world today. I don’t want to evaluate every bit of evidence because I just don’t like wasting my time, which more often than not is what ”evidence” amounts to. The way I approached these three theories omits most if not all of the evidence used by their proponents intentionally, it’s meant to be a process you can apply to any theory, regardless of your level of education or insight on the topic. It doesn’t prove or disprove anything, but it saves time. I didn’t have to watch any videos on the topic of flat earth nor rely on the prejudice of saying that the earth is round just because that’s what I was brought up with, but I was still able to, with decent confidence as far as I’m concerned, determine that theory to be a waste of time.
So, how about that framework? Using the three examples, I can derive this set of questions and tests to apply to conspiracy theories that, although not always accurate or comprehensive, should be helpful in not letting pointless worries clog your mind:
1. Given the state of the world and the beliefs we are brought up with, what would it take for the conspiracy to work?
- Using the example of flat earth, suppose that the earth is indeed flat, but that we’re taught that it’s round. Ignoring the reasons for why we’d be taught a lie, consider just what it would take for whoever’s responsible for the lie to keep it up and prevent counterevidence from leaking out.
2. Does the conspiracy theory base itself on something objectively verifiable, like a nutritional claim or a physical property? If so, what would it take to prove or disprove it?
- Conspiracies are often laden with prejudices, faulty logic, and mountains of evidence, some of it fabricated. If a theory has, at its core, something that can be reliably tested for – ideally using the scientific method – then it’s often beneficial to follow that route, first. If I hear claims of planes spreading aluminium in the air, before I delve into who is doing it or for what reasons, I can try and test the aluminium content in the air, to see whether or not aeroplanes have any effect on it.
3. Do the arguments in support of the theory rely on evidence and reason, or do they abuse logical fallacies and generic statements?
- A statement like ”If they get you to do X, who knows what else you’ll do just because you’re told” is meaningless. It does nothing in the way of showing a theory as valid and it can be generalised to just about any theory imaginable. If someone says that to you, ask them to come up with something better or to stop wasting your time.
4. Never accept something simply because it feels right...
- A conspiracy theory like the illuminati is quite easy to believe in no small part because many people are already distrustful of the government. Many people are also distrustful of the medical or pharmaceutical industry, so when something like a pandemic starts, they’re very easily swayed into believing them. However intuitive something feels, never suspend your skepticism.
5. ...And never reject something simply because it feels wrong.
- I place high trust in the scientific community, so when I hear someone talk about science being wrong, or scientists suppressing information, I instinctively react with disbelief. But you really should remain skeptical, even if – or maybe especially if – a theory contradicts your current worldview. Recognize your biases and try to view the theory without them.
6. If a theory is right, what other consequences arise from it?
- If the earth was flat, it wouldn’t just make some maps incorrect, it would mean that a significant portion of science is incorrect. Suddenly, we’d have to consider how it is that we do not just fly off the earth, how it is that a disc-shaped object the size of a planet can exist and not be deformed into a sphere, how can one just keep going in the same direction and end up in the same place without perceiving any kind of edge of the earth, and much more. At this point, it’s reasonable to apply Occam’s Razor, and say that the simpler explanation is more likely to be the correct one, especially since we’re not just claiming that the current theory is wrong, but that the people responsible for it know it to be wrong and manufactured it, which in some cases implies fabrication of hundreds of years of scientific discoveries, driving up the complexity of implementation to ludicrous levels.
7. Can a theory be disproven? If not, how far are you willing to look for evidence?
- As shown by the illuminati example, there are some conspiracy theories which resist falsification due to the nature of their claims. If you decide to follow such a theory, it’s valuable to set a limit, to decide how far you should scrub for data before you decide that there is none (if the theory turns out to be right then that doesn’t apply, of course). Setting a goal like that ahead of time will prevent you from becoming like Wile E. Coyote, forever chasing that which is just beyond your reach.
8. How does the perpetrator profit from the conspiracy? Is it economically sound?
- Any crime needs a motive, no matter how banal. When thinking about a conspiracy theory, consider what’s in it for the people who created it. If you struggle to come up with a good motive, or if you can easily think of other things that would be easier to execute but still yield the same results, that’s one of the biggest blows towards the legitimacy of a theory.
9. Does the execution of the theory rely on unwitting people’s cooperation? If so, how feasible is it to obtain it?
- If chemtrails are a thing, the number of people who’d be responsible for manufacturing, deploying and spreading them would count in the millions. Keeping them all in the dark about the project’s true intentions would be an extraordinary feat, one that requires far more support than a dozen or so influential people getting together.
10. Does the theory utilize vague language?
- This is less about the theories and more about the people who try to sell you on those theories. Be wary of claims that leave a lot to the imagination, and that obstruct specifics behind generalisations, as these are common tricks to get you to believe something even if, upon closer scrutiny, it turns out to not be very believable.