Conspiracy theories are for nitwits

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Ledger Columnist Bruce Anderson in Lakeland Fl  Thursday December 22,2022.Ernst Peters/The Ledger
Ledger Columnist Bruce Anderson in Lakeland Fl Thursday December 22,2022.Ernst Peters/The Ledger

I had a great experience this week.  A friend over in the philosophy department brought in a speaker and I actually stirred myself from grading and went.

I assigned it to all my classes – from my methods class through “Politics and The Media” and “Law and The Courts.” I hadn’t thought to assign it to my grad students in policy, but would have, if I’d been paying more attention. I like to think that I do not assign people to sit through speeches at random - only things that have a direct focus on the subject to hand. The speaker was one who can best be described as a specialist in conspiracy theory, and the discussion was one centered on evidence, and its importance in explaining phenomenon.

One nasty seepage of the technology revolution is that pretty much everyone can publish whatever they like. While this has always been marginally true, the crackpots and lunatics have, in the past, been limited by their access to an audience – but no more. Any half-wit with a general knowledge of social media can become a star – an “influencer” – and not all of the folks who do so are harmless. The edges of Twitter, Instagram, even tired old Facebook, are populated with wannabe celebrities of the small screen with millions of them jostling for the limited attention spans of the unwashed consumers.

The race to crazy – to outrageous – has never been more crowded. The weirder, the more outrageous the claims, the more ‘clicks’ and the more famous (or infamous) they become. And many are politically inclined. After all, politics is often where crazy lives, and crazy politics has a long history and tradition in the USA.

While most of these people are laughable, there are some who are downright amazing – the webs they spin between unrelated data points are astonishing. They usually reveal some vast, interconnected intrigue to take away our guns, our cars, our “liberty,” plant 5G cell towers to spy on us, surgically insert chips in our brains, inject us with medicines that will make us docile or stupid or turn us into bloodthirsty reptilian parasites. Lies, of course, and mostly stuff the rather more reasonable, even on a dark and mysterious night, can safely dismiss.

The attraction of conspiracy theories is that they explain a lot with simple one-variable explanations: such and such is happening because an evil force wills it to be so, gathers their minions together, and perpetrates it. The government, when it is not the one hatching these nefarious plots, is in the know, but fears the secret getting out because we’d all fly apart in a panic.

“Deep state” theories: creepy little people shut away in dark subterranean cubicles of the bureaucracy, plotting and scheming to subvert the will of real patriots. The plots are complicated, but the cause is almost always simple: it’s some vulnerable group of people the inventor chooses to blame.

And this is when it becomes dangerous.

This is when all the evil little trolls we’ve all perpetually ignored suddenly break the surface and are interviewed on the news, in the paper; their weirdness going viral. In an earlier period, they would never have had the reach. There are only one in a thousand who would take most of this toxic swill seriously, but in a nation of 334 million, with most of them on Twitter or Tik-Tok, that makes for a pretty serious audience - attracted like proverbial moths to a flamethrower.

Life is complicated. Explanations for human behavior are difficult and complex. As tempting as it is to blame the woes of the world on some secret plot by a convenient scapegoat, facts are, in fact, facts. Conspiracy theory is for nitwits. Not us.

Bruce Anderson is the Dr. Sarah D. and L. Kirk McKay Jr. Endowed Chair in American History, Government, and Civics and Miller Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Florida Southern College.  He is also a columnist for The Ledger.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Conspiracy theories are for nitwits