It was a balmy Saturday night in the spring of 2006, when I was in the midst of the most exciting adventure of my life! I’m referring to my run for the democratic nomination for Congress in New York State’s 20th Congressional District. I was joined in my efforts that year by several other hopefuls and raising money was critical. On that particular evening, my campaign had organized a fundraiser at an off-Broadway play about one of my heroes, Robert F. Kennedy.
The play was inspiring, and reaffirmed why I was running in the first place. We didn’t raise much money but everyone had a fabulous time. After the play, my team and I went to a nearby diner to celebrate. No sooner had we been seated when a man approached us, who had apparently been observing our movements the entire evening. Standing rather stiffly, and after looking around several times, he proceeded to bombard us with a litany of warnings, which referenced every conspiracy theory popular at the time. He was careful to include the semi-fashionable idea that the government had orchestrated the September 11 attacks. We were relieved he did not consider us part of “the conspiracy.” His diatribe was full of certainty, intensity and paranoia, and was profoundly unsettling. We were not alarmed by his claims, which were patently absurd, but rather by the fact that a seemingly intelligent man could hold these beliefs with such fervor. Unfortunately, his delusional ramblings have, today, become par for the course.
Irrational belief in bizarre and extraordinary phenomena is as old as humankind itself. I’m sure you’ve heard of some of the more outlandish claims circulating today:
• 9/11 is a complete hoax with the so-called victims now living in hidden tunnels under the former world trade center;
• The government controls the weather and orchestrates every storm and climate disaster;
• The Pope and the Queen of England secretly control all world events;
• The shootings in our schools never happened and the children we see in the videos are actors;
• The former democratic nominee for President was operating a child sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza shop in Pennsylvania;
• The moon landing was a hoax.
The scope of these conspiracy theories is, however, not limited to politics:
• Nostradamus predicated J.F.K.’s assassination as well as 9/11;
• Herbs cure AIDS;
• Tarot cards can predict the future;
• Magnet therapy works;
• Levitation is possible;
• Some people have ESP;
• Crystals can heal.
For as long as our species has existed, there has been a tension between wishful thinking and the need to laboriously sift through the evidence before committing to a reasoned belief. Mark Twain put it this way, “In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second hand and without examination from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second hand from other non examiners, whose opinions about them was not worth a brass farthing.” Although I am not sure what the value of a brass farthing is, I do believe he has a point.
It would seem obvious that to solve the complicated problems of the world, we would need to employ our most valuable resource: our brains. Yet, the world is full of people who are willing to adopt and embrace theories that are clearly irrational and, often, dangerous. People do this for a myriad of reasons.
Once someone has espoused a belief system, especially one associated with a conspiracy theory, “confirmation bias” ensures that that this individual will uncritically accept as “fact” any idea that corresponds with that theory. Events that seem to validate one’s belief are underlined and remembered while conflicting information is discarded and forgotten. In this way, conspiracy theorists can operate under the illusion that a massive amount of evidence supports their view when, in reality, the totality of evidence may point in a completely different direction.
It is also true that, in a world of accelerating change with an overwhelming amount of information, it is comforting to “bundle” large chunks of data into conveniently labeled categories. In prior columns, I have voiced my frustration over nonsensical sayings like, “everything happens for a reason” or “it wasn’t his time”. Similar to conspiracy theories, these slogans, reflect a world view if believed, explains everything. In so doing, they relieve us of the responsibility of sifting through the evidence and making the most rational, evidence-based judgment. It is certainly reassuring to have reality explained so simply and so completely.
There are other reasons why fanatical belief systems are on the rise. Possessing an all-encompassing conspiratorial worldview is empowering. The holder of such beliefs feels superior and authoritative because this person possesses knowledge none of us have. I recall one particular college classmate who had read Das Kapital and became a Marxist overnight. No matter what the conversation, all of reality was chiseled into a Marxist analysis of dialectical materialism and every sentence ended with words like, class struggle or dictatorship of the proletariat. There was no room for even the slightest deviation.
The appeal of conspiracy theories is also that they seem to clarify so much with so little. Like a comfortable pair of glasses, they put everything into particular focus. For example, one of the longstanding paranoid conspiracy theories is that the Freemasons did it. Freemasons are one of the oldest and largest fraternal organizations in the world. Their meetings are restricted to members only. They have been blamed for everything from the French Revolution to Jack the Ripper. The anti-Freemason theory is simple and easy to understand, and is built on a series of assumptions: 1) the Freemasons are out to control the world; 2) their central governing body coordinates the activities of individual Masons worldwide; and 3) each member must do their bidding without question. Utilizing critical thinking and examining each assumption on the merits, it becomes clear that not one of these claims has a shred of evidence behind it. Like a house of cards, the case against the Freemasons falls apart, when examined critically.
Besides helping us avoid conspiracy theories, critical thinking is important for other reasons. The quality of our lives is determined by the quality of our decisions. Our decisions are as wise as the accuracy of the “information” we have when we make them. False information leads to bad decisions, which will inevitably impact our lives negatively. Irrational beliefs threaten our individual well being as well as our social well being.
There is one final reason why we need to think critically. Most of us can’t help it. Our species is instinctively compelled to seek the truth. Our greatest tool in this undertaking is our ability to reason. Like putting a puzzle together, it’s also fun. For these reasons, I hope to apply the lens of critical thinking in future columns to topics such as ESP, ghosts, the paranormal and other interesting subjects, so that we may continue to exercise this vital skill.