Thursday, May 5, 2011

Some excellent Websites dealing with Conspiracy Theories

Here's a round up of a few websites I've discovered that deal primarily or at least occasionally with the issue of conspiracy theories.

Mind Hacks is a mind science website that post frequently on issues relating to cognition. Always entertaining, very insightful, and sometimes hilarious.

A website I only discovered this evening because of a facebook friend Paul Kimball, who writes quite often about the paranormal and UFOs, is called Skeptico. It doesn't primarily deal with conpsiracy theories, but it does touch on that kind of thinking in many of its posts, so it's definitely worth checking. I look forward to reading/listening to more in the days ahead. Looks fascinating.

There's also the always good website that deals primarily with political issues, and of course one of their biggest fact checks has been about President Obama's birth certificate. Consistently good stuff here.

And then there's the more general fact checking website known as Snopes, which also has a great track record of exposing some truly bizarre conspiracy theories. They cover political, scientific, and just about every other cultural expression of bad thinking and crazy logic and amazing hoaxes.

And of course my favorite blog dealing with conspiracy issues has got to be Muertos, which has written extensively on the bizarre conspiracy theories associated with the Zeitgesit Movement, and it's spin off movement, the Venus Project. Thankfully it seem these crazy movements seem to be splitting apart amidst internal squabbling.

If you know of any other good websites dedicated to exploring conspiracy theories and their adherents and the psychology/sociology behind them, I'd very much appreciate the feedback. In a world filled with 9/11 Truthers, Obama Birthers, and now bin Laden Deathers, we need more than ever to work at helping those who are reality impaired and deeply fact aversive.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

James McGrath and Conspiracy Science

James McGrath has a fascinating piece about the interrelationship between those who believe in Young Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The mindset that drives belief in nonsense science, such as Intelligent Design or Young Earth Creationism, or the anti-Semitic "Protocols" conspiracy theory, seem to all derive from a desire to easily explain the complexity of the world through either arcane conspiracy theories or overly simplistic narratives that use cherry picked parts of history or science in order to preserve a preconceived notion, whether anti-scientific, anti-Semitic, or racist.

This isn't to say that the destructive force of each of these is identical. Those who believe in YEC or ID aren't typically inclined towards violent imaginations or actions, while many who buy into the "Protocols" do harbor a deep seated hatred towards a specific group (in this case Jews). But the consequences of this kind of thinking is to perpetuate a way of seeing the world that is deeply at odds with how it actually works. Real history and real science, while never perfect, have nonetheless given us a reasonable assessment of the role of specific factors in how the world works.

In both cases, whether in science or in history, these conspiratorial ways of seeing reality betray a deep hostility and fear of complexity. In the case of anti-Semites, they fear/hate Jews and project their fears and all of the world's woes onto an easily identified group, and ironically see them as both preternaturally intelligent and demonically evil, even though historically Jews have been consistently the out group no matter where they live outside of Israel, and have suffered terribly because of that.

In the case of science, the YEC or ID perspectives both posit a mechanism that sees any allowance of naturalistic causes to speciation, especially homo sapiens, as being inherently anti-Christian. And beyond this, there is the argument that modern evolutionary (and for some, astronomical) science is a cabal of academic insiders bent on keeping up scientific orthodoxy even in the light of contrary findings which supposedly subvert the basics of Darwin's theory. But this view is once again a conspiratorial way of seeing how scienceis done.

Both of these camps consistently fail to understand how proper historiography or scientific research is done. Ultimately it's a rather concrete and static understanding of historical and scientific investigation which is deeply Manichean and won't allow either any gray between the black and white, or an apprehensible reality, whether religious, scientific, or historical, between total comprehension or complete agnosticism. It seems reality is lived in the not quite satisfying middle ground of knowing enough to make sense of most of life.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

And the Psychosis Grows Deeper With Each Passing Day

Glenn Beck seems to be tottering on the edge of oblivion with this latest rant about the Middle East. It's truly hard to keep up with all of the "players" in his conspiratorial nightmare or wet dream. This may explain why he's now losing a third of his viewership from this time last year. And thankfully some conservatives are finally speaking out against his wild rantings. That's not to say they still don't have their own issues. They certainly do. But gladly bizarre conspiracy theories isn't one of them. Honestly, watching Glenn's latest full on vent has me wondering if he's one step away from a window ledge. I have enjoyed poking fun at his bizarreness but he really does seem to be on the edge of a total mental breakdown. What was fun to watch is becoming instead scary.

Friday, December 24, 2010

New Hawaii Governor Will Work to Disprove "Birther" Controversy, and Some Further Thoughts on the Dangerous Intersection of Conspiratorial Thinking and Extremism

The newly elected Governor of Hawaii, Neil Abercrombie, is planning on doing all he can to counteract the continuing "birther" controversy among anti-Obama conspiracy theorists. He knew the Obama's when Barack was only an infant, so he knows from personal experience that he was born there and not in Kenya (or in Indonesia, Mars, Alpha Centauri). The facts, as the article makes clear, have already proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the President was in fact born here in the U.S. on August 4, 1961 in Hawaii. But as anyone knows when dealing with a conspiracy theorist, "facts" don't really matter. Birthers, like any other conspiracists, are basically gnostic in how they see the world. They, and the few like them, have the "special" knowledge that explains how the world "really" works.

This is a type of Euclidean model of seeing and understanding history. It worked within a very small framework, but as we've grown in our understanding of the larger world, it became more and more distorted because of several basic flaws in its understanding of how the world really works. Eventually, it leads to wildly distorted theories having to constantly adjust "facts" so that the system can stay intact. Eventually as well, the person or group that holds to these basically flawed premises, either go mad or reject this understanding for something that actually coheres with reality more accurately. In other words, these conspiracy theorists need to have their own Copernican Revolution in their thinking. The world doesn't revolve around us, we revolve around it.

Likewise, this mindset is also driven by a deep seated fear and anxiety (often legitimate in unstable times), combined with a narcissistic and egocentric impulse which desperately needs a scapegoat so as to place blame on the "other" whoever that "other" may be. These people also tend to strongly believe the myth of their own innate innocence. This Myth of Innocence, cannot accept that they are ever guilty of wrong doing, whether as individuals or as a group. Therefore they see the world in sharply dichotomous terms, us/them, black/white, good/evil, etc. This Manichean mindset combined with the aforementioned Gnostic impulse makes for a powerful ideological and intellectual witches brew. It both shuts our any competing truth claims as being part of the vast conspiracy and reinforces the most extreme sentiments within the "in" group.

When conspiratorial thinking is combined with extremist thinking (they often do exist together, though not necessarily. There are numerous "mainstream" conspiracy theorists out there) this potentially deadly dance between these two impulses can lead to violence. Of course we've seen far too many examples already of that deadly dynamic at work, whether among radical Islamists, Christian Nationalists, Jewish Ultra-nationalists, or fringe groups/cults. For those who don't buy into these conspiracy theories, but who have friends or family who do, it's important to both share with them the relevant facts and sources, but also to listen to the concerns of the person who does buy into these theories. As mentioned above, the fear and anxiety driving these notions is often legitimate, caused by actual hardship in their lives and the lives of many around them. This combination of gently but firmly confronting them with facts and real knowledge while listening in a respectful way to their real concerns may be what it takes to walk them back from this dualistic and ultimately self destructive mentality.

But if a person or a group does go over the tipping point, the tactic does need to change. Those who are closest can and should continue to persuade them away from this mindset, but when conspiratorial thinking is combined with extremism it's also appropriate to observe more intentionally those who are thinking and acting this way. Just as a person who descends for neurosis into psychosis needs closer oversight and maybe even intervention, so groups of people likewise need to be monitored more closely and if need be, intercepted before violence breaks out. Now admittedly this very act of monitoring and intercepting will only reinforce the conspiratorial thinking of these people and groups. To some degree that's unavoidable and shouldn't deter public officials or even concerned friends/family from doing so.

Again, if a family member or friend comes to believe they're the Prophet Elijah and begins walking into heavy traffic convinced they're invincible, we don't stand by for fear of reinforcing their psychosis. We call the police or an ambulance so that they won't do themselves or anyone else any harm, even if in doing this we incur the wrath of that family member or friend. So likewise we must be diligent in confronting conspiracy theories not founded in reality, but fear and simplistic thinking. And we must do the same when it comes to extremist thinking, especially when it combines with conspiratorial thinking, since this combination has proven to be so dangerous time and time again.

In the New York Times' article above, it ends on the hopeful note of "letting the facts speak for themselves." I wish I could be so hopeful that letting the "facts speak for themselves" will be enough. Facts are obviously important, but we must take into account that humans are also just as driven by their passions as by their intellect. To the degree we don't take this into consideration our analysis and therefore our engagement will be inadequate at best, and may end up reinforcing the very dynamic we want to minimize.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Top Ten Racial Conspiracy Theories

A great, if deeply disturbing piece from The Root on The Top Ten Racial Conspiracy Theories. Most of the conspiracy theories are false, a few are true, but as with any conspiracy theory, we must maintain our critical thinking.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Herding Cats and Conspiracy Theories

An excellent essay about how conspiracy theorists get academia and experts so wrong. I just discovered this blog today, called Muertos's Blog, and I must say I'm impressed so far. I look forward to checking it out more. Even with what I've read today, I know I'll be going back for more. Oh, and a hat tip to James McGrath for the link.