Author Topic: Conspiracy theories; Religions of the Information Age  (Read 1482 times)

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Offline JamieStanton

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Conspiracy theories; Religions of the Information Age
« on: April 19, 2011, 07:07:25 PM »
I wanted to share my thoughts on the nature of conspiracy theories, any my concerns at the Skeptic community’s reaction to the challenges they pose.

In the modern age, we’re bombarded with massive (and exponentially increasing) amounts of information. On paper, that should mean we’re getting smarter. In reality, it means we find it harder and harder to make sense of the world because it requires more and more analysis of incoming information. Information overload causes stress. Stress leads us to switch off. Of course, many people retreat into convenient narratives to help explain things. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

I think it is a natural inclination of us to use narrative to explain events n our lives, and we are masters of doing so after the fact (i.e. Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s “Narrative Fallacy”). Propagandists and marketing experts are well aware of this, as are the peddlers of religion. You all know as much too. But as religions decline in the West, we still yearn to have narratives to help explain things. Political ideologies go some of the way to filling this vacuum. New age belief systems do a better job of explaining the world “ holistically”. But hands down the greatest job of explaining the blizzard of information that fills the modern world are conspiracy theories.

For every event that happens in the world, for every catastrophe and disaster, for every scrap of historical information you come across, there is one entity behind it all; the New World Order. The NWO is the malevolent God that rules the world, the evil entity that is cause every earthquake and tornado via their HAARP super-weapon, behind every disaster there is the sinister hands of their brainwashed agents, behind every war - however unforseen - they have shadowy and ever changing goals. Every plague. Every law enacted. Every change in a world of accelerating change.

In this sci-fi reinvention of Christianity The NWO is the omnipresent God of Hate, who listens to you via your mobile phone and watches you with eyes in space. They hate you and they’re coming for your children. To implant you with microchips. The enslave you. I watched a video the other day saying they could kill you via the television, and with light-bulbs. This is all lulz to us, but to those who hang on his every word, it is paranoia bordering on superstition.

Heretics are crushed and sidelined. Alex Jones - the Grand Ayatollah of the Conspiracy Theory cult - will not entertain any form of Heresy. He called Noam Chomsky a NWO Shill when he was in favour of Gun Control. He brands Julian Assange is an “MK-Ultra Zombie” because his leaks do not confirm the “truth” of the NWO masterplan. Most interestingly, he is constantly mocked Peter Joseph, founder of the now imploded Zeitgeist Movement / Cult, after seemingly identifying him as a false prophet or some such. 

And here is my worry.

While many in the Skeptic community is locked in in well trodden battles with creationists and homeopaths, the most dangerous force against Reason is being given a free ride. Alex Jones alone produces over an hour of video a day weaving his narrative even tighter, and his fleet of websites filter massive amounts of information through his distorted lens. Part of what I do professionally is online marketing, and this guy could teach most of the people in the industry a thing or two.

He and his organisation are staggeringly adept with online marketing technologies. I’ve followed Alex Jones for over ten years, and in that time I’ve seen him grow from a sidelined eccentric to a growing force in the US. Glen Beck was effectively ripping him off (much to Jones annoyance). Donald Trump is now leading in the Republican Presidential nominations, on the back of Birther conspiracies.  These ideas are seeping into the mainstream.

And of course they are. Jones is has prophesied disaster in one form or another for over a decade. Disaster of some form is of course inevitable, but the financial disaster and 9/11 before it were taken as proofs of his prophesies coming true. There is a market for this, because people are suffering in the current economic climate and are looking for answers. Simple answers, in a nice digestible narrative tablet form. Alex, the great showman, offers the illusion of being well informed while tightly controlling what his followers are allowed to believe.

But for all of his information, I see very little skepticism online to counter this other than a few, tumbleweed strewn outposts like Conspiracy Science. He and his guests (who 99% of the time are there to reinforce his worldview) get away with the most amazing and bold and outlandish statements, peddle their DVDs and books with no criticism by Jones, and very little attention by the Skeptic community*. Jones regular guests, such as Webster Tarpley, Lindsay Williams, Max Keiser, Gerald Celente and so on, also have very little in the way of critical analysis online. This needs to change.

So in summary, Conspiracy Theories - or Illuminatism - is filling the void left by religion. And while Skeptics and Atheists focus their attention on the old religions, new ones are growing in thier place while our backs are turned.
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*There is a fair amount about well trodden subjects like 911, but not on newer claims and interpretations of world events. Perhaps there is elsewhere on line, but I have not found much of it. Please let me know if there is anything major I have missed.
« Last Edit: April 19, 2011, 07:14:01 PM by JamieStanton »
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Offline JoelWhy

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Re: Conspiracy theories; Religions of the Information Age
« Reply #1 on: April 21, 2011, 12:31:32 PM »
Damn that's a long post.  Long story short, plenty of skeptics are responding to conspiracy theories.
"I distrust those people who know so well what god wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires." - Susan B. Anthony

Offline Cowtown Cody

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Re: Conspiracy theories; Religions of the Information Age
« Reply #2 on: April 21, 2011, 06:49:39 PM »
I've been thinking about how to respond to this since yesterday. 

The size of the community interested in combatting woo is small compared to the size of the community advancing it.  The sheer number of snake oil peddlers and uncritical believers dwarfs the skeptic community by a huge margin.  I think that's the case when it comes to conspiracy theories too; the number of peddlers and believers is much larger than the number of people interested in taking them to task.  But, I also think comparably few people believe in conspiracy theories.  Smaller number of them, smaller number of us interested in rebutting them.

That said, there are some other reasons, I think, that those people get challenged less.  First, more people dismiss them out of hand as lunatics.  Everyone thinks they know something about politics, and everyone is entirely willing to ignore someone else's point of view in favor of their own.  I think democratic societies encourage exactly that behavior too, by encouraging people to participate and reinforcing the idea that people should only participate if they think they know something.  We do this all the damn time in politics, because so few people who care about political questions are willing to admit they know fairly little.  That's not quite the same in medicine.

I think there's also a broadly held notion that someone's politics are values and hence they shouldn't be attacked in a pluralistic society.  And so we don't, kind of ignoring the fact that their values appear to be based on worthless evidence.  And there's such a wealth of political theory and so little honest testing of it  that someone can put forward basically any theory and it will appear to have as much credibility as something that a real political scientist like Keohane or Mearsheimer put forward. 

The end result of those two things is that everyone has a pet theory that may well be baseless leading them to a set of value conclusions, and society seems to regard them all as equally legitimate.

Offline SnobGoblin

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Re: Conspiracy theories; Religions of the Information Age
« Reply #3 on: April 21, 2011, 09:19:17 PM »
No one on this forum hates conspiracy theories more than I do. They harm democratic ideals and do damage to rational thought.

So many conspiracy theorists are inflexible in the way they think and refuse to consider alternatives to their beliefs. This seems ridiculous since they call people who disagree with them sheep. These people I describe as 'sheep switching sides'. The fact that I investigated the claims for my self put me in a tiny minority of conspiracy theorists.

Indeed conspiracy theorists often have religious levels of conviction. It's dangerous to claim certainty on these kinds of issues, but since it is so fanatical in nature, it seems to reflect a psychological rather than a rational certainty. Maybe their beliefs reflect their psychological states?

Interestingly enough; Professor Chris French and Dr Patrick Leman's research has found that you are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories if:

1. You have low levels of trust.
2. You are alienated from society.
3. You are prone to assumption

http://www.antifascistencyclopedia.com/allposts/dr-patrick-leman-new-scientists-debunker-of-conspiracy-theories-and-the-nazi-history-of-the-nuffield-foundation-which-funds-dr-leman
« Last Edit: April 21, 2011, 09:28:27 PM by SnobGoblin »
"The problem with the world is not that people know too little, it's that they know too much that ain't so." - Mark Twain


Offline JuniorSpaceman

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Re: Conspiracy theories; Religions of the Information Age
« Reply #4 on: April 21, 2011, 11:25:10 PM »
Interesting post, Jamie.  I also hate conspiracy theories, not least because I've found out that a couple of old friends have found themselves down various rabbit holes. 

I agree that CTs have the hallmarks of religion - most importantly a clear division between good and evil, and also the 'hidden knowledge' held by the prophet and his followers - but I also think that there are different types of theory. There are some that are purely politically or ideologically motivated (eg Birthers: pro-Rep, anti-Dem; Holocaust denial: anti-Semitic), as well as some that are knee jerk 'the government lies, so if the government said something happened, it must be a lie' (eg Moon Hoax; Truthers).

Like fascism in the early part of the 20th Century, which drew on long standing religious hatreds, and utilised them in a political way, the NWO conspiracy theories get their power from existing narratives, as well as unarguable truths.  It's unfortunate that governments really are self-serving, often stupid and rule for the sake of ruling, rather than for the benefit of their society.  It's the job of skeptics, I think, to point out to 'true believers' that there are explanations for events other than the 'grand conspiracy'.

As so much of the NWO story has to do with selective pattern recognition (eg how many times the pyramid or eye appear in popular culture), one of the best ways of immunising people from the effects of CT thinking is to educate them about how the human brain operates - how it seeks out patterns in chaos, and agency in non-sentience - so that they'll notice that not only eyes appear everywhere, but so do a whole lot of other things that have nothing to do with the Illuminati, or the Freemasons.  This is somewhat like countering 'The Bible Code' by showing that even more impressive results can be achieved with 'Moby Dick' or 'Demon Haunted World' - a true believer will still have their beliefs, but they will  have one less piece of 'special, obvious, genuine' evidence to support those beliefs.

Offline SnobGoblin

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Re: Conspiracy theories; Religions of the Information Age
« Reply #5 on: April 21, 2011, 11:37:41 PM »
As so much of the NWO story has to do with selective pattern recognition (eg how many times the pyramid or eye appear in popular culture), one of the best ways of immunising people from the effects of CT thinking is to educate them about how the human brain operates - how it seeks out patterns in chaos, and agency in non-sentience - so that they'll notice that not only eyes appear everywhere, but so do a whole lot of other things that have nothing to do with the Illuminati, or the Freemasons.

The "patterns" mean nothing. You can find similarities in lots of crap. Conspiracy theorists just suffer from apophenia.

http://www.skepdic.com/apophenia.html
"The problem with the world is not that people know too little, it's that they know too much that ain't so." - Mark Twain


 

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