Links and Comments: Obama; Conspiracy Theories; Big Government; Liberty

Guardian: review of Barack Obama’s new book.

Obama makes clear he believes the whiplash from the 44th to 45th president is no accident. On the contrary, the mere fact that an accomplished, intelligent, scandal-free black man inhabited the White House was enough to trigger his antithesis.

Of course. Trump. Dinesh D’Souza. And all the racist Republicans freaked out by a non-white president.


Nautilus: Why America Is Ripe for Election Conspiracy Theorizing.

Can people become less susceptible to believing conspiracy theories? Perhaps. One of the things that underlie conspiratorial thinking is a teleological bias, the tendency to see intention or planning where it doesn’t exist. A 2018 study found that this bias, “a resilient ‘default’ component of early cognition” that shapes adult intuitions, is associated with both creationist and conspiracist beliefs. Both of these, the researchers wrote, “entail the distant and hidden involvement of a purposeful and final cause to explain complex worldly events.”

What makes people susceptible to conspiracy theories isn’t healthy skepticism, a sensitivity to evidence joined to a sense of proportion. It’s a skepticism that’s abetted by political sectarianism and, as Cichocka explains, exacerbated by society-deranging events like the onset of COVID-19. It’s “created a perfect storm for vulnerability to conspiracy narratives,” she wrote. “Uncertainty and anxiety are high. Lockdown and social distancing bring isolation. People struggling to understand this unprecedented time might reach for extraordinary explanations.”


Vox: Conspiracy theories, explained

There’s no hard evidence that conspiracy theories are circulating more widely today than ever before. But over the past five years, it has certainly seemed like average Americans have bought into them more and more. Surveys within the past year have shown that a quarter of US citizens believe the mainstream media is lying to them about Covid-19, and that it is “definitely” or “probably true” that the outbreak was intentionally planned.

Meanwhile, the headline-grabbing QAnon, a conspiracy theory that evolved from Pizzagate and posits that Trump has been working in secret to capture high-powered figures who are engaged in child abduction and trafficking, is still a niche belief. But a quarter of those who know what it is think there’s at least some truth to it, and that number is growing rapidly as the QAnon theory begins to converge with Covid-19 theories.

As 2020 enters the home stretch, new conspiracy theories seem to keep coming up. The latest? Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud during the presidential election, which many of his followers are echoing, despite zero evidence, in any state, to support the assertion.

Long essay. Major points:

  • Sociopolitical turbulence tends to generate conspiracies
  • The modern misinformation crisis allows conspiracy theories to flourish
  • More people are profiting off the spread of conspiracy theories than ever
  • Conspiracy theories are resistance-proof — and increasingly disruptive
  • Conspiracy theories aren’t easy to stop — but empathy for believers is a crucial first step

The third is key, I suspect.


Why global problems like the pandemic [and climate change] require big government. (As I’ve been saying.)

NYT: The Pandemic Is Showing Us How Capitalism Is Amazing, and Inadequate, subtitled, “Why big business needs big government and vice versa.”

It may seem like a trivial case of a company and an administration each claiming credit for some happy news. But it speaks to a deeper reality the pandemic has revealed — both what is amazing about capitalism, and how the free market alone comes up short in solving enormous problems.

The nine months of the pandemic have shown that in a modern state, capitalism can save the day — but only when the government exercises its power to guide the economy and act as the ultimate absorber of risk. The lesson of Covid capitalism is that big business needs big government, and vice versa.


From before and during my hospital stay.

NYT, 25 Oct: How to Talk to Friends and Family Who Share Conspiracy Theories, subtitled, “Fringe movements will persist long after Election Day. Here’s how to help.”


  • Ask where the information is coming from.
  • Create some cognitive dissonance.
  • Debunking is difficult.
  • Don’t debate on Facebook.
  • Mocking and scolding don’t work.
  • Know when to walk away.


NYT, Paul Krugman, 22 Oct: When Libertarianism Goes Bad. (Print title: How Many Americans Will Ayn Rand Kill?) Subtitle: “Liberty doesn’t mean freedom to infect other people.”

But why does this keep happening? Why does America keep making the same mistakes?

Donald Trump’s disastrous leadership is, of course, an important factor. But I also blame Ayn Rand — or, more generally, libertarianism gone bad, a misunderstanding of what freedom is all about.

But you also see a lot of libertarian rhetoric — a lot of talk about “freedom” and “personal responsibility.” Even politicians willing to say that people should cover their faces and avoid indoor gatherings refuse to use their power to impose rules to that effect, insisting that it should be a matter of individual choice.

Which is nonsense.

Many things should be matters of individual choice. The government has no business dictating your cultural tastes, your faith or what you decide to do with other consenting adults.

But refusing to wear a face covering during a pandemic, or insisting on mingling indoors with large groups, isn’t like following the church of your choice. It’s more like dumping raw sewage into a reservoir that supplies other people’s drinking water.

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