Links and Comments: Politics and Conspiracy Theories; Epistemology

Another batch of links and comments, again on topics of politics and conspiracy theories, not because I’m trying to dissuade anyone in particular of any such beliefs (let alone supernatural ones), but because all these examples (more and more of them, for months and months!) raise epistemological questions about how people know what is so. Or think they do.

Why are so many MAGA Republicans convinced that if their candidate didn’t win the presidential race, it must be because of fraud? Can they simply not imagine, or are they not aware of, how much of the country’s population consider Trumps an incompetent, dangerous buffoon, and would vote him out of office after one term (even for the milquetoast candidate Joe Biden)?

How do people reach the conclusions they do, especially about conspiracy theories? Do they not wonder why people who believe the opposite of what they do come up with their conclusions? Don’t Flat Earthers wonder why most of the world’s population “believes” (understands) that the world is not flat?

I have several tentative conclusions: people do in fact isolate themselves in ‘bubbles’ of similar believers, which is to say, most people do not actually think through what they decide to “believe” (and/or are massively uneducated in the complexities of the world), they accept what their tribe (family/community/congregation/political party) tells them is true, and they go along to show allegiance to that tribe. And if they harbor private doubts, they don’t speak them, since community bonding is more important than acknowledging reality.


From back in September, a big issue of Time magazine about the issues of 2020 included this one: How Conspiracy Theories Are Shaping the 2020 Election—and Shaking the Foundation of American Democracy.

We’re told about a hairdresser in Wisconsin who’s done her “research.”

When I ask what she means by research, something shifts. Her voice has the same honey tone as before, and her face is as friendly as ever. But there’s an uncanny flash as she says, “This is where I don’t know what I can say, because what’s integrated into our system, it stems deep. And it has to do with really corrupt, evil, dark things that have been hidden from the public. Child sex trafficking is one of them.”

Echoes of QAnon.

None of this is even remotely true. But an alarming number of Americans have been exposed to these wild ideas. There are thousands of QAnon groups and pages on Facebook, with millions of members, according to an internal company document reviewed by NBC News. Dozens of QAnon-friendly candidates have run for Congress, and at least three have won GOP primaries. Trump has called its adherents “people that love our country.”

Two women in Ozaukee County calmly informed me that an evil cabal operates tunnels under the U.S. in order to rape and torture children and drink their blood.

So what’s going on here? Part of this is ignorance about how the world works; part of this, I think, is kneejerk resentment of the educated “elites” who are supposedly running everything, and disrespecting the values of the flyover masses. (Hey, I’m a college-educated west-coat elite, why didn’t I get the memo?)

It’s hard to know exactly why people believe what they believe. Some had clearly been exposed to QAnon conspiracy theorists online. Others seemed to be repeating false ideas espoused in Plandemic, a pair of conspiracy videos featuring a discredited former medical researcher that went viral, spreading the notion that COVID-19 is a hoax across social media. (COVID-19 is not a hoax.) When asked where they found their information, almost all these voters were cryptic: “Go online,” one woman said. “Dig deep,” added another. They seemed to share a collective disdain for the mainstream media–a skepticism that has only gotten stronger and deeper since 2016. The truth wasn’t reported, they said, and what was reported wasn’t true.

And most of these delusions come from voters on the right. Perspective: this is a pattern in American history (perhaps related to the idea of American exceptionalism?).

American politics has always been prone to spasms of conspiracy. The historian Richard Hofstadter famously called it “an arena for angry minds.” In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Americans were convinced that the Masons were an antigovernment conspiracy; populists in the 1890s warned of the “secret cabals” controlling the price of gold; in the 20th century, McCarthyism and the John Birch Society fueled a wave of anti-Communist delusions that animated the right. More recently, Trump helped seed a racist lie that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.

Why especially now?

The rise in conspiratorial thinking is the product of several interrelated trends: declining trust in institutions; demise of local news; a social-media environment that makes rumor easy to spread and difficult to debunk; a President who latches onto anything and anyone he thinks will help his political fortunes. It’s also a part of our wiring. “The brain likes crazy,” says Nicco Mele, the former director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, who studies the spread of online disinformation and conspiracies. Because of this, experts say, algorithms on platforms like Facebook and YouTube are designed to serve up content that reinforces existing beliefs–learning what users search for and feeding them more and more extreme content in an attempt to keep them on their sites.

So again: social media spreads memes that are welcomed by anti-elitism resentment, motivated thinking, and conspiratorial thinking.

I also think that ideas about massive conspiracies are fed by popular media: super-hero and James Bonds thrillers, which depict single evil guys as capable of wielding vast schemes to control the world.

These are comic book stories. They are attractive because they reduce the world to simple, reductionist terms of black and white, evil and good. They are fantasies.


From UK newspaper The Guardian: It’s only fake-believe: how to deal with a conspiracy theorist, subtitled, “As the pandemic has taken a grip, so have the misinformation spreaders. Here are five ways to spot the holes in their logic.”

This piece presumes you can reason with people who are committed to conspiracy theories, which usually you can’t.

Certain niches of internet are already rife with the “plandemic” theory, which alleges that the spread of the virus has been designed to create big bucks for pharmaceutical companies and the philanthropist Bill Gates (whose charity is funding many of the efforts). The idea has been debunked numerous times, whereas there is good evidence that conspiracy theorists such as David Icke are themselves reaping huge profits from spreading misinformation. The danger, of course, is that their ideas will discourage people from taking the vaccine, leaving them vulnerable to the actual disease.

Note comment about David Icke.

Here are the five points:

  1. Hunting an invisible dragon. (This evokes Carl Sagan’s famous thought experiement, about claiming to have a dragon in the garage which, whenever evidence for its existence is asked for, an explanation for why such evidence not possible is presented.)
  2. Fake authority. (About quacks. They can always be found, just like YouTube videos to ‘prove’ anything.)
  3. Coincidence or covert operations? (Many things are just coincidences, not evidence of evil plots.)
  4. False equivalence. (Why, e.g., deaths from coronavirus are not comparable to car crash deaths.)
  5. The thought-terminating cliche. (E.g., “You can prove anything with statistics,” and resigning from the debate.)


NYT, David Brooks (a former Republican): The Rotting of the Republican Mind, subtitled “When one party becomes detached from reality.”

In a recent Monmouth University survey, 77 percent of Trump backers said Joe Biden had won the presidential election because of fraud. Many of these same people think climate change is not real. Many of these same people believe they don’t need to listen to scientific experts on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

We live in a country in epistemological crisis, in which much of the Republican Party has become detached from reality. Moreover, this is not just an American problem. All around the world, rising right-wing populist parties are floating on oceans of misinformation and falsehood. What is going on?

Not the Internet, he thinks. “Why would the internet have corrupted Republicans so much more than Democrats, the global right more than the global left?” Very broadly, he’s speaking about an “epistemic regime” that, as it happens (in my reading of it), aligns with the coastal elite/flyover country dichotomy, after all.

Over the past decades the information age has created a lot more people who make their living working with ideas, who are professional members of this epistemic process. The information economy has increasingly rewarded them with money and status. It has increasingly concentrated them in ever more prosperous metro areas.

Thus, “intense populist backlashes against the highly educated folks who have migrated to the cities and accrued significant economic, cultural and political power.”

For those awash in anxiety and alienation, who feel that everything is spinning out of control, conspiracy theories are extremely effective emotional tools. For those in low status groups, they provide a sense of superiority: I possess important information most people do not have. For those who feel powerless, they provide agency: I have the power to reject “experts” and expose hidden cabals. As Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School points out, they provide liberation: If I imagine my foes are completely malevolent, then I can use any tactic I want.


What to do? You can’t argue people out of paranoia. If you try to point out factual errors, you only entrench false belief. The only solution is to reduce the distrust and anxiety that is the seedbed of this thinking. That can only be done first by contact, reducing the social chasm between the members of the epistemic regime and those who feel so alienated from it. And second, it can be done by policy, by making life more secure for those without a college degree.

Rebuilding trust is, obviously, the work of a generation.


About politics in general. E.J. Dionne, Jr. in WaPo: Why they fight, subtitled “The Democrats are a big-tent party. The GOP isn’t. That explains everything.”

Republicans fight Democrats while Democrats battle each other. These contrasting behaviors reflect a simple fact: Democrats are a big-tent party, while Republicans are a closed circle. For more than a half-century, Republicans have purged dissenters and turned themselves into a rigid, radical, unified bloc — ideologically, racially, religiously. As the Republicans cast off free-thinkers, Democrats took them in.

And this goes back to the 1960s “backlash against civil rights and a New Right.”


MSN: Why Republican voters say there’s ‘no way in hell’ Trump lost.

So again: why would anything think so, given all the expert opinions, even from Republican officials, that the election was the most secure in American history?

Many voters interviewed by Reuters said they formed their opinions by watching emergent right-wing media outlets such as Newsmax and One American News Network that have amplified Trump’s fraud claims. Some have boycotted Fox News out of anger that the network called Biden the election winner and that some of its news anchors – in contrast to its opinion show stars – have been skeptical of Trump’s fraud allegations.

As with YouTube videos, you can find anything to support your preconceived belief, no matter how loony. Now we’re seeing cable channels become popular that parrot back the conspiracy theories of Trump die-hards who won’t accept the truth.

Sample reactions from Trump voters:

“You are going to tell me 77 million Americans voted for him [Biden]? There is just no way,” said Fontaine, 50.

“There’s millions and millions of Trump votes that were just thrown out,” said Hedrick, 70, a retired teacher and librarian. “That computer was throwing them out.”

“I think if they ever get to the bottom of it, they will find massive fraud,” said another of the diners, Larry Kessel, a 67-year-old farmer.

“If I’m being manipulated by Trump … then he is the greatest con man that ever lived in America,” Caleb Fryar said. “I think he’s the greatest patriot that ever lived.”

Claims based on no evidence whatsoever. (In contrast to the vast amount of evidence of his being a con man.) That’s why many of us call Trump supporters a cult, who regard their leader as incapable of error, as perfect in every way, as godlike, who can do no wrong.


Enough for today.

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