It is better to be too skeptical than too credulous.
– Carl Sagan
I was fortunate, in my formative years, to have developed what I call a BS Detector. Carl Sagan (quoted above), who is one of my all-time greatest heroes, calls it a “Baloney Detection Kit.” Mine was mostly developed in college I’d say, but started in high school while listening to, of all things, heavy metal music. I fashioned myself a bit of a rebel, as it were. “Question Authority” and all that. The beauty of the BS Detector is that we all have one, and it’s easy to use. The results of using it, however, can be hard for some people to deal with.
It should come as no surprise to you, dear reader, that you should never believe everything you read, see, or hear. Well, with the exception of what you’re reading now, of course. But of late, my BS Detector has been working overtime. The conspiracy theories, the misinformation, the outlandish statistics, and the outright lies are just getting really out of hand. So bad, in fact, I have to distract my mind with rainbows, kittens, and puppies just to stop myself from becoming a complete misanthrope.
It’s no mystery that the media has changed over the past 30 years. Gone are the Walter Cronkites, and the Edward R. Murrows. They’ve been replaced by pundits, blogs, and partisan-backed media channels. I really want to avoid politics in this post; so please don’t jump to any conclusions about my slant. There are lies spewing out from the entire political spectrum. I am an equal opportunity blogger: I’m criticizing everyone.
I want to talk specifically about Conspiracy Theories in this post. Part 2 will be about statistics in the media, and Part 3 will be some final thoughts and I’ll give some pointers abut freethinking and using your BS Detector without pissing people off.
So let’s start with a real-life example. Last week, I had a guy approach me and start a sentence with a very nonchalant, “So, when they shut down the internet . . .”
Shut down the internet?
When someone says something so mind-numbingly ridiculous, there is a point where my BS Detector pegs the needle so hard, my brain actually shuts down for a second, probably out of the need for self-preservation.
Anyway, once I recovered, I had this man explain. I’ll spare you the details, but apparently, he believes that, “the Obama administration is looking to install an internet control system like they have in North Korea and will shut down the internet on anyone who violates the controls.”
Dear reader, we share the planet with people like this. I see this guy every day.
Why are some people so willing to believe such nonsense? How do they live like that? My theory is that we humans have a need for things to be far more interesting than they really are. It would be so much more interesting if Elvis really did live. It would be so much more interesting if the government really did cover up an alien crash landing in Roswell in 1947. Additionally, we all have what’s called a confirmation bias that keeps us believing what we want to believe. This confirmation bias, by the way, is the antithesis to the BS Detector. You need to keep that tendency to a minimum.
Take a look now at conspiracy whack-job Alex Jones, who pretty much comes up with a new conspiracy theory every week. He has an “underground” radio show and two websites. I refuse to link them due to the whack-job factor, but if you want to check him out, use Google to your advantage. You’ll know his websites when you see them, and to be on the safe side, I wouldn’t visit them at work. You’ve been warned.
And before you go crying “foul” on me, yes, he’s been characterized as a “Right Wing” conspiracy theorist, but due to his history, I don’t think he cares who’s in Office. No one is safe from his theorizing. Thus, he’s just a straight whack-job in general to me. So, in my mind, he’s free game to use as an example here.
His list of conspiracy theories include:
- 9/11 was an inside job.
- Government-based Health Care death panels.
- The aforementioned “Obama’s shutting down the internet” conspiracy.
- FEMA’s secret building of concentration camps.
- Man-made Global Warming is a hoax.
- His take on the “New World Order” conspiracy.
- And, get this, a conspiracy theory about the “World Government” suppression of conspiracy theories. (Youtube link)
. . . And the list goes on.
These types of people used to be written off as part of the “lunatic fringe”. But these people now get air time on “more conventional” (emphasis on the quotes) news media outlets and people like Jones’ faux “documentation” to “prove” their theories, dupe otherwise ordinary people into entertaining his complete bullshit.
Two facts about career conspiracy theorists (Alex Jones is not the first, nor the only), are as follows:
- The conspiracy theory is usually impossible to disprove (though keep in mind there is no real evidence for it either). Conspiracy theorists go by the “Since no one can disprove it, it must be true” fallacy.
- If the conspiracy theory is disproved, they are already off on another one for the masses to buy into.
People like this are well-aware of these facts, and they get a lot of notoriety and make a lot of money doing it.
Debunking conspiracy theories:
- Consider the source. If they have something to gain from it, such as a Political Agenda, money, ego-feeding followers, or all three, it’s a count against the theory.
- If it sounds outlandish, it probably is.
- All propaganda starts with a kernel of truth. There is a Bill in Congress that is looking to put in place the ability to shut down parts of the North American internet infrastructure in case of a Cyber Terrorist attack. Reading the language of the relevant part of the bill though, I hardly see it as a conspiracy since there is no language indicating a “North Korea”-like control system.
- Be wary of phrases like “we know better.” For example, if they say something like, “Congress is debating over a bill now that would give The President power to shut down the internet in case of a cyber terrorist attack, but we know better. It’s really about the government taking away your freedom!” That becomes pure speculation.
- Be wary of phrases like, “don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise, they’re probably part of it,” which is proof positive that they don’t want you checking into the details.
- Beware of the slippery slope and/or “the piggy-back”. I will spare you the details, but if the “news story” starts with something innocuous and then graduates into something larger and unrelated, the presenter in question has an agenda. For example, the news story about the PA School board giving out laptops that could spy on students was graduated into Google spying on us in some circles, which is patently false.
- Check the facts. Most Conspiracy Theories don’t stand a chance against a good 5 minute search on the internet. But be aware that not all internet sources can be trusted either. All of the links I have used in this blog post have been as unbiased as possible. Stay away from sites that are too left or too right wing. They are just as untrustworthy. You will know them when you see them.
- If the information to debunk the theory is too hard to find, then there is no evidence for it and you should suspend judgment. As said before, conspiracy theorists go by the mantra, “Since it can’t be disproved, then it is true.” Don’t follow their logic.
On to Part 2: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics.