Saturday, July 1, 2017

Being a Better Conspiracy Theorist


In yesterday's news I linked to an article in the New Republic, "The New Paranoia", that I wanted to pull out and put some focus on. I think it's an important piece for picking apart the deep level of conspiranoia we're currently living with across the political spectrum, from Pizzagate to Russia collusion.

Now if you're a conspiratorial thinker leaning hard to either side of the political divide, there are probably some things in the article that will rile you. While its focus is on how the left has started partaking in conspiracy theories, its criticisms range from Alex Jones on the right through to Louise Mensch on the left (yes I know Mensch is nominally right-wing, but currently she has a lot of followers from the left kneeling at her feet on account of her anti-Trump/Russian collusion screeds). As such, I can see plenty of readers not reaching the end of the piece due to it upsetting one of their closely-held beliefs.

But it's definitely worth reading through the entire article - not only to perhaps critique your own beliefs and assumptions, but also because towards the end it is clear that the writer is not simply 'anti-conspiracy'. Instead, they offer up some very clear thinking on the matter that is usually absent in discussion of the topic:

Just because you’re paranoid, of course, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. History has had more than its share of false flags, fifth columns, and Reichstag fires. We are not living in Nazi Germany in 1933, but there are enough echoes to be a cause for concern... It may yet be the case that conspiratorial thinking will have a place in our arsenal of resistance. Viewing coincidences skeptically and connecting seemingly random dots is precisely what exposed the conspiracies of Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal...

...In other words, it is not the methodology of conspiracy that’s the problem. When paranoid thinking opens up possibilities, it can serve a useful function. The danger comes when conspiracists remain wedded to their theories in the face of conflicting information, when they refuse to do the hard work of confirming and substantiating their own assumptions and beliefs. Woodward and Bernstein did not simply point to a trail of shady campaign contributions and tweet that Nixon was behind it all. They followed the facts, step by painstaking step, all the way to the Oval Office.

Goertzel, helpfully, casts conspiratorial thinking as either “monological” or “dialogical.” The former is invested in a single, preordained understanding of the world; every scrap of evidence, no matter how inconsequential or contradictory, is marshaled on behalf of the monolithic perception. Mensch’s ever-growing list of suspected Russian agents is a textbook example of Goertzel’s monological thinking: There is nothing that can’t be twisted to fit into her preexisting matrix. Dialogical thinking, by contrast, is open to ambiguity and conflict. It looks for unexpected angles, new approaches, and unexplored nuance; hypotheses are tested and conclusions are discarded when they are contradicted by the facts. “The key issue is not the belief in the specific conspiracy,” Goertzel observes, “but the logical processes which led to that belief. As with other belief systems, conspiracy theories can be evaluated according to their productivity.” There’s nothing wrong with conspiracy theories, in other words, if they provide illumination. Looking for hidden clues is essential to bringing secrets to light.

It can't be stated enough, though, how difficult it actually is to "do the hard work of confirming and substantiating you own assumptions and belief". Your brain does not like to be wrong, it likes to find things that agree with the original assumption, and it likes to discard inconvenient facts. It is hard work, and painful to the ego sometimes. But it's essential that we all try and be as brutally honest with ourselves as we can, critiquing our assumptions, what part our own biases and assumptions might be motivating us, playing devil's advocate, truthfully assessing the credibility and trustworthiness of our sources, being clear when we are speculating, and in the end, staying humble and always ready to admit mistakes.

Link: The New Paranoia


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