The internet, as any other technology, created the possibility of wonderful things, and others not so much.
Case in point, conspiracy “theories”. The quotation marks are there because they are in no way theories; a theory is a high level scientific construct that coherently weaves facts, phenomena and explanation, and CTs have none of those.
I was talking to a friend who’s a psychiatrist a few days ago, and remarked that some twenty years ago or more, someone who espoused such ideas would probably be alone in that and would be easily (and probably adequately) called paranoid schizophrenics. With the sounding board of the internet, ill-informed, delusional people build whole castles out of thin air, protected from facts and reason by their mutual reinforcement and the Dunnig-Kruger effect, plus the usual rhetorical artefacts of calling those who oppose them either variations of naive/ignorant (blind, “sheeple”, asleep, so on and so forth) and/or venal (“shill”, acting on behalf of some shady entity or Big Industry). This has the benefit of making them the opposite: smart, “in the known”, righteous, incorruptible. They are the real skeptics, and everyone else is simply too credulous for believing “the government”, “doctors”, “science”, “Big Pharma”, “biotech companies”, or whatever. As an excellent article from Salon (Conspiracy Theorists Aren’t Really Skeptics) puts it, “Conspiracy believers are the ultimate motivated skeptics. Their curse is that they apply this selective scrutiny not to the left or right, but to the mainstream. They tell themselves that they’re the ones who see the lies, and the rest of us are sheep. But believing that everybody’s lying is just another kind of gullibility“.
As with good old paranoid delusions, sometimes there is a tiny kernel of reality encapsulated in a web of spurious associations; the pharmaceutical industry, for instance, has done some pretty condemnable things, as exposed in many excellent books, such as “Bad Science” and “Bad Pharma”, by Ben Goldacre, and “The truth about the drug companies”, by Marcia Angell, both proper academic exercises.
The problem is that conspiracy theories take that little grain of evidence and use it as a shield for anything that contradicts their fabricated narrative. One good example would be the anti-vaccine or aids denialist activists, who, despite massive evidence of the utter wrongness of their ideas still cling to them, sometimes even more.
But there are certain conspiracy theories that are so laughable that make one wonder how on earth could anyone take them seriously. One such example is the “chemtrail” cult, which believes that for some reason or other there is a massive global conspiracy to cause people harm by spraying mysterious “chemicals” from regular planes flying at 10 km above ground level. They post photo after photo of contrails – frozen vapour from engine exhaust, completely understood and explained by science decades ago – and strange clouds as “proof”, and create a whole mythology around this, which includes even a made up disease called “morgellons”. I could point to sites that take that seriously, but I’d rather invoke an exercise in reductio ad absurdum that demonstrate the insanity of the whole plot: A Million Poisoning Planes.
Funny and crazy as those narratives may seem, the problem is that they are creating real problems in the real world. I have commented many times about the damages done by anti-vaxxers, aids denialists and woo peddlers to public health. They are extending, via internet, to other areas and causing as much harm. Many examples can be seen in a Newsweek article about CTs (The Plots to Destroy America), which states: “[W]hat was once dismissed as the amusing ravings of the tin-foil-hat crowd has in recent years crossed a threshold, experts say, with delusions, fictions and lunacy now strangling government policies and creating national health risks. “These kinds of theories have the effect of completely distorting any rational discussion we can have in this country,’’ says Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center who recently wrote a report on the impact of what is known as the Agenda 21 conspiracy. ‘They are having a real impact now.’” And another article (The Psychology and Economy of Conspiracy Theories) mentions the economic angle of such conspiracies – in many cases the big names in conspiracies have found ways to monetize paranoia, while accusing everyone else of being a paid shill in the same breath – and points out to another substantial problem in that paranoid mindset: “[D]anger lies in using the small amount of energy you have for politics on chasing illusions. There are plenty of real problems to confront. Question mainstream news, sure, but don’t fall into the trap of believing everything you read on Infowars and its ilk. Everyone has an agenda” (emphasis mine).
UPDATE [May 31st 2015] The excellent blog Back From Nature just posted a list of medical conspiracies, one of them being the “morgellons” thing I mentioned in relation to the “chemtrails” cult: 10 Strangest Medical Conspiracy Theories.