#135: Conspiracy Belief, Science, Ego and Humility

Some years ago, I talked with a person about conspiracy theories surrounding the terror attacks of 9/11/2001, during which Al-Quaida terrorists flew airplanes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon, with a fourth probably headed for the White House downed by passengers. The person was completely convinced the attacks were faked, specifically the planes destroying the World Trade Center. I had heard all that before, looked into all those ideas, and dismissed them. As my friend grew more and more insistent that I should have an opinion on this or that, I kept replying that I am neither an engineer nor a physicist, and that as an absolute layperson on the matter I could not possibly have any opinion whatsoever.

There is a reason there are experts, and if the majority of experts – scientists specifically – are agreed on a specific matter, then, unless new data emerges allowing for a different interpretation, the case typically is closed. As no new data has emerged that has not yet been evaluated by independent scientists the world over, there is no need for further discussion, and any allegation of a conspiracy should probably cease, at least as a serious enterprise rather than a jocular one. (I do hope that the modern Flat Earth theory, for instance, is meant in humor, although I cannot be sure of that anymore).

But my insistence on not being competent to evaluate the material, and on ceding to scientists and other experts, only enraged my discussant. I should be able to look at the evidence myself, they kept insisting. No, I can’t, because I would not even know what to look for, I replied. The same person now argues over Covid and vaccines, disagreeing with the scientific consensus.

This seems to be a pattern – and I am not talking about only one person here but several. While I do agree that we, as citizens and thinking beings, should, in principle, want to know, want to question reality, want to be skeptical, reality is oftentimes too complex, especially when it comes to knowledge not only about details but also many years of experience in evaluating such knowledge.

There are good reasons people take years to study specific subjects, and that it takes even more years in the profession to actually gain experience and test and expand your knowledge. All fields are like that, and even though I am an academic, have a solid education, some background in science, but more in social sciences and humanities, I could not necessarily deem myself qualified to judge just anything.

The Dunning-Kruger effect illustrates this conundrum: The more people know about something, the more they know what they don’t know, and they typically become more humble in expressing their opinions about things even within their wider field. The same people could however be completely unabashed in expressing opinions about things about which they are not experts, so that they do not know their own limitations. Knowledge and confidence are thus inversely related. Or, as Alexander Pope has put it, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

This, however, hurts our ego. We want to know, we want to feel qualified, we want to feel like we have a right to be contrarian. We need to be in control over our lives, but we know we are not. Like B.F. Skinner’s superstitious pigeons, we want to see what Stewart Guthrie likens to “Faces in the Clouds”: we are pattern-seeking animals, as Michael Shermer puts it. We want to see meaning in fate, and we will use astrology, alchemy, esotericism, conspiracy narratives and whatnot in order to find such meaning in a world that will always, always be too complex for us to completely understand. Like Goethe’s Faust, we want to “perceive whatever holds / the world together in its inmost folds.”

When we fail, we need to listen to those who know – but even their knowledge will be finite. Humanity’s greatest invention – all of science and academia in their widest understanding – will never be enough, because the multiverse is (probably) infinite, whereas our time and efforts will always be finite. For us to be willing and able to listen to such experts, and to realize our limitations (like scientists always have to – and typically do – realize their own!), for us all to truly admit that we don’t know but that others might, that needs humility, and it is not always easy. I won’t pretend to know everything, even though Faust’s quest resonates deeply within me. But I am not ready to make a deal with the devil to find out.