#24: Conspiracy Thinking is Not Critical Thinking

This seems to be the age of conspiracy theories. What is a conspiracy theory? It is the belief that specific, if not all, major problems in the world are caused by a conspiracy of powerful people that secretly pull the strings behind your back. A select few have allegedly seen through this scheme, and are now desperately trying to enlighten the world about the truth they have just uncovered. It is, if you want to say it in post-modern terms, the grand narrative of all grand narratives. The one tale to explain it all.

If you listen to people believing such theories, they will all tell you that they are critical thinkers, thinking for themselves, researching the truth, for themselves, coming to uncomfortable conclusions that set them up against the rest of the world that is still falling prey to the conspirators.

On a certain level, this does seem like a familiar description of critical thinking. Has not every revolutionary been someone who has stood up against the world, against established opinion? Is not the basis of all social criticism the assumption that, to quote Marx in his 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, while philosophers have explained the world, the point is to change it? Does he not call for a ruthless criticism of everything existing, as in his letter to Ruge? Does not Kant call to dare to think on your own – Sapere aude? Are there not enough calls in philosophy, media criticism, and activism to question the order of things?

The key aspect of criticism here, though, is that criticism never ends, it never stands still, it never stops. It is not a tool to unveil some big conspiracy, to find the big answers for all or at least for major problems – it is an ongoing practice, a state of mind, something that should be immanent, meaning embedded into our ways of thinking, and into our structures. This is the definition of science, where every step may lead somewhere new, but never somewhere finite. There is always something new around the corner if you keep looking.

This is what makes true criticism, true science, so frustrating for many if not most people, apparently. In order to live, we seek stability, but in order to advance, we need change. If scientific answers keep changing depending on new data and new theoretic insights, that leaves many people displeased, especially if the expectation towards science is that it provides answers, that it provides closure. A scientific answer is always temporary.

What is even more frustrating, even religion does not provide closure here. That may seem to be a perplexing statement. Is not religion about finite answers, about eternal truths, about stability in your life? Not quite. Yes, religion talks about eternal truths – but they are only available for eternals themselves. The key definition of the divine is that it is not accessible to us mortals. God (or divinity) is that which is always greater than our understanding; greater even than our possible understanding. This is not an “god of the gaps” argument, it is the one consistent definition of the divine throughout all religious schools of thought. God is the sublime which dwarves us, which overshadows us, which we can never reach, but should always strive towards; it is the eternal truth, and the purpose of religion – quite like science – is to reach that truth while expecting human fallibility and imperfection. Every religion contains the tension between the struggle for meaning in life, the promise that meaning is out there, and the strongest of all caveats that we will never understand it in our physical lifetime, but that we need to keep trying, and we need to keep failing, and that this is ok – for if we were to understand this, we would be like God. Our religious knowledge is only temporary.

The belief in having gained some grand, even final insight is the core of conspiracy thinking, of misunderstood science, and misunderstood religion. A true scientist, just as a true religious believer, knows that doubt (in your own ability to finally understand everything) and faith (in the need for the search for truth, and the belief in the existence of truth) belong together. The true attitude characteristic of both science and religion is humility. Everything else is pretension.

Conspiracy theories do not function like this. They misapply critical thought and apply magical thinking. They see truth in patterns that they create themselves, they see devils at work, and their guiding question is always “cui bono” – who benefits, which leads to witch hunts, scapegoating, and a magical belief in potions, false prophets, and false promises to let the initiates see the truth, finally.

This is not critical thinking, but the opposite: the uncritical acceptance of a final truth. Science and religion believe that “the truth is out there,” but they know that we will never know the complete picture and will have to have faith in the procedures that lead us on the right path (which is why, on The X-Files, Mulder is lost without Scully, and vice versa). Conspiracists believe they know the final truth, stop criticizing it once they believe they have gained it, and need everybody to believe the same. This is not criticism, it is humbug.

#16: Coronavirus and Democracy

We all make mistakes. It is a strength of open societies is that those mistakes will eventually all be ruthlessly and painstakingly revealed, so that we can effectively correct our course and improve our response to crises. This openness, while revealing all the uncomfortable messiness, may seem like doing open-heart surgery with cameras rolling. But that is not a bad thing. It is the only thing that can eventually reinforce societal trust and the consent of the governed.

The purpose of Democracy is not just to change the leaders by democratic vote. It is the best way human societies have discovered that allows such consent to be created time and again without creating the upheaval that a change of leadership regularly creates in non-democratic societies.

With regards to Coronavirus, there appears no single country that has not made a series of mistakes. Typically, there has been denial – it can’t possibly get here. Then, there’s been hand-wringing about what to do, and quite legitimately so. The current voluntary economic restrictions are painful, and have to be weighed against the consequences of the virus. Some governments and leaders have tried to be both hopeful and admonishing. Still today, no single country’s approach really seems to align well with the others, even if it comes down to counting and attributing cause of death (Did someone die because of CoViD19, or with CoViD19 in in addition to other conditions? How do you measure the specific impact of the virus?). It would certainly have helped to have global guidance on that, but I guess this is what happens.

Sadly, every crisis means that the entire world is a collection of different laboratories independently having to solve a problem, with some collaboration. It would have been helpful if China had been honest and transparent, and if the WHO had been less independent in its judgements. Taiwan knows well what to think of them both. That does not mean we don’t need global coordination either, but it needs to be improved.

Once this crisis is becoming more manageable, it will be the open society approach that will prove to be the only one to tackle such problems in the future. Both democracy and science thrive on open confrontation, on honesty, on transparency. They also thrive on convincing people to opt into the right approach, out of their own capacity for reason, rather than on forcing them to comply. If people are not given the choice to do their part to help, but are forcibly locked indoors, or held against their will in horrible conditions, they will rightfully rebel. But if they are convinced, by reason and science, to do what needs to be done to solve this problem affecting us all, they may just do the right thing quite on their own. Democracy believes in citizens, not subjects, it believes in treating people as grown-ups, not children. It is by far the more sustainable approach. At least I hope it is; I don’t think I would like to live in a world where this would not be so. Wash your hands.