Conspiracies against progress: why the rise of the modern conspiracy theory should concern us all

by David Lambert

Contrails are the wispy white clouds of frozen water vapor that streak across the sky in the wake of jet engines. But according to 17 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds—my generation—contrails are actually “chemtrails,” poisonous chemicals sprayed by the government for sinister reasons. As the world becomes an increasingly scary and complex place with no simple answers, the temptation to create narratives explaining all of its evil will grow. And here lies the heart of the modern conspiracy theory. Yet when fantasy overtakes reality, progress suffers.

Whenever anything bad happens in the world today, from September 11th to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, there is a growing gaggle quick to cry, “wake up sheeple!” Tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing and September 11th are of course “false flag” operations by a sinister cabal—the CIA, New World Order, Neocons, Illuminati, Jews, and Rothchilds are the usual suspects—but so are natural disasters. Twisters in the Midwest: Weather weapons being tested by the Pentagon. The Indian Ocean Tsunami: Caused by a nuclear weapon detonated in a deep ocean trench. Even the Earthquake in Haiti was the result of malicious meddling. As one blogger alerts us, “If you just assume it was a natural disaster, you are probably not current with what technology is capable of.” Omitted were any credentials explaining how the writer is more knowledgeable on technology than the rest of us.

But who cares? Isn’t questioning big government and corporate dominance over our lives a good thing? Sure it is. But losing the ability to distinguish between the reality and paranoia won’t do us any good.

Let’s look at three hot topics on conspiracy websites: vaccines, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and fluoride—or as one website put it, the three biggest human rights tragedies of our time.

Far from a tragedy, vaccines have saved millions of lives. We are currently living in what UNICEF calls the Child Survival Revolution. Children no longer perish from dreadful, agonizing diseases as they have throughout most of history. Vaccinations are a major reason why. But good news is usually no news, which is why headlines such as “Plane Lands Safely” or “Swimmer Not Attacked by Shark” don’t exist, yet their opposites certainly do. As a result, society tends to underappreciate progress. Perhaps this explains why the loud voices behind the anti-vaccine movement have convinced 18 percent of Americans that vaccines cause autism or a myriad of other afflictions; 30 percent are “undecided.” According to the anti-vaccine crowed, the medical establishment knows that vaccines are both useless and detrimental, but is under pressure from “big pharma” to cover up the facts. (There are also those who believe that vaccines are used by the government for mind control).

The infamous study that linked vaccines to autism was eventually pulled because of its numerous research flaws and the journal that published it issued a public apology. But the hysteria lives on. Never mind that countless, more professional, studies have shown no link between autism (or mind control) and vaccines. As Mark Twain observed, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

It is easy to draw comparisons between the anti-vaccination movement and the anti-GMO movement. Like preventable childhood diseases, malnutrition is another great moral failing of our time. GMOs such as Golden Rice—rice modified to contain high levels of beta carotene in order to compensate for the vitamin A deficiency which kills hundreds of thousands of children around the world and blinds many more every year—and drought resistant crops, which will become increasingly vital in the global south due to climate change, have vast potential to help those who don’t shop at Whole Foods. But real progress has been stymied by the paranoid and misinformed, who clamor that GMOs, which are biologically no different than “natural” foods, are somehow poisonous. Behind it all is of course an evil corporation: Monsanto.

Monsanto is biotechnology company about 1/7th the size of ExxonMobil that conspiracy theorists credit with singlehandedly influencing the thousands of independent studies showing that GMOs are safe. Corporations do tend to exhibit sociopathic tendencies in a relentless drive for profit. But their attempts to stifle scientific consensus is sloppy at best. Despite the efforts of tobacco and oil companies, a consensus remains that lung cancer and climate change are both quite serious. Yet this doesn’t stop conspiracy theorists from endowing corporations with omnipresent powers to deceive. Like a creationist who claims that God hid fossil records to test the faith of humanity, conspiracy theorists disregard insurmountable evidence in crediting Monsanto and big pharma with unprecedented levels of deceit.

Moving on to the last human rights tragedy of our time, the fluoridation of drinking water is a public health measure that should have graduated from debatable to commonsensical decades ago. Yet there are two reasons it is a topic of contention. The first is simply a libertarian worldview that despises any government initiatives—the freedom to have bad teeth! But the more colorful and passionate anti-fluoride activists are convinced that the mineral is used for mind control (because how else could the sheeple fail to see that the Haiti earthquake was no natural disaster?). And of course, the “aluminum industry, pharmaceutical companies and weapons manufacturers” are behind it all.

These three biggies in the conspiracy world unfortunately help shape our social reality. And the list goes on. As mentioned previously, one can find an outlandish theory for every tragedy, as if bad things are incapable of occurring by chance alone. Conspiracies have existed forever. Pearl Harbor was a ploy by the US government to enter into WWII (sound familiar?). The CIA assassinated JFK, etc, etc. But the sheer volume and outlandishness is a new phenomenon.

As humans, we like having our beliefs confirmed (it is called selection bias and we are all guilty of it). In fact, it even makes us a bit high. Studies show that when reading an article that reinforces an already held belief, our brains reward us with a small shot of serotonin. The Internet has, in essence, become a drug. And now more than ever, we can encapsulate ourselves in ideological bubbles where every piece of information further confirms what we already think is true. The more passionate the belief, the larger the reward. In this way, conspiracies are a lot like narcotics.

A more sympathetic, even endearing, take on the conspiracy mindset is possible: conspiracies are comforting. You would be forgiven for asking what could possibly be comforting about, say, a cabal of madmen detonating a nuclear weapon deep under the Indian Ocean, creating a monster wave that inundates thousands of miles of coastline, sending countless innocents to a watery grave. Like other disasters before it, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami served as a reminder that life is a fragile, fleeting thing. In its aftermath, we search for both survivors and answers. Death’s randomness strikes a primitive fear, engendering humanity’s oldest question: why? In a strange way, pinning the blame on an omnipresent entity such as the New World Order fulfills this need.

But like drugs and religion, the quick comfort that conspiracies provide is antithetical to real problem solving. Some corporations disseminate misinformation about climate change, endangering us as an entire species. Others lobby the government relentlessly for military contracts, hurting our financial future and stealing resources from universal healthcare and education.

What corporations don’t do, however, is use fluoride for mind control, or vaccines to kill children. It is time to embrace reality. Doing so will make the world a complex, scary place to live, but also perhaps a better one. Turning on the closet light and revealing that the monster was just pile of socks may let you see that you window has been unlocked all along.

19 replies »

  1. Nice David. Well done. Welcome to S&R.

    Now, I have to say, we folks who hang out at S&R do love ourselves a good conspiracy theory and we often point the finger at various conspiracists or quasi-conspiracies, whether it’s me arguing the Koch’s are rigging nat gas prices to embarrass Obama or Denny on media or Brian on the right wing media’s war on science or Jim on arts funding or Frank on just about everything. I’ll confess that I occasionally cry conspiracy when I dont quite believe it (rigging energy prices is pretty hard to do, although certainly Enron managed it in California for a short while) because as you say, “Koch Bros Conspire to Jack Up Gas Prices” is a much better headline than “Random Fluctuations in Commodity Prices Seen.”

    However, I hadn’t really thought through the harm conspiracy theories do.

    Interesteing take.

  2. David Lambert doesn’t know enough to write accurately about conspiracy theories. He gets it wrong right off the bat. Airplanes do spew chemicals, because their engines run on gasoline and they spew oxides of carbon and nitrogen into the sky. They do not emit only water vapor. How could he not know that?

    Moreover, the public concern about vaccines stemmed from fraudulent research by a man who claimed to find evidence that vaccines cause autism. Conspiracy theorists didn’t just make it up out of thin air.

    I don’t think that the theory that the Boston bombings were caused by powerful conspiracists is in any danger of persuading most Americans. So Lambert describes only the loony fringe, and he falsely claims that belief in conspiracy theories is a huge problem in America.

    Dr. John Miller

    • Dr Miller: so, are you arguing that regular jet exhaust is the same as chemtrails? Or are you just being purposefully obtuse? I personally had no trouble at all following the argument being made, and the other commenters seemed to be following along okay as well.

    • I have to agree with Samuel Smith. I don’t think the author is arguing that airplane exhaust is purely water vapor and perhaps he could have stated it more clearly. Yes, jet engines are emitting pollutants, just as our cars are emit pollutants when we drive them. But what we see from the ground that conspiracists are trying to convice us are chemtrails is more than adequately explained as water vapor (some from the engine, some in the air) condensing on the aerosols emitted from the engine, a cloud.

      The white puffy streaks that quickly dissipate are not pure chemicals, although I don’t rule out that the engine heat and atmospheric processes might cause some chemical compounds to form within them. However, the chemtrail conspiracy is not confined to the proposition that the pollutants emitted by the airplane could erode air quality. The conspiracy is that Government or some insidious entity is deliberately placing chemicals on commercial planes to disperse over the world and that the white puffy trails are actually these chemicals. It defies explanation how a plane burdened with the weight of the amount of chemicals it would need to carry to produce a steady stream of chemical vapors behind it for the duration of its flight would have the room or the lift capacity to also carry the weight of a bunch of passengers and their luggage as well.

    • But I agree that the chemtrail conspiracy theory, because of the obvious internal weaknesses, is one that will most likely be confined to a very fringe elements and is one of the more harmless out there.

  3. David

    I agree with your dismissal of the described threats to humanity conspiracy theories.

    On the other hand, I’d like to share my experience in being dismissed as a “conspiracy theorist” for suggesting that there are occasional times when people cooperate to spread misinformation.

    Often, the efforts I describe involve wealthy and powerful establishment organizations spreading falsehoods or gross exaggerations about their competitors or potential competitors.

    For example, when I was in the plastics business, we were constantly being criticized for producing products that were not biodegradable like paper, wood or cardboard or for producing products like plastic bottles that were not as reusable as glass or as recyclable as aluminum.

    The loud voices complaining about our products claimed to be “environmentalists,” but when you scratched the surface or learned something about their donors you could find companies or individuals that sold wood, paper, glass or aluminum.

    When my wife worked in the development department of a major regional environmental group that focused on clean water and preventing waterfront development, she found out that many of the donors were real estate developers with already permitted property or waterfront homeowners.

    In my avocation and now profession as an atomic energy writer and advocate, I have found numerous documented instances in which vocal opposition to the use of nuclear energy from an “environmental” group was funded by an organization or an individual with substantial interests in maintaining the dominance of hydrocarbons in our economy.

    There is nothing surprising or illegal about taking action to maintain or increase market share by criticizing a competitor, but it is kind of slimy to do it in a secretive or purposely deceptive manner.

    As I tweeted yesterday – There is one type of person more gullible than those who believe in all conspiracy theories – those who automatically dismiss the possibility that powerful people plan and strategize for their own benefit.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

    PS – I have a suspicion that much of the anti-GMO activity is funded by agribusiness that does not want to compete in a market with improved abundance. More successful and productive crops often result in “oversupply” and lower prices.

  4. This is an extraordinarily well-written piece, and is one of the best opinion pieces I’ve read in a very long time. It even went over the need for control, or at least to define an enemy one can fight, for the frightened. Just outstanding.

    I was unaware of this utter nonsense until some of the young people I’ve hired for short-term jobs began to friend me on Facebook. Now, I see their posts, and it’s just ridiculous stuff. I once wasted some time responding to one of the posts on how radiation from Japan is killing off people on the US’s West Coast. I went over the math of dilution in the Pacific over that distance. The reply I got was, “I don’t know anything about physics, but common sense will tell you that this is actually happening.”


    Too few people will read this, which is a pity. But great, great job.


    • Yes, and as we’ve discussed many times, the internet provides an echo chamber where the most absurd ideas get traction and start sounding mainstream through repetition alone.

  5. This is a well written piece. In my opinion, S&R maintains a high level of credibility due to well researched pieces like this and pieces that include references. @Otherwise – “Echo chamber” is an excellent phrase for the current state of “information” transfer.

    I agree that fluoridating the water for mind control is ridiculous, but there are sufficient questions about the safety of fluoride levels that never seem to be addressed by the public health officials’ position on fluoride. Jennifer Luke authored “The Effect of Fluoride on the Physiology of the Pineal Gland” for her ph.D. in Biological Sciences. Her studies showed that fluoride accumulates in the pineal gland and affects pineal physiology during early development. It caused “significant acceleration of pubertal development in female gerbils”. Her studies on human cadavers also showed accumulation of fluoride and calcium in the pineal gland. Based on this paper, fluoride impacts the body, and she recommends further study. If the holistic impacts of fluoride are not considered by public health officials, what else are they not considering? If there is real risk, then is it a conspiracy?

    Link to J. Luke’s thesis: http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/895/1/fulltext.pdf.

  6. Two of the best books I’ve read on the human tendency to interpret world events as evidence of vast conspiracy are- “The True Believer- Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements” – by Eric Hoffer and “The Authoritarians” by Bob Altemeyer. Even very smart people believe crazy shit.

  7. how obtuse can you be?…a contrail extends a short distance behind a jet and quickly disappears..a chem trail thickens,expands and stays/lasts for literally hours..also why are chemtrails called a conspiracy when the U.S. government has openly admitted to geo-engineering…which chemtrails are a part of the program.