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.