So many people seem unable to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of ideas these days. Ridiculous conspiracy theories are accepted as reasonable with no skepticism at all. Here are a few of the idiocies sweeping the web:
Conspiracy Theory #1. Bill Gates wants to use vaccines to implant computer chips in everyone. First of all, this is physically impossible. Microscopic computer chips given by injection that float around in one’s blood stream that somehow attach in the right place and — what? — let Bill Gates track the person or something? WTF? Second, people already carry around computers that identify their every move (smartphones) and give away all this information for free. Third, Bill Gates is the closest thing to a secular saint that mankind has. He is giving away his money as fast as he can helping people in the Third World survive and thrive by giving away mosquito nets and financing vaccine drives for dread diseases that people in the First World take for granted. He is doing more for humans to meet their potential than any other 10 people or governments you can name. If you have tumbled down this rabbit hole, you have identified yourself as potentially non compos mentis, and not a practitioner of vigorous, rational thought.
Corollary to Conspiracy Theory #1. This would require a massive conspiracy with Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna, and all the rest of big Pharma in on it and all cooperating for an evil goal of enslaving the world. Really? The entire pharmaceutical industry is a bunch of people who have sold their souls to the devil for a few pieces of silver? And there isn’t one whistle blower among these tens of thousands of people who would stand up for decency? If you are paranoid enough to believe this, then I hope you have lots of canned goods and bottled water in your underground bunker to wait out the zombie hordes that will soon roam the Earth when the Walking Dead is shown to be a modern version of the Book of Revelation.
Conspiracy Theory #2. Western Medicine is a conspiracy against all of the good people of the world to wring profits out of them and harm them. Much better to have only things that are “natural.” This is a particularly unhinged theory. The reality is plain to see for anyone with the least bit of sense. In 1850, all we had were folk remedies and doctors bleeding people with leeches. Doesn’t get more basic and “natural” than that. And people lived to be 40 years old.
While Western Medicine is not flawless, the advances in understanding and treatment that have lengthened lifespans over the last 125 years or so are remarkable. Think back to the miracle that was Jonas Salk’s Polio Vaccine setting children free to play with their friends without fear of death in the 1950’s. An almost miraculous improvement brought to us by science that was appreciated as such.
Now, in the age of the internet, we have Anti-Vaxxers that are convinced that all things natural are good. These fools want to return to 1850. They have identified themselves as prime candidates for the Darwin Awards.
What is a Reasonable Person to do in this Age of Disinformation and Lunacy?
So, you may ask, how is one to separate lunacy from common sense? Here are a few ideas I use to separate “worthy of further investigation” from “lunatic fringe, don’t pollute your mind,” and to keep from falling prey to the cognitive foibles we all tend to exhibit.
All information sources are not of the same quality. Newsmax or some dude linked to from Facebook or Twitter or some viral video on Youtube are not remotely as authoritative as the Wall Street Journal or some other entity with a reputation for quality and reasonableness putting their reputation behind something. Just because someone claims it does not make it so.
Short circuit the Social Media rush to judgment and refuse to get stampeded out of reason and common sense. Take a moment and breathe. And THINK! Don’t get caught up in Twitter’s stampede to a conclusion. Quality of thought matters much more than speed in reaching a conclusion. Don’t get trapped in the endless feedback loop of doom scrolling and extrapolating only to the worst-case scenario. This only gives you a badly distorted view of reality.
Blind optimism is a fault, but blind pessimism is far worse. The story of the human journey is largely one of progress broken up by moments of unpleasantness. Losing sight of the subjective probability distribution of future developments (which includes both positive and negative outcomes) is a fundamental and elementary error that will cause you to chase figments down rabbit holes of zero value.
Occam’s razor. Entities must not be multiplied unnecessarily. I interpret this as meaning that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon should be assumed to be correct in the absence of substantial evidence to the contrary.
The Burden of Proof is on the shoulders of the purveyor of the conspiracy theory. All ties are broken in favor of common sense. And this is not a 55/45 proposition. The evidence should be high quality, from good and respectable sources, stand up to skeptical inquiry, and be overwhelming.
The primacy of skepticism:
“Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer.”
— George Santayana
On the importance of the ability to hold 2 opposing ideas in mind at once without losing the ability to function:
“Sometimes the very vivid, extreme evidence misleads you on the deeper reality. You’ve got to be on guard against that all your life. In fact, the whole trick in life is to get so that your own brain doesn’t mislead you.”
— Charlie Munger
“People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome.”
— George Orwell
Fanaticism equals subconscious self-doubt:
“Fanatic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are not sure that we are doubly sure.”
— Reinhold Niebuhr
Self-Doubt is the beginning of wisdom:
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”
— Bertrand Russell
Balance in all things is key to good judgment. “Faith moves us forward; skeptical critical thinking keeps us balanced.”
— Gary Taubes