Saturday, January 19, 2013

My Answer to the Question, What Should We Worry About?

The replacement of truth by politicized conspiracy theories.

The great catastrophes of modern times have arisen from the acceptance of false doctrine as a true picture of the world, or lies as truth. To the ancient struggle over resources and prestige we have added the accelerant of ideology, like pouring gasoline onto a smoldering fire. Ideology corrodes our understanding, obscures our senses, degrades our judgment, inflames our worst passions. Peering through its distorting lens, we cannot see our real interests, our the real threats to our well being. It also provides a cloak behind which power-seekers can operate, obscuring their real intentions with a fog of rhetoric about class enemies or anti-American socialism.

I worry that the age of the internet and unlimited tv channels will only worsen our problem with perceiving the truth through the political miasma. If you like, you can now get all your news from outlets that share your own ideology, and spend all day online swapping conspiracy theories with fellow travelers. As North Korea shows, with complete control of information flows you can get people to believe almost anything, and millions of Americans seem to be voluntarily subjecting themselves to North Korean levels of indoctrination. There may come a time when political compromise is all but impossible because majorities on all sides believe crazy conspiracy theories about their opponents. The American system seems particularly vulnerable to this danger; what happens when it is simply impossible to write a budget that could pass a House controlled by one party and a Senate controlled by the other?

There is already a wide range of topics on which any statement is no longer judged according to its truth, but only its ideological content: climate change, sex education, the relationship between taxation and growth, the usefulness of international treaties, the morality and effectiveness of torture. It is very, very hard to get people to change their minds, and I worry that our system is creating more and more people whose beliefs are fixed in dangerous directions.


Thomas said...

I realize in posting, you are trying to be even-handed, but the crazy conspiracy theories are strong really only on one side in the halls of power right now. It's true that both sides risk "epistemological closure," but I think liberals have not been electing their crazies nearly at the rate that the right has been.
For some reason, the main conspiracy theories I see in my Facebook feed are all related to health and food. It is one thing to realize that the market gives drug companies an incentive to advocate drugs when less costly answers, like changes in diet, exercise, and sleep, might be better answers, it's another thing to believe that they are suppressing cures for AIDS, as a friend of a friend on Facebook recently posted.
Conspiracy theory is not really new, so much as necessarily more bizantine. There were always lies about Jews to justify anti-semitism, but the more information there is readily available, the more complicated the lies have to be to remotely fit the visible world.

John said...

At the moment Conservative craziness is a much bigger political danger in America, but there are other dangers. Pakistan is gripped by anti-America, anti-Israel conspiracy theories, so much so that even when Islamist rebels claim credit for a bombing, many people still think Israel or America is behind it. There are whole rafts of black American conspiracy theories, and then all those anti-corporate, anti-chemical theories you allude to. So I think the danger spread far behind the Tea Party.

Thomas said...

Ah, yes, I was only considering US crazies. Definitely, the craziness throughout the world comes in all flavors.

Fundamentalism is, of course, a strong example of "epistemic closure" (got the word wrong above.)

I don't think the word "spread" is right there. I think there has always been conspiracy theories amongst minority populations, for example. In my youth, when there were all those killings of black boys in the Atlanta area, there were some dark conspiracy theories about their blood being used to cure cancer or some such. (I also heard about a similar conspiracy about kidnapped children in Brazil.)

As I said, there are lots of conspiracy theorists on the left, but they are rarely indulged by people with any power.

Perhaps it is because liberals have not needed to invent things to be intemperate about. For example, when somebody calls George W Bush a "war criminal" based on the public record of presidentially-approved torture, that might or might not be a fair characterization of the man, but it is not conspiracy.