Hyper-Skepticism, Cynicism, Conspiracy Theory – Some More States of Disbelief
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My name is Martin Pribble, or Martin S Pribble (I just use the S as a way to differentiate myself from all the OTHER Martin Pribbles out there.) I write a blog at martinspribble.com, which focuses mostly on society, culture, religion and politics, and of course with a healthy dose of skepticism. I’ve been writing the blog for about 3 years now, and if you like what you hear tonight, go check out my blog as there’s nearly 600 articles which I’ve produced over that time.
Before I start, I know how important it is to be skeptical. If it weren’t you would all be part of the Vic Skeptics, and you wouldn’t come to meetings here once a month. You wouldn’t read magazines about skepticism, and skeptical activism, and you wouldn’t care about things like the Powerbalance Bracelet or the efficacy of homeopathy. And most of all, you wouldn’t be here to hear me speak tonight.
What I am presenting you with tonight as a very brief overview of some of the states of belief/disbelief that exist within the world today. These are Skepticism, Cynicism, Hyper-Skepticism, and Conspiracy Theory, and I’ll touch briefly on Denial. I hope to show you where these come from in society, and within the individual, and maybe help clarify some of the reasons why people have the attitudes they do about the world. I only have a short time to deliver all the relevant information, so if you could hold off on questions until the conclusion, that would be great.
It’s important to be skeptical of all information presented to us. From our daily news, to politics, to even food packaging and advertising, skepticism allows us to differentiate between what is presented as “fact” and actual fact, and is the driving force behind scientific discovery. Without a healthy dose of skeptical inquiry, we are prone to being taken advantage of by those who wish to control us or sway our actions, and we also stand to make bad decisions based on our lack of verifiable information. It is healthy to be skeptical, just as it’s healthy to be careful when crossing the street, hammering a nail or using the oven; if we don’t keep our wits about us, at worst, we can actually be hurt. Skeptical inquiry should be the default state in people when looking at claims put forth to us, because not only does it serve to protect us as individuals, but the society at large can benefit from critical and skeptical thinking.
Now, it’s not as though the world is presented in such a way that we are under constant threat from the outside. We’re not, but the messages from our mass media and politics, if taken at face value paint a very different world from the one we actually inhabit, and therefore we must approach the world with a certain sense of caution if we wish to live our lives in such a way that we are not taken advantage of. Just watch the way things like insurance and food are sold to us on the TV; Playing on our inner fears and insecurities, presenting a worst case scenario, then telling us that they have the answer to give us “peace of mind”. To a gullible or accepting mind, it would seem that we are in times of constant peril, when in fact things are better for Australians now than ever before.
Skepticism doesn’t mean “trust nobody”. It means to put any claim through the wringer, and if it comes out unscathed, then it has enough verifiable content to at least be plausible, if not taken as fact. We approach skepticism from neutral ground, that is to say, making no immediate judgments until the claim at hand has been tested thoroughly. The default state of skepticism is one not of distrust, but of not knowing either way, therefore skeptics should avoid judgment until all facts are presented. In any given claim, and at any point during skeptical inquiry, the pendulum of certainty/uncertainty can swing to either end of this spectrum, due to the information that has been presented to us. It’s the constant weighing of claims against evidence, and it is healthy. Of course, in any situation, we bring with us our past learnings, and can apply these to new situations and information with a certain sense of expertise in the subjects we encounter.
On the downside, all this constant weighing of evidence against claims can become exhausting, and this is where cynicism sets in. It’s easier to be instantly negative about a claim, and require it to redeem itself to us before even giving it the time to weigh the evidence. There’s nothing wrong with being cynical, as long as you don’t let it run your life. Cynicism falls within the healthy range of skepticism, in my opinion.
It is possible to become too skeptical when dealing with the world around us, to become so distrusting of information that we are unable to be convinced that anything is fact. At this point, cynicism gives way to the next step in disbelief, and we become “hyper-skeptical”, refusing to believe anything told to us by anyone, regardless of their “authority” or “lack of authority” in the subject.
The difference between a skeptic, a cynic and a “hyper-skeptic” is one of degrees, and you may already be more skeptical than is warranted in any given situation. I know I have been guilty of a hyper-skeptical attitude, but as we live and learn, we can change the way we deal with situations to become more effective in our criticisms. You may already be cynical. You may already be a hyper-skeptic. But it’s not all bad.
Hyper-skepticism is still a form of skepticism, but to disbelieve everything leaves nothing of use for progress. I understand why some people fall into the camp of hyper-skepticism, but to be hyper-skeptical can cause a disconnect with reality, to a point where it borders on paranoia. We need to be open to new ideas, or we stagnate in a constant state of disbelief.
Science does not disregard a new fact simply because it might disagree with what was accepted as fact previously, or to things that a scientist may have based a whole body of work upon, and neither should we. We come to conclusions about the world around us, not by guessing or by what our gut tells us, but by trial and error and failure. Things change, and as adaptation is the biggest strength in humanity, so should we be flexible as times require. The hyper-skeptic may be confused by the ever-changing nature of facts, or may be so unwilling to commit to any facts, as to leave all possible scenarios as equally unlikely or un-plausible.
Hyper-skepticism and cynicism are closely related, but while many can be cynical it doesn’t follow that they are hyper-skeptics. I, for instance am cynical of many things, but skeptical in healthy doses, as opposed to being dismissive of presented information straight away. For me, there are a few flags which might signal whether information is true or not. Firstly, does the claim seem reasonable? Secondly, does the claim require any of the natural laws of physics etc. to be broken in order for the claim to be true? Thirdly, does it come from a trustworthy source, i.e. peer reviewed studies, publications with a good track record, etc.? And fourthly, what does the claimant stand to gain from you accepting their claim as fact? The hyper-skeptic will skip all these steps and disbelieve regardless of the evidence to back it.
Knowing what kinds of spins may be placed on information can help. In politics for instance, it is a common occurrence politicians will put a spin on their words that back the party line or simply to refute the opposition, just as businesses will emphasise bonuses of a product or service, all the time ignoring, or forgetting to mention any hidden fees or contracts. Cynicism is not entirely a bad thing, but it can, in extreme cases, make someone extremely boring. The difference between hyper skepticism and cynicism is, rather than disbelieving everything right off the bat, cynicism takes the standpoint of distrust, but can be convinced of the efficacy of a claim, though sometimes with resistance. The cynic may still want to know the truth, whereas the hyper-skeptic is unable or unwilling to see truth where it may present itself.
Beyond hyper-skepticism, there lives the realm of the conspiracy. The conspiracy theory is unique among the four states of disbelief I am covering, because while it is a dismissal of the mainstream, it is actually an alternative belief based upon, well, an alternative version of reality than most of us inhabit. The conspiracy theory lives in a world, not only of disbelief of the mainstream, but one where the mainstream is replaced by a highly complex and almost comical set of beliefs that beguile understanding to the outsider. To understand conspiracies properly, one has to look at the causes behind this tendency, the social and cultural environment it presents itself, and a historical context that these conspiracy theories can be built from. I’m going to frame it by looking the one place on earth that is rife with conspiracy, and see how these may affect us here: The USA.
To do this I will read a paragraph from Charles P Pierce, who writes for Esquire magazine in the USA, and his brilliant book “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free”
Pierce goes on to suggest that
His book looks at the way that due to its colourful history, one that is built on wars and rights, one which sought to allow for and embrace difference, that strangely it was this difference became elevated in status to that of normality, and eventually, came to be seen as of higher value than the word of the mainstream thinkers. This would have been a great thing, giving rise to a great and diverse culture full of new and exciting ideas, and a true “land of the free”, had it worked. But alongside this newly found freedom was a distinct and very real paranoia and distrust stemming from both the “War of Independence” (1775 1783) and the “American Civil War” (1861 1865).
In short, as well as establishing the American nation as independent from its European colonisers, The War of Independence fostered and idea that the leaders could not be trusted, especially after sending their once rulers, the British, back to England. This became a foundation upon which to distrust “outsiders”, a xenophobic attitude of paranoia to anyone from afar.
The Civil War paved the way for an “Us vs Them” situation within the country where the US Government (also The North) was telling its citizenry (The South) what it was and wasn’t allowed to do (in particular, the keeping of slaves), which culminated on a “real life conspiracy”, one where a group of men conspired to kill the three top officials in the government including President Lincoln, who died from the gunshot would received from the gun of John Wilkes Booth.
After the Civil war, this active ruling from Washington was enough for many to create a distrust of all forms of authority for generations to come afterward. If we then move forward to the Cuban Missile crisis, the Kennedy assassination, one roiled in conspiracy rhetoric, and the Watergate scandal involving President Nixon, and the distrust cycle becomes complete. The combination of “freedom” (from the British, from religious persecution, from rules imposed by governments), “rights” (as laid out in The Constitution, and amended several times since its inception), and repeated underground conspiratorial happenings at the pinnacle of American politics created an inherent distrust of authority, and has created the “Idiot America” of Pierce’s book. The “Idiot American” removes himself from the narrative of mainstream America, and the world at large, and creates within “the land of the free” their own reality, where God and Guns and Freedom reign.
This paranoia has lived on in American cultures, and can be seen in any situation where the powers that be try to impose legislation on the people of America. If this was confined to the USA only, we could maybe just ignore them and let them get on with their own business, but due to the interconnectedness of the world because of the Internet and other mass-media, there has been a growing world-wide distrust of those seen as “authorities”, be they governmental, scientific, or any other expert testimony.
Of course it’s different in every country, but the USA, being a powerful source of political muscle and a melting pot for contemporary culture makes the goings on in the USA all the more important to us here, and worldwide.
As Professor Lawrence Krauss said to me in an interview with him in 2010 “America exports everything, and if it’s not affecting you now, just you wait!”
So where do conspiracy theories come from?
Life is full of uncertainties, such as natural disasters, accidents, and more recently the advent of home-grown terrorist threats, set off in no small part by the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001. We also experience the deaths of others around us, and at these times we feel the need to reconcile our position, asking ourselves “What did I do to deserve this?” or “What could I have done to prevent this?” People sometimes look to their god at times like this, asking forgiveness for something they had no control over, creating a feeling of inner calm because of the greater plan of their deity. This doesn’t always suffice, and people are less likely to blame their god for a tragedy than to look elsewhere for blame. Just why people look to their deity is another type of belief, a very complex one, and one I won’t be covering today.
In times like these we see a feeling of being intruded upon by outside forces. If someone is already feeling attacked from the outside, and something happens for which blame is difficult to place, then we tend to blame those for whom we already hold contempt. This can lead to a conflation of this distrust alongside a feeling of powerlessness, thus creating strength in the conspiracy theory. When one feels powerless, without a sense of agency in the world, they tend to gravitate toward alternate explanations for events and tragedies that befall them. From 9/11 to the shootings at Sandy Hook, to even the recent Oklahoma tornadoes (yes some blame the tornadoes on Obama), a person is struck with a certain sense of helplessness, and instead of succumbing to the gravity of the situation, will look for alternatives, and the conspiracy theory is born. To believe that Obama caused the tornadoes is nothing but crazy-talk, yet surprisingly, people who believe crazy things are not in and of themselves anything but normal. It is a natural reaction to a feeling of unknown and impending peril to look for a way to be and feel powerful, or to at least have some sort of influence over the situation. We can gain a sense of agency and empowerment when we feel like we hold information that those around us do not, almost a wisdom, or insider information, and when the reality of the situation makes us feel helpless, these alternative ideas become more attractive.
One would think that, given the free availability of information and the free exchange of ideas that the Internet provides us, we would be able to easily debunk any and all wild conspiracies with a simple Google search. Unfortunately this is not the case, as there are equal parts of information and misinformation available on any search, and those who already believe in a conspiracy will, through their own confirmation bias, have their theories backed up easier than they may have them debunked or weakened. A great example of this is the trend against vaccination both here and in the USA, caused mostly by Andrew Wakefield’s discredited studies into the link between vaccines and autism. There is enough presence in the anti-vax movement that it seems credible, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s all been proven false.
Any conspiracy theory can be backed by claims that seem on the surface to be just as likely as the claim they are trying to discredit. The conspiracy theorist inevitably falls on the side of the “outsider” or “leaked information” when making their mind up about these claims. Just think of the amount of people who claim that the moon landing was a fake, regardless of the facts that:
a. There were thousands of people involved in the program, and given how difficult it is for one person to keep a secret, how hard would it be for thousands to keep this secret indefinitely?
b. we can see the objects the space program left behind on the moon with a powerful enough telescope. In fact, the Lunar Reconnaissance orbiter recently returned images of the moon’s surface so detailed we can see the footprint trails and tracks from the linear rover from the Apollo 16 and 17 missions.
And with conspiracies, it seems the weirder and less likely the claim, the more compelling it is to the conspiracy theorist.
Closely linked to conspiracy theory is denialism, though I’ll only touch on this briefly, as it is a subject in itself worthy of spending more than this half hour allows for. We have no shortage of denialism in the world these days, people who, no matter how much data you throw at them insist that the scientists are lying so they can get more funding from the government. In particular, and of potentially the highest risk to humanity, is of course climate change denialists. The biggest problem with this kind of denialism is that there are people out there who stand to make money from this form of denial; The ones that mine for coal and drill for oil stand to be the losers if climate change is to be taken seriously by the masses, as the main byproduct of their product is precisely the cause of the problem. If enough “credible” people come forward in denial of climate change, we have a perceived consensus, where it looks as though the populace deny the claims of the scientists, giving them a seemingly legitimate voice. This is like conspiracy theory in that those who deny climate change believe exactly the opposing view, and say we are being conspired against, this time by not only the government, but big business who has government in their pocket.
In a recent article in the New York Times (May 21), titled “Why rational people buy into conspiracy theories”, Maggie Koerth-Baker writes,
So how does this relate to us here in Australia?
As I said, the USA is a powerful influencer of politics and culture worldwide, and our political and social lives are influenced by what happens in the USA. These influences from the USA can be seen and felt in our daily dealings, and the cycle of distrust that we see in the USA is almost as strong here as it is there. We need to be aware of the amount of influence the USA holds over Australia, as a great amount of our information is seen through the filter of American culture.
But skeptical inquiry is like walking a tightrope between accepting facts and disbelief of information presented. As Carl Sagan said in an interview in The Skeptical Inquirer in 1987:
What skepticism, cynicism, hyper-skepticism, and conspiracy theories all have in common is that they are all a direct result of the after-effects of Postmodernist thinking. Briefly I’ll just explain what Postmodernism is. Postmodernism was first developed as a reaction against the elite in art and literature, a way for the “other” to have their stories and art seen by the masses; The untrained artist, the amateur poet, the disenfranchised indigenous. Taking the elements of the past and treating them with a new light, a new sense of meaning, and rearranging them in such a way as to create a new narrative, the purpose was to move past the elitism of modernism, and into a realm in art and literature which celebrated the diversity of cultures and the individual experience.
But in today’s world, the idea of Postmodernism has been extended into the realm of our everyday; ideas and opinions, regardless of how informed they are, hold some meaning and value. Postmodernism outside of art and literature means that the words of authority, of experts, and of history and science, have all been diluted to the level of the individual’s testimony. The playing field has indeed been levelled, and not necessarily for the better. In post-Postmodernism, all view points are valid, all stories are important, and all levels of expertise are seen as the individuation of the expert, the expert of one’s own situation. The flip side of this is that many messages and points of view, which once upon a time held sufficient weight and influence, have become diluted in the deluge of Postmodernist equalisation.
So everything is now equal, but nothing is valuable. In this world of Postmodernist-fallout, the common belief is that all opinions are valuable, all ideas are worthy, and all input deserves respect. Of course we know this is not the case, and as a reaction to this tendency, comes the popularisation of the skeptical movement which rails against the populist theories of alternative medicine, new-age mystical psycho-babble and conspiracies.
So what can we take away from all this?
We certainly live in interesting times. Times in which we can easily celebrate and accept differences in opinions and ideas, where the voice of the individual can make itself heard through technology and independent media, where the seeming homogenisation of culture from the large conglomerates is constantly undermined by the emergence of sub-cultures and new ideas. We see the uprising of entire nations with the use of technologies and communication. But with that diversity and availability of ideas, the voices of those less trustworthy, with less expertise and less experience can be heard at the same volume as those of the real experts. It’s no wonder there are so many who distrust what they hear and read, as there is good reason to do so.
So, as thinking creatures, these forms of disbelief have become more common, and depending on a combination of your predisposition to certain ideas, your exposure to certain ideas, and your ability to adapt, this creates the level of questioning that you employ when looking at the world.
There are more ways out there to be wrong than there are to be right, so to be right takes a lot of work, a lot of examination, and a lot of thought to be able to weed out the untruths being spun.
It is also crucial to note that there ARE people out there spinning misinformation, either for political or financial gain, or just to become famous for their allotted 15 minutes. We see it daily here in the currents of Australian politics, where the two major parties are too busy countering words from the other party that even they lose track of what is real and what they invented as a rebuttal for words spoken by their opposition. QandA each Monday night shows just how commonplace this runs in our politics and industry, and nobody will come forward with the whole truth because nobody stands to gain from the mundanity of facts. I am rightfully skeptical of any word to escape the mouths of politicians and business leaders, because the underlying agenda is never spelled out plainly.
And finally, it is our job, as people with the correct and healthy levels of questioning and skepticism, to try to show the hyper-skeptics, the conspiracy theorists and the denialists where they are steering wrong, and where they can find the information to allow them to come to the facts, on their own. We cannot change a person’s mind or change their viewpoint, we can only point them in the right direction to decipher the truth from the myriad apparent truths out there. I’m not saying we have all the answers, but I am saying, from a skeptical standpoint, we stand a much better change of distilling it than those on the far end of disbelief.