Call out conspiracy theorists for who they are

 

CONSPIRACY theories have a lot to answer for.

They might seem like harmless social media fun as bored teens pore over the events at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947.

But conspiracy theories - the unhinged rationale for lawless mobs - have for centuries caused misery and death for countless millions.

It was no accident Hitler scapegoated Jews for Germany's post-war woes, or that he encouraged the dizzy doublethink of Jews being both communists and rich bankers.

That's why I gasped when mobs in Melbourne and Sydney clashed with police and demanded "freedom" at arguably the most hazardous moment for Australia in a century.

Freedom for what? To allow themselves to be infected with COVID-19, and then to infect others?

Such mobs take their lead from web-based global conspiracy groups - which, among other things, believe the British royal family heads an international drug cartel, and that alien lizards walk the Earth in human form - and laughably believe COVID-19 is a "planned pandemic" (or "plandemic") released by the faceless elites who really rule the world.

If that's too much for you, what about how the 5G network causes COVID-19.

Or, as US President Donald Trump believes, that the virus is human-made - maybe even a bioweapon - and "escaped" from a Chinese laboratory despite WHO and US intelligence evidence of its natural origins.

 

 

Why, despite the obvious madness, do people risk their own lives for this drivel?

A minority of the weekend's protesters would have an economic beef: they simply cannot afford another week of lockdown. That's a terrible set of circumstances that federal and state governments are ameliorating as best they can.

But most of the mob would boast political and cognitive agendas. It's political because these folk will have a history of rejecting authority - parents, teachers, employers - and they gravitate to anything validating their mistrust, including libertarian and anarchist causes.

One protester's sign - "the police do not have authority" - sums it up neatly.

This political dimension is even more pronounced in the US, where marginalised voters - draped in guns and Confederate flags - also protested lockdowns in a country of more than 1.3 million infections.

Trump must win back these angry states which voted for him in 2016 but which are now drifting back to the Democrats.

That's why he galvanised support in so recklessly tweeting "Liberate Minnesota! Liberate Michigan! Liberate Virginia, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!"

It's also why Trump on Monday said the US had "prevailed" over the virus despite the world's highest death toll now surpassing 80,000.

But what about cognitively? Why do people feel the intellectual and emotional need to believe nonsense that, should they step back for a moment, they instinctively know is crap?

Psychology professor John Hart of Union College in New York has a fair idea.

"These people tend to be more suspicious, untrusting, eccentric, needing to feel special, with a tendency to regard the world as an inherently dangerous place," Hart told Science Daily in 2018.

"They are also more likely to detect meaningful patterns where they might not exist.

"People who are reluctant to believe in conspiracy theories tend to have the opposite qualities.

"In other words, some folk are emotionally hardwired to fall for this garbage."

I've talked to more than a few (especially male) conspiracy theorists over the years.

Too often they have the backside out of their trousers, yet deify billionaire Donald Trump as the saviour of humanity because "he stands up for the little guy, like me".

Interestingly, they have one thing in common: they proudly boast "special" insider knowledge about how Australia and its "fake media" and "sham democracy" really work - knowledge that useless "eggheads" like me wouldn't understand.

Critically, that "knowledge" makes them feel hyper-intelligent and exclusively special in a world that has all but rejected them.

That might seem harmless enough in terms of debates over faked moon landings.

But this defiant ignorance undermines our trust in scientific and other expertise.

And that, in turn, threatens not only our herd immunity, but also our ability to spot nefarious agents hell-bent on weakening our democratic institutions.

The answer? Confrontation. Do not humour family and friends who engage in conspiracy theories. Do not laugh off their eccentricities.

Instead, confront them. Call them out on their garbage. Your children's future depends on it.

Originally published as Call out conspiracy theorists for who they are