George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “We are more gullible and superstitious today than we were in the Middle Ages, and an example of modern credulity is the widespread belief that the Earth is round. The average man can advance not a single reason for thinking that the Earth is round. He merely swallows this theory because there is something about it that appeals to the twentieth century mentality.”
But one would think that Shaw, a deliberate controversialist who went on many sea voyages, might have reconsidered his witticism about the shape of the Earth merely by observing how ships sailing away toward the horizon gradually seem to disappear from the waterline up.
Yet there is a sense Shaw undoubtedly never intended in which he might have been right. The credulity and superstition of the Middle Ages existed because science was primitive to the point of nonexistence, and there were no means for the mass diffusion of knowledge. That said, the peasant was likely to be an expert empiricist in his own work—knowing when to sow and when to harvest, how to smoke a ham, which herbs were beneficial and which ones would kill him. Not knowing these things meant death. Philosophical speculation he left to the parish priest.
Today, with terrabytes of knowledge at our fingertips, huge numbers of people are plunged, not just in ignorance—the mere absence of knowledge—but in a confident and militant anti-knowledge. As the American humorist Josh Billings put it, “The trouble with people is not that they don’t know, but that they know so much that ain’t so.”
The moon landings were faked by Stanley Kubrick. The Earth was created on October 23, 4004 BC (although proponents are a little vague on whether it was AM or PM). That same recently created Earth is flat, despite mounds of evidence that Shaw would never have had, such as orbital satellites (hey, YouTube proved it’s flat). Dinosaur fossils are either a hoax to test the faith of Christians, or alternatively, the big critters lived contemporaneously with homo sapiens (Noah must have run out of room for the brontosauruses on the ark; but what possessed him to take streptococci aboard?). Then there is the QAnon lunacy, which is hardly explicable. And so on, ad nauseam.
Where does all this jackassery come from? I would be the first to say that a healthy skepticism is a requirement for all citizens who mean to govern themselves. Conspiracies and cover-ups do exist, professionals touting credentials can be frauds, and accepted wisdom can be wrong. But the persistent belief that the entire fabric of everyday life is an elaborate and maliciously intended forgery is a species of dissociative disorder that can lead to full-blown madness.
Its origin lies in fundamental psychology, but is reinforced by our strange contemporary politics. The conspiracy theorist is superficially a cynic. The pose of the cynic who claims not to be taken in by the fairytales of a rigged system is a fairly common one, and I saw it all the time during my political career (a dead giveaway that you’re about to hear something head-trauma crazy is when they start talking dismissively about “all the game-playing in Washington”). But the problem is that such cynicism is not the opposite but rather the accompanying symptom of extreme gullibility.
These are the people whose willed cynicism detects a worldwide, tightly controlled conspiracy of tens of thousands of scientists, thousands of universities and foundations, and scores of national governments systematically perpetrating a hoax about climate change. Yet they instantly believe a chain email written in green, 24-point Comic Sans font about alien abductions.
This credulity probably has its origins in the impulse to prostrate oneself before alleged supernatural forces. Our simian natures quail before the bigness and incomprehensibility of the world, and shrink with terror before our inevitable mortality; surely there must be a plot device that gives to the story arc transcendent “meaning” (a meretricious concept: the universe simply stands for itself, with no metaphysical stage management required).
Many people would prefer that an omnipotent power is invisibly arranging things rather than events simply occurring, as they often do, in random and chaotic fashion. Even when the power they see manipulating events is malign (as it usually is in such cases), it somehow brings more psychological closure than the realization that tragedies can occur through accident and sheer dumb happenstance.
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Those who sententiously intone that “everything happens for a reason” are likely either to hand you a copy of the Gideon Bible or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And the experience of being “saved” is surprisingly close to those who babble on about having seen the light after taking the Red Pill. Thus, TWA 800 was downed by a missile fired by the US military; the notion that the Kapton insulation of the wiring within the plane’s fuel tank cracked and caused a short that ignited the fuel vapors is too petty to provide a satisfying Manichean drama.
Centuries ago, the devil might have been blamed for crop failures, stillborn calves, or plague; now it is powers behind the scenes that cause misfortune. In both cases the malefactor can be fought, or at least propitiated, in a way that a loose nut on a wheel hub or a cracked brake line cannot. Fake moon landings are the equivalent of the Antichrist’s signs and wonders in the Internet age.
If a person buys into one such conspiracy fantasy, he is much more prone to believe in multiple theories; this phenomenon is what the folks at Rational Wiki refer to as crank magnetism. Such people are even inclined to hold mutually exclusive theories: those believing that Princess Diana faked her death are also more likely to believe she was murdered.
The current epidemic of conspiracy theorizing is not only human psychology weaponized through the Internet. It was deliberately fostered by the post-1960’s rise of politicized religious fundamentalism and its eventual merger with the Republican Party.
Buttressing this merger is a vast support structure of media, foundations, pressure groups and even a thriving cottage industry of fake historians and phony scientists. From Fox News to the Discovery Institute (which exists solely to “disprove” evolution), and from the Heritage Foundation (which propagandizes that tax cuts increase revenue despite massive empirical evidence to the contrary) to bogus “historians” like David Barton (who confected a fraudulent biography of a piously devout Thomas Jefferson that had to be withdrawn by the publisher), the anti-knowledge crowd has created an immense ecosystem of political disinformation.
Thanks to these overlapping and mutually reinforcing segments of the right-wing media-entertainment-educational complex, it is now possible for the true believer to sail on an ocean of political, historical, and scientific disinformation without ever sighting the dry land of empirical fact.
The election of Donald Trump has given new impetus to the solipsistic denial of observable facts and reality. When he calls someone “nasty,” his campaign sends out a recording of the remark, and then he denies saying it, the expected response of his followers is, well, maybe in the sight of God he never said it – it’s just fake news. Or, perhaps, they retreat into the schizophrenic attitude that Trump lies because “he tells it like it is.”
Where this marriage of cynicism, gullibility, and deliberate disinformation for political purposes will lead is anyone’s guess, but one is uncomfortably reminded of Hannah Arendt’s description of mass psychology in a populist dictatorship:
In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true… Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.