Wednesday, December 30, 2020
As we close out 2020, it’s important to recognize that one contributing factor to this year’s tumult is Americans’ tendency to embrace outlandish conspiracy theories. When we can’t even agree on basic facts, it makes collaboration to address complex problems extraordinarily difficult. We’re seeing it now predominantly on the right (e.g., unfounded claims of a global conspiracy to steal the election, allegations that COVID is a hoax or that Bill Gates is using the vaccine to track people, the rise of Q Anon), but folks on the left should resist the temptation to feel self-righteous.
Conspiracy theories appeal to a deep-seated human desire for certainty in a messy world, and that appeal is not limited to one side of the political spectrum. Those on the left have traditionally been more likely to ignore scientific data in promoting claims that vaccines cause autism, for example. And polling data from several years ago found that the percentage of Democrats who suspected that the federal government knew ahead of time about the 9/11 attacks was roughly the same as the percentage of Republicans who suspected that President Obama was born in a foreign country. This is a human problem, and one that is growing more dire as many media companies contort to satisfy our demand for content that confirms the beliefs we already have.
So as a new year begins, are there modest steps we can take to guard our minds from the temptation of conspiracy theories? I’ll share three things that have been helpful for me and one that I hope to pursue more in the new year.
The first is pretty simple: I subscribe to our local newspaper. I read the paper every morning because it is one of the only non-self-curated forms of media available to me. And even though I spend much of my day reading things on a screen, I read a hard copy newspaper for the very reason that I can’t just click on the hyperlinks that appeal to me. The physical act of viewing an assortment of primarily local news that is the same assortment my neighbors from across the political spectrum are reading each morning is a small but, in my view, important step toward getting myself out of the information bubble that social media have empowered me to create.
Second, when I argue about ideas – and arguing about ideas is a healthy feature of our democracy – I try to be specific and substantive in my critiques of those with whom I disagree. Name-calling is great if we’re looking for retweets or FB likes, not so much if we’re looking to build mutual understanding. Our arguments should also be coherent. A lack of coherence doesn’t just make our advocacy less effective – it promotes cynicism, suggesting that politics is just about power, not about reason or principle. This sort of cynicism drives people to disregard our shared capacity for reason and embrace political messages premised on tribalism and us-versus-them narratives.
Third, because many of today's challenges require help from scientists, I try to remember that science cannot tell me what to value, but science can provide insights about our world that help me live out my values. I trust science to do what it does well. Disregarding the findings of science because we’re concerned about the political or religious views of particular scientists just doesn’t make sense. As Steven Pinker puts it, “An endorsement of scientific thinking must first of all be distinguished from any belief that members of the occupational guild called 'science' are particularly wise or noble. The culture of science is based on the opposite belief -- its signature practices (including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods) are designed to circumvent the sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable.”
Fourth – and this is the one I hope to work on more in the coming year – I firmly believe that I should spend more time focused on local politics than on national politics. When I spend my time and emotional energy engaging on national politics, I’m talking about distant figures with whom I have no relationship, and it’s easy for me to cast them as shadowy forces in a global good-versus-evil narrative. When Americans are focused primarily on Donald Trump, Joe Biden, George Soros, or the Koch brothers, it’s no wonder conspiracy theories find fertile ground. The local is important because it’s a path to relationship. We should all have hands-on experience learning that opposing views about the presidential election do not preclude collaboration on beautifying the local park, improving our schools, or creating recreational programs to help at-risk kids. I may still disagree with my neighbor Bill’s views, but it will be much harder to dismiss his views as part of a sinister global conspiracy – he’s just Bill, and I know he loves his kids as much as I love mine. I’m not suggesting that we withdraw from national politics, but we may need to rethink our priorities.
It's a scary world, and we are caught in a downward spiral: as Americans lose trust in each other, we try to make sense of the world by believing the worst about each other, regardless of whether the belief is supported by evidence. And when we loudly proclaim those beliefs, those who disagree with us trust us even less. And the spiral continues. To be clear, we’re not going to rebuild trust and negate the attraction of conspiracy theories overnight. But if we’re hoping for a future that is brighter than the present, we have to start somewhere.