Conspiracies: Real and Otherwise
Illustration (Image credit: Wix)
Our first rain should arrive in the form of showers about two weeks time from now. You may not believe the forecast of Fall's first rain, but it turns out that my wife believes there is a conspiracy to keep her from going to bed on time. And it turns out that it is I who am responsible for this. You see, she believes that every time she needs to get ready for bed that I purposely run to, enter, and appropriate the bathroom. In fact, she says that as soon as I hear her footsteps on the stairs, she can hear my footsteps on the bedroom floor, followed shortly by the slamming of the bathroom door.
What's going on? Well, I will tell you that it turns out that I married my wife because I sublimely knew that she and I would go to bed about the same time. This is important, as one soon comes to realize that bedtime is actually a time not just for sleeping, but for asking, "How was your day?" Hence, our mutual run for the bathroom.
But, what if it turns out that there is actually a conspiracy going on here? A conspiracy by husbands to annoy their wives? What is a conspiracy anyway?
A conspiracy is defined as "any concurrence in action; combination to bring about any given result." So, my wife must think that husbands everywhere conspire to go in the bathroom whenever they hear their wives on approach. Well, I am telling her that I don't need other husbands to annoy her, I can do that all on my own.
Yet, there are plenty of conspiracy theories around. For instance, the other day I pointed out that in Gush Etzion there are all of about 100 people with coronavirus, but in Betar (where masks are not worn and social distancing is ignored) there were already 1,000 people diagnosed. The other person's response? "Who told you? Why do you believe those numbers? Do you know anyone who has the coronavirus?"
This person believes that the health ministry is conspiring to foster hate of the religious. This week, a report came out about another man, a skeptic, who woke up in a coronavirus ward and exclaimed: "But there is no coronavirus!" There are those who claim that those people who have died from the virus “would have died anyway." Yet, the Jerusalem Post reported that the health ministry estimates that only 12% of the people who contracted the virus would have died in the next six months, and only 20% in the next year. This means that people like Raphael, an Israeli singer and my wife's uncle, a healthy individual in his mid-80s, died prematurely shortly after contracting the virus — just like the father of a colleague of mine. So, yes, I do know people who have had the virus — and even died from it.
Another claim is that a combination of zinc, Vitamin D, etc., are helpful in fighting the coronavirus. While there is reason to believe that proper nutrition and fewer extra pounds could improve coronavirus related outcomes, I've been told that these simple and inexpensive treatments are being withheld because they aren’t profitable. President Trump did take zinc, etc., but he still required serious and even revolutionary treatments to make his recovery. Yet, Trump went on to state that the disease is not really worse than the flu (a claim I often hear), despite the disparity in deaths between the two diseases. You could say all this, even write it, but you won't convince someone who's already convinced otherwise.
So, why are some people (if not many) prone to conspiracy theories? The first reason is that our brains are "wired" to believe (even strange) things — because this particular trait leads to greater survival outcomes. The other is related to something called "Ramsey's Theory," which states that given enough elements in a set or structure, some interesting or recognizable pattern is guaranteed to emerge. Hence, we can easily find support for our beliefs, simply by piecing together supportive but unrelated bits of information.
But, perhaps the biggest reason for conspiracy theories is that our social media platforms have been designed (inadvertently) to foment dissent by reinforcing previously held suspicions and that media itself contributes to the spread of the theories. This results in those, for example, who have told me that the coronavirus "lockdown" is a conspiracy of the Left to elect Democrats and a Democratic President (preferably a very far left Democrat). There are also conspiracy theories holding that the President faked his coronavirus test. As one columnist put it, "Facebook and Twitter have become giant engines for destroying the two pillars of our democracy — truth and trust." They've done this by destroying our ability to sort truth from falsehood.
Recently Netflix explored the role of social media in "The Social Dilemma," explaining how AI (artificial intelligence) programs, designed to maximize revenue for social media, are inadvertently fostering societal divisions, providing avenues for nefarious characters (including state actors) to influence political opinion or reinforce even "naturally" occurring biases, including racist attitudes and/or antisemitism, for their own benefit.
An important way to maximize revenue is to hold the interest of the user; this can be done by sending the user stories of interest to them, usually news items and/or opinions that conform to a person's predilections or even preconceived notions. The result is that a person's truth becomes what he sees or hears. In the end, we may all live in our own bubble of reality, not interacting except to mock or minimize the opinions (and people) who don't conform with what we know to be "true."
It's the way one can claim that carbon dioxide doesn't cause global warming, but when the world warms anyway, we're told it's a good thing. It's the way that one can claim the coronavirus isn't very contagious (or very dangerous), but when the President and a large number of his staff get it, we're told that it was bound to happen if we waited long enough — rather than stating that maybe they should have worn masks, etc. It's the way we can claim that vaccines cause autism, even though autism existed well before the advent of vaccines. If you look for your own set of ‘facts’ on the internet, you'll find someone else with the same set of ‘facts,’ no matter how false they may be. It then becomes easier to turn mental somersaults to hold on to your opinion.
So, why do people believe in conspiracy theories? I think it is because people dislike uncertainty; uncertainty is associated with danger. Of course, there are and have been true conspiracies, for instance, the plot to assassinate President Lincoln. But, the decisiveness fostered by the enemies of democracies (Iran, Turkey, Russia, China) and enabled by social media is making it very difficult for us to act in a unified way — the unity needed to meet today's many challenges, including against those conspiracy theories specifically engendered by social media.
Dr. Lynn is a lecturer at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Earth Sciences Department. He is also CEO of Weather It Is, LTD, a company that specializes in reducing weather risk. Click here to read more of this writer’s work in The Jerusalem Herald.