To sum it all up, when it comes to the conspiracy theorists, I think most of these people are just confused. They’re feeling lost in a world that they perceive is changing very quickly. Their frontal lobes are telling them that things are awry, and they’re looking for a way to make sense of the chaos. They don’t have a handy framework to help them figure it out. These theories, like a butterfly seen in a blot of ink, are much more satisfying than the alternative, which is: it’s a bit of a mess.
Seeing a butterfly rather than a blot gives you a plan.
The problem is, deciding that the blot is really a butterfly—which is to say, using critical thinking only to throw away the apparent truth in favor of a much more Byzantine story—is a failure of discernment. It’s deciding to live in a cartoon world, a TV-drama world, rather than accepting life in a real world.
But hey, it’s Friday, and to conclude this little series, I’d like to let you in on some stuff I’ve figured out. I don’t have conclusive proof of any of it yet, but here are several ideas I’m workshopping of who started the so-called pand*mic:
Facebook: they needed to sell their Portal device, and how better to try to do it than force everyone apart from their families for a while?
Dippin’ Dots: in a triumph of playing the long game, they foresaw that the only way to offload their underused supercold freezers was by forcing science to create a vaccine that needed below-freezing temperatures.
HBO Max: found a way to spring into existence in the perfect circumstances to permanently kill movie theaters. Coincidence? Evidently not.
Fast fashion companies (various): foreseeing their demise due to increasing reports of their social ills and externalities, they now sell cheap masks, no doubt made out of 2021’s line of $5 dresses.
Yoga with Adriene, the so-called Queen of Pandemic Yoga. Listen to this: in January, 2020 she created a 30-day yoga series called “Home,” celebrating doing yoga at home. Come on. She knew. And this year’s offering is called “Breath,” which is pretty rich coming from someone who we can all tell started a pulmonary disease.*
I went to law school. They told, or threatened,, us that we would begin to think like lawyers. So we did.
Sometimes when I get annoyed with people who think wrong (like conspiracy nuts, or people who aren’t conversing with me the way I wish they would) I just wish they would think more like lawyers, which is to say, narrow the focus down to a linear progression: issue, rule, application, conclusion. One issue at a time, if you please! Make sure you’re citing the right rule! Apply that rule to the agreed facts! Great, now here comes your conclusion, like pasta out of an extruder! Hark!
It sure makes things orderly.
Of course, the real world doesn’t work like this, with many consequences, one of which is that it’s very hard for lawyers and non-lawyers to converse without each party becoming very frustrated with the other, and a million lawyer jokes were born. (Ever notice that there aren’t jokes by lawyers about non-lawyers? We’re a saintly bunch).
But why does this dance of convincing more or less work in courts of law, I ask myself? Why can people with opposing interests, with vastly opposite opinions and beliefs, still discuss things in an orderly way and get a conclusion, even if it’s not the one they wanted?
It’s not because lawyers are more decent than the rest of you. It’s because law has scraped away all the hard parts. When you’re talking law, you’re hemming yourself in to the inside of a framework with clear rules. Arcane, but clear! If you deviate from the framework, meaningful punishments can be applied.
Law is the too-easy art of convincing people of something from within the helpful confines of an agreed framework. The framework does the work for you—which is why it’s frame*work*. This is why laws are good.
But how to persuade cross-framework? And how to persuade people when they reject frameworks altogether? That’s where the real work begins.
In the chaos of the real world, people can and do throw the rules and the frameworks out when they no longer suit. We can’t force them to put the guardrails back on. We can only ask them nicely, but that does very little good when people believe the guardrails have failed them.
Or when they believe the guardrails are the doing of a satanic cabal.
Still, I don’t see any way for a society to function without guardrails. Any version of a future in which we can disagree well will need good guardrails. But who will make them, and what will they be?
Hopefully I’ll find out by the time I write my next post.
With me so far? Conspiracy thinking emerges out of a deeply human desire to find patterns and discrepancies. It’s critical thinking that hits a brick wall and skids sideways.
But the problem doesn’t end with actual conspiracy thinking. All of us are confused when it comes to that conspiracy topic du jour, the pandemic. We’re confused by the right amount of cautions to take, and which ones will do us good.
It’s like that George Carlin bit about drivers: “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” Anyone taking more precautions than you is paranoid, and anyone taking less is reckless.
Fortunately, I am happy to report that I myself have found the *exact perfect amount of risk to take.*
Anyway, something that’s interested me over the last few weird-ass months is watching people acting like the generals of legend as they fight Covid: they’re fighting the last war.
Some people are responding to the virus as though it’s 9/11 all over again: the remedy, they think, is to stay brave and keep living life, as though this will frighten the virus away. (It will not. The virus will enjoy it.)
Likewise, I read about one woman who was quoted as saying that she fully intends to keep visiting with her extended family, because “if the zombies are at the door, I want us to go down together,” or something to that effect. There might be safety in numbers when it comes to zombies, but again, the virus will love this strategy and it may well harm your family.
It makes me think: are some of us going to ineptly respond to future non-medical emergencies by donning masks and standing six feet apart, when really we ought to duck and cover or something?
It’s like we have a big red EMERGENCY beacon in the brain, and we know we’re supposed to do *something* when it starts blaring, but we’re not entirely sure what, or why, so we just default to our Favorite Emergency Behavior and hope for the best.
Like conspiracy thinking, so much of this incorrect reacting is a failure of wisdom. It’s a failure of discernment.
Getting people to do the right thing is clearly not just a matter of having the right experts say the right things loudly enough (although that wouldn’t hurt!) To my mind, it has a lot more to do with our need for clear frameworks for our thinking. We need people to think straight, dammit. We need bowling-alley bumpers for the national discourse.
So next time, let’s talk about how well that works for us in my field of law.
My last post argued that conspiracy thinking often involves a bit of good old-fashioned critical thinking. It just takes people to a weird place.
But, you might be screaming at me, that’s an incomplete definition of critical thinking. The point is, conspiracies about the pandemic are *wrong*. They involve *bad* thinking.
I agree. What unites these thoughts-gone-awry is a failure of discernment. Many of them make no sense when you think about them for longer than it takes to take them in.
Here’s one: “the global elites created covid as a hoax to get Trump out of office.” But follow that trail a bit: if Trump had been a competent president faced with a fake pandemic, wouldn’t he have handled it competently? Wouldn’t he have played the 3D or 11D chess he’s so famous for and gotten the fake pandemic under control, while also providing financial support to those injured by the hoax-driven lockdowns? Wouldn’t he have outsmarted the fakers?
Okay, that’s an extreme version of the conspiracy. Consider the more mainstream idea that the pandemic is real, but it’s overblown. It has a 95, or 98, or 99.98% survival rate (as we know, 78% of statistics are made up on the spot, so the number seems to change a lot), and 80% of people don’t even have symptoms (ditto). It’s no excuse to deep-six the economy. Now, is that idea alone a conspiracy thought? No. It’s just an opinion based on some (possibly wrong, definitely misleading) statistics.
Here’s where it turns into a conspiracy thought: pair it with some explanation of the gap between what those people perceive as the truth (Covid is not a big deal) and what most governments and health-care workers are saying consistently (Covid is a huge deal). One of the ways to bridge this gap is to conclude that the governments are using this real, but minor, disease as an excuse to seize lots of power, desensitize us to the loss of personal freedom, and maybe even plant chips in us when they give us the vaccine.
That flawed gap-bridging comes from that low-bar kind of critical thinking I mentioned last time. People are seeing something that doesn’t make sense, and they’re using their frontal lobes to attack it. Let’s admit: Covid doesn’t behave like we imagine the Black Death did in the 14th century. It doesn’t annihilate whole towns, like any really-scary movie-worthy pandemic should. Instead, the vast majority of people survive it in the immediate term (with the caveat we don’t know yet what the long-term effects might be). To people who are really desensitized to human suffering, this might seem like small potatoes. “Wake me up when it kills at least 70%,” they yawn. “Fine, some old people are dying. Old people die all the time.”
Let’s pause without tearing that apart: that observation requires an explanation! (There are explanations, but they’re a little complicated).
My point is: conspiracy thinking often starts with a valid critical thought, which is: hey, wait a minute, this isn’t adding up. You say it’s raining but you’re dry.
Just think of how many people are still citing the CDC’s recommendation early in the pandemic that non-health-care workers avoid wearing masks. There’s a very real criticism to be made there: you said one thing, now you are saying another. Which is it? Why should I believe you now? Yes, that is critical thinking.
Something similar is happening now with vaccine messaging. As today’s (January 18, 2021) New York Times Morning Newsletter pointed out, many health experts are banging the drum now that we don’t know for sure yet whether the vaccine will prevent Covid spread. There’s every likelihood it will, but the studies haven’t been able to prove it either way this early. In the face of that uncertainty, many public-health experts are arguing that we will all have to keep distancing and wearing masks for a long time after being vaccinated—partly because they are afraid that if vaccinated people stop doing so, the unvaccinated will as well. This has the predictable outcome of confusing people about the vaccine’s effects, and encouraging people’s frontal lobes to fire up with a “wait a minute.” As the Morning briefing put it: “[T]he best way to persuade people to behave safely usually involves telling them the truth…The current approach also feeds anti-vaccine skepticism and conspiracy theories.”
So let’s admit that governments in the United States have been awful at providing a clear, reasonable, and consistent message. It’s been transparent that they aren’t solely motivated by the best available science. They’re instead trying to split the baby between the science and economic interests, which results in lockdown orders that look like Frankenstein pork barrels. This baby-splitting creates the cognitive dissonance that is the fertile soil for bare-bones “critical thinking,” that “hey, wait a minute” thought that can give rise to all kinds of conspiracy thinking.
All that to say, people in positions of authority bear some responsibility for setting the stage for people’s brains to do what brains like to do, which is to find patterns, and identify discrepancies, and to make patterns out of discrepancies.
But where conspiracy thinking is a failure of critical thinking is that it finds a thought, any thought, that satisfies that cognitive dissonance: ah, the government can’t fool me. I don’t need to change my behavior because they are lying to me.
And then it just stops thinking.
It doesn’t ask: what is more likely? That the experts have gathered more information and the circumstances have evolved quickly during the first global pandemic of a novel virus in 100 years? Or that they’re all lying to me in a semi-coordinated fashion? Is it likelier that institutions are run by flawed humans weighing a tangle of factors, requirements, and interests? Or that they’re run by a unified cabal with a single, unspoken goal?
If a person has decided the latter, they now stop thinking, and start gathering more evidence in increasingly fringe parts of the internet for the orderly (if horrifying) pattern they have now identified.
In other words, it’s a kind of wild stop-and-start thinking that would make Occam’s razor rust. Or something.
We’re living in a fairly dysfunctional time in the oldest democracy in the world during a time of rapid change. That’s less exciting than the conspiracy version, just like Covid is less exciting than the Black Death, but it’s the truth. And no one said the truth would be exciting.
Now: onward to theorizing about conspiracy theories.
I often hear people accuse those who disagree with them of failing to think critically. “If they were able to think critically, as I am” (so the idea goes), “they would have come to the same conclusions as I have.”
Obviously it’s not so simple.
But I see the temptation. Looking at people who believe what I consider to be wild, fanciful, conspiratorial ideas about topics like the pandemic or the election, it’s easy to think that they are merely floating along with the whims of whoever they follow on Facebook. That they have failed to think critically about what they read.
Now, there are many definitions of “critical thinking,” but I (thinking critically) choose to make my own for my purposes here. It’s a low bar: critical thinking, for my purposes here, is the decision not to take a claim at face value—instead, to examine and test it a bit.
Let’s take a very easy one: someone comes in from the outdoors and reports that it’s raining. However, their clothes and hair are dry. Critical thinking, at a very basic level, is the process that allows you to say “hang on just a minute, I think it might not be raining,” despite what they’ve said.
Conspiracy thinking about the pandemic may or may not involve critical thinking of this basic type. I believe a lot of people are genuinely trying to use the God-given critical thinking skills their frontal lobes are hungry for. And there are disparities to use them on: These people hear various governments and experts making various mutually incompatible claims about what is and isn’t safe, what is and isn’t allowed, what the consequences of certain behaviors are. And these statements may not match this person’s experience. They may not know anybody who’s had Covid, or who’s had it bad, or who’s died.
To them, this is a dry person reporting a rainstorm.
Or, they hear different experts and different governments saying conflicting things, and this makes everyone’s critical-thinking alarms go off. After all, if there’s a lack of consensus, someone needs to sort things out.
“Why not me?” And then they charge in and try to sort out something very complicated without proper guardrails, and things go sideways.
This is the very American problem we’re facing right now: our individualist culture champions what it calls “critical thinking,” by which we too often mean discarding expert information in favor of the testimony of our own friends and our own guts. We believe in our ability to understand hard concepts, far more than we believe in our own limitations and others’ expertise. And we believe that it is actually uncritical, sheeplike, to listen to experts.
I want to get deeper into this idea in future posts, but for now I want to leave you with this challenge: if you are tempted to think of so-and-so as a big dumb-o for believing whatever wild idea is floating around the internet today, consider whether they think the same of you. Then consider: if you wanted to engage them in a real debate, how would you convincingly distinguish between your belief in what you read and hear, and what they do?
After all, simply yelling back and forth to read different sources isn’t going so well.
Just watch. Trump is going to get fewer votes than Biden.
Watch: the president who lost the popular vote by three million and then had consistently the lowest approval rating for his entire term is going to magically “get many millions fewer votes than his opponent, including in critical states, and will lose the election as a result.”
Can you believe this stuff!
And just watch: the media is saying that there will be a “red mirage” on election night because Republicans have insisted that we can’t count votes until polls close (in order to create a red mirage). And watch: this will happen! Just as the media says it will!
This proves that the media lies.
Watch: Trump is going to lose every case he brings trying to prove that he won the election. This proves only that it’s all rigged, even (especially!) the Supreme Court he appointed one-third of.
It’s amazing how low they’ll go. They make it look so lifelike. The whole sham looks almost precisely like a non-sham. Truly devious.
Then, just watch: Biden is going to be adequate. He’s going to do an okay job at his job. Yeah, this stuff is tricksy.
And meanwhile, watch and see for yourselves: Trump is going to continue to “embarrass himself” with the things that he does and says.
It’s a dangerous time to spout unprovable, subjective claims. We’re all waiting with bated breath to see if last week’s attempted violent coup in my backyard, fueled by internet madness, will repeat next week in everyone’s backyard.
But I’m here to write about conspiracy theorists and their theories (again), and in that spirit, I can’t let a lack of expertise, or the presence of prudence, hold me back.
Consider it method blogging.
These guys’ bizarre fanfics are proliferating at an amazing speed on the internet these days, so you may be far more familiar with them than you’d like. (Or, if you’re one of them, you’re furious at me for using the “c” word about you, in which case, let’s talk!)
But me? I was fascinated by this weirdness for a long time before it unfortunately reached mainstream consciousness. Back when it seemed more like a funny curiosity than like the stupidity that’s going to drag us all under with it. Just yesterday, someone gave me the dubious honor of saying I was the the first person who introduced him to the idea of “QAnon” just a few short, innocent years ago.
It’s because I have a compulsion to read the comments, as I’ve confessed here before. Even though I don’t know any of these people in the real world, I see them daily, in places like the comments sections of innocuous Instagram posts, where everybody else is just lolling and flinging emojis around and tagging their friends, these people will come in hot screaming
STOP THE STEAL
KAMALA HARRIS IS A SATANIC ANTIFA MEGAROBOT
They have no chill. And, as someone who outwardly has chill but inwardly has no chill, I find this total-bananas way to be completely fascinating in a horrifying way. Probably the same way a lot of you like true crime.
So stay tuned. I have theories about theories, coming soon.
My brain, which is pretty sure it’s the star of every show, likes to do gymnastics when it thinks I’m trying to ignore it. When I try to sleep or meditate or give the rest of my organs a chance to do their thing without the brain cracking the whip and jumping up and down for attention, it likes to jerk on the reins a bit and show us all who’s boss.
This is simply what it does. As someone said (my clever brain has no idea now where I heard it; if you know, please tell me), “the brain secretes thoughts like the stomach secretes acid.”
But sometimes I don’t want to be a hostage to the thought parade, just like I wouldn’t want to be hostage to an acid parade. I try to calm the brain down so that other things can happen.
It’s sneaky, though.
I’ll sit down to the piano at night for my pre-bedtime noodle, and it will be going really well. You can’t play fluidly while you are in conscious control of all ten of your fingers and your pedaling foot, so this means you have to let your body take over the flow.
It’s right when I notice I’m in a nice state of flow that my brain knocks on the door and says, “Ah, this is going well!”
Clang. Wrong notes. Lost place.
Then the brain tries to put the apple-cart right, micromanaging, and soon there are apples flying everywhere and I forgot how to count.
Still, thank you for your service, brain. You do a lot. Sometimes you can take a breather, though.
As I write this, we are watching a historic political crisis in my country. It has been a violent, infuriating, humiliating day.
And yet it is Epiphany, and perhaps the lesson to draw from this is that we sometimes bear witness to events without fully understanding how they will unfold in the very long term. It is our job to follow the star, even if it surprises and confounds us.
With that, here is a short story I wrote last Epiphany, and significantly revised this year.
The star went on taunting him even as he turned his back and pointed his horse’s head down the dusty road toward dawn. It sent a faint unease up his spine the way the star hung in the west behind him, open-mouthed, as it had for months.
He’d make sense of it, sooner or later. He shaded his eyes against the sun beginning to rise over the east road.
He took some comfort from the fact that his two companions appeared unbothered by the star’s looming. Instead, the learned one was at his wit’s end with the quiet one from the far east, as he had been for nearly their whole journey together. Squaring himself up on his horse, the learned one raised a finger at the back of the other one plodding silently ahead of him on his ludicrous donkey. “I can still scarcely believe that you gave the myrrh, of all things,” intoned the learned one.
The myrrh had been a strange choice. Even now, their trunks were heaving across the horses’ backs with all the diplomatic gifts they’d brought from the eastern empire, appropriate for meeting a new king, which remained ungiven. There were tapestries, rare gems, stoppered bottles of precious wine. The quiet one had brought nothing, but the other two had generously let him go through their horses’ trunks to save face.
As was customary, they had waited until they’d met the king to decide which gifts they’d each present, listening to the quiet whisper of the Wise Lord for inspiration. They had bowed their heads and offered the gifts to the cooing baby king in his mother’s arms. The first unveiled the gold to symbolize the king’s future wealth, then the learned one revealed fine incense for elite rites. But the solemn moment was broken when the quiet one smiled and unwrapped the myrrh in his outstretched hand. The first two shot sharp looks at him and nearly gasped, but the mother closed her eyes, bowed her head reverently, and took it.
“What can you have meant by that, my friend?” the learned one went on to the back of the quiet one before him. “You can’t have meant it as perfume, because I gave perfume. We were very clear that we would not give the same gift twice. Which can only mean you meant it as—” He shuddered. “Wrong, simply wrong,” he hissed, “to give such a morbid gift to a king.”
“To a baby,” grimaced the first in agreement. The quiet one shrugged, turning his face to the north with a tiny smile. “Perhaps.” He turned
back to the east and said nothing further, plodding on his ridiculous donkey. The first and the second shot each other mystified looks, wise men struck dumb. Annoying,
unbearable, that some back home called him the wisest of men. The quiet one’s shrug cast a pall over the return journey.
With the silence and the hypnotic sway of the horse, the first one contemplated how he would describe the visit to the homebound many back in the great eastern empire, anxiously awaiting his tales of adventure in the rambunctious western frontier.
Imagine: they had come all the way from Persia and beyond at the foot of a star that promised a king. But when they entered this country, the star had led them into nothingness, a hilly desert full of windswept homesteads, hungry goats, angry-eyed peasants. The star was playing tricks on them, expert astrologers though they were. No doubt the Wise Lord would not lead them to a random hovel. On a holy diplomatic mission such as this, an embassage to a new king, shouldn’t they go to the palace?
They did, and that was when they met the governor-king. The first had twitched his hand toward the gold in his satchel. Gold—a gift fit for a king. He ought to offer it straight away. He was a practical man, Wise Lord knew. But he hadn’t liked the gleam in this king’s eye, the knifelike sheen in his smile, his prying questions. He’d stilled his hand, the Wise Lord whispering not yet. Together with his companions, he’d breathed sighs of relief in the dark night outside the palace gates afterward, weighed down and dizzy with lavish courses and western wine.
The star hung patient to the south. They saddled their animals and meandered where it led.
And, having left the little family in their little house (more of a barn, to their eyes), the star lay parked above it, as though imploring them to stay.
They had made camp among hospitable shepherds, who seemed to be under the rather amusing impression that the men were themselves kings of some kind. Breaking bread with the men and their sheep, they spoke in polite hushed tones in their own shared language about the strange meeting with the king. The boy’s parents had been kind, terribly kind, and rather noble of mien, yes, but—dwelling in what was essentially a stable. Was that how things were done out here in the ragged west? Where were their attendants, their courtiers, the palace, the subjects? Was he to be a king among sheep? A mind-twister, a riddle to chew on for years. How can a peasant child be a king, and a rich man in a palace a villain? What did the Wise Lord mean by all of it?
They didn’t laugh yet, but they would on the east road. Probably.
In the morning, to avoid the governor-king’s nauseating presence, his unsettling demands to know where they found the baby, they skirted Jerusalem by many miles. The long road took them through somewhere called Nazareth, where they fumbled with the language as they traded for dried meat and fruit and nuts for the extended journey.
The learned one’s homeland was the nearest, so he parted first. Later, when the time came for the quiet one to continue alone down the far-east road, the first one had opened his mouth for some
meaningful goodbye. But the quiet one had raised his hand and said, “perhaps,” then turned his donkey and swayed away.
Perhaps, the first one thought afterward as he plodded alone, they would meet again sooner or later. It might happen again as it had many months ago, when they had nearly collided as strangers on the road in their curiosity at the new star in the west.
After all, who is to say what will happen? “Not a wise man,” he chuckled to himself, and his horse shook his head in sage agreement.
On his final night on the road beneath the onyx sky, he grew sleepy wondering about the tiny king he had seen. What would become of him and his brave mother, his kind-eyed father?
Would the gold make his travels easy?
Would the frankincense smoke and perfume the space around him, awing his courtiers?
Would the myrrh—
The aging mother, her wise eyes sad, unwrapping the myrrh to fill the king’s death shroud.
He jerked awake, shaking his head and gasping. What could the Wise Lord mean by such an awful image? A premonition?
He remembered how the third one had shrugged after giving the myrrh. A funerary gift. What had the Wise Lord told him?
Soon he’d be back to his studies and to his magic tricks, a glimpse for the masses of the inexpressible. Starry eyes in the audience. Mute tricks in his intelligent hands. What wisdom would he have to share? He felt as foolish as his horse.
Perhaps someday the Wise Lord would show him another star to make clear what this journey’s purpose had been, and what the vision portended.