Occam’s razor is spinning in its grave

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. 

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