A little while back I wrote a piece on the treatment of autism with ABA – a piece I was sure would provoke an outburst of criticism from the anti-vaccination crowd, and hence not done lightly.
And indeed, it has had plenty of comments, but certainly not from the quarters I expected.
In the case of one correspondent ‘Phil’, what started out some vaccination-denial and Wakefield-o-philia, has taken a really strange twist. From vaccination-denial, it’s a short hop to the mega-influence of ‘Big Pharma’, and then somehow we segue into the conspiracy for the establishment of a ‘new world order’. Wow, didn’t see that coming.
What follows is a wordy exchange between us (read all the comments under the link above), in which he tries desperately to convince me that the UN, major world leaders and millions of others are positioning themselves to subjugate the rest of us. You may have heard of the ‘illuminati‘ – well, they’re behind it apparently.
His comments are choc-full of those good logical fallacies, along with the usual charges that I’m narrow-minded, have my head in the sand, stuck in a pigeon-hole, arrogant, and so forth, but all I’ve done is demand the evidence before I would subscribe to his belief. And what does he provide as evidence? Lengthy rants, wikipedia definitions, and youtube videos, none of which constitute evidence.
And as I put it to him, if this organisation is so all-pervasive and powerful, how is it that you know and are alive to tell others?
His most recent missive has turned somewhat nasty – here is the final paragraph:
You have been trained to be arrogant and defend the status quo. You are ignorant of the fact that you are in receipt of less than 1% of the electromagnetic spectrum, yet you claim to describe reality from this perspective and as a sceptic are committed to denying the existence of anything outside this limited perspective. This is why you are in box, your box has been made for you by your education and media, but you don’t know that you are a slave. I know this because I used to be in it as well. You must consider all reality, all perspective, and not allow others to describe your world view. The film the Matrix is nearly real. I discovered that the world was controlled by evil people, you must recognise this for yourself, through research while you have access to the net (they are clamping down on it right now) if you don’t, you are screwed and you will fall for their propaganda, and will gladly be injected with their next hyped vaccine program, which is equivalent to Stalin’s people walking peacefully in line to be shot in the head. You have a few months left.
So it sounds like we might not make Christmas this year.
On the other hand, I’m betting it will come and go like most others, and he’ll find a way to rationalise why it hasn’t happened yet. They always do.
In any case, I was reminded of an excellent episode of the Skeptoid podcast by Brian Dunning, a series which examines a whole host of beliefs in the popular culture. In this episode he has researched the area of conspiracy theories, and describes them as:
“…a competition between two forces in our head. One is the native, instinctive impulse to see everything as a threat, and the other is our rational, conscious thought that takes that input and judges it.”
I guess Phil and I represent each of those two forces.
Brian goes on to describe some classic examples around us, such as:
David Icke is a British conspiracy theorist best known for his claim that most world leaders are actually reptilian aliens wearing electronic disguises. When you pause a video, he points to the compression artifacting and asserts that it’s a glitch in the electronic disguise. However, he’s out in the world, he tours, he writes books, he has a family and is a member of his community. He’s not locked in an asylum as we might expect from hearing his theory. The reason is that he’s probably not mentally ill at all. His brain is doing exactly what it’s supposed to. He sees a group of powerful men, and the instinctive part of his brain suggests a sinister purpose. Imagine yourself seeing the ministers of the G8, or some similar collection. A thought passes through all of our minds, something like this: “I bet they all know something I don’t know. I’d love to hear what they were talking about. They’re up to something.” That’s the same thing David Icke thinks. It’s exactly what our brains evolved to do. Our brains all want to go there.
And then the intellect receives this warning, and analyzes it, based on its knowledge. We all have different knowledge built from different experiences. One who has had negative experiences with authority is likely to gauge this situation differently than one who has not. David Icke probably has some past experience that makes his intellect properly — if incorrectly — assign more credence to the threat than is necessary; overtly so, in his particular case. Most of the rest of us have rarely seen a news story where a secret collusion among world leaders was discovered, so our intellectual understanding of the world has good reason to reject this particular instinctive threat as being improbable. Thus we conclude that it’s probably just a group of businesspeople doing what they have to do. We all fall somewhere along that spectrum, and all perspectives are the result of our brains properly doing their job.
Obviously, the intensity of the conspiracy feeling varies in a continuous spectrum, and there comes a point where it is destructive to the afflicted and those around them. As Brian puts it:
A person who thinks Barack Obama’s birth certificate is fake is not ill, but a person who obsesses over it to the point of driving away their friends and family could well be …. Such people could benefit from treatment, usually a combination of drug therapy and psychotherapy. However, as we’ve discussed before on Skeptoid, getting them to agree to treatment at all is often the primary barrier. They believe their delusion is real. They will present their evidence to prove it until the cows come home. It’s often impossible to get them to consider the possibility that the reality of what they perceive might be due, in any degree, to psychopathology.
But moving back towards the centre of the spectrum again, Brian does point out that ‘ordinary’ conspiracy theorists are typically ‘intelligent, sane, and generally rational’, and do not appear too different in other respects.
I accept that we all have some innate need to see conspiracies – it seems to be another evolutionary trait in humans. And I’m certainly not immune. The umpires are always out to ensure that my football team loses. God likes to make sure it’s raining whenever I plan a barbeque.
But when I stop to think about it, I conclude that it’s probably irrational. I don’t believe in god, and even if he/she existed, why would he/she bother? While the umpires could technically disadvantage my team intentionally, I realise it’s a far-fetched explanation for what really is poor team performance.
On the other hand, unless he’s pulling my leg, Phil has no such reservations about his particular conspiracy theory.
Yikes, between the illuminati, the Mayan calendar, and End of Days prophecies, what a miserable life some people like to lead.