We’re all familiar with what a “conspiracy theory” is: a narrative of social control in which shadowy groups are secretly rigging events to increase their own power and profit. An apt personification is “the man behind the curtain” in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Of course, there actually are groups attempting to rig events to their own enrichment, such as criminal rackets, political parties and corporations, but conspiracy theories go beyond this simple reality of economics and politics; the actors they describe are virtually god-like in their omniscience and omnipotence: to wit, any and every happenstance is interpreted not only in terms of how it benefits these actors, but—here’s the kicker—how that benefit proves that these forces planned and executed the events in question. At this point, the tales becomes tall indeed, and all logic goes out the window.
“Cui bono?“—a Latin phrase usually translated as “Who benefits?”—is the bread-and-butter of conspiracy theorizing. And as a starting point for understanding motivations and relationships in a profit-driven society, it’s certainly useful, but it only takes you so far.
I would draw the distinction between “opportunism” and “orchestration.”
For example, if my house is on fire and my neighbor charges me a Franklin to use his hose, what’s been clearly demonstrated is that he’s a greedy son-of-a-gun, but not—and this is key—that he personally set the conflagration himself. Maybe he did, maybe didn’t. But the mere fact of his making money from the situation does not prove his culpability: it just illustrates his opportunism, or, if you like, his entrepreneurship.
In a capitalist society where “money makes the world go round,” virtually every single event will boost the bottom line for somebody, and as a rule, multiple parties will actively be seeking the angle where they get to be that particular somebody, whether they had anything to do with starting it or not. It’s perverse, but it’s not always diabolical.
We’ve seen this during the COVID-19 crisis, where even more wealth than usual has been flowing to well-known billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet; to lesser known names like Eric Yuan, founder/CEO of Zoom; and to a certain class of the rich in general. All while millions of ordinary citizens are struggling to pay for necessities and have lost their healthcare coverage (which was already too meager to start with in many cases). (Forbes: Billionaires Are Getting Richer During The COVID-19 Pandemic While Most Americans Suffer)
This situation is a scandal, but it’s not in and of itself evidence that the pandemic was designed and set in motion by Gates, as some are claiming.
Bezos owns the Washington Post, and under his watch the paper has failed to disclose conflicts of interest relating to his ownership of Amazon, his stake in Uber, and his business with the CIA . Given these facts, and his poor treatment of Amazon workers during the pandemic, one could be forgiven for giving the side-eye to WaPo stories about the importance of continuing the lock-down, since the policy has led to such big increases in Amazon sales. However, in this particular case, the efficacy of lock-downs has been abundantly proven by countless examples around the world during this pandemic, and by myriad others in the historical record. So, does WaPo deserve skepticism? Hell yeah. But are they wrong about lock-downs? No.
What we need to apply is nuance, my friends. Nuance.
I would like to throw in here that on a cultural level, I have very real concerns for how the crudeness of corporate opportunism trickles down to infect the rest of us. We are in danger of coming to see life as a “dog eat dog world” in which “greed is good” and “everybody’s in it for themselves” when in reality we are more likely an intrinsically cooperative species. This is also where the media plays a role in manufacturing our perception of reality, both with its news coverage and through entertainment. We need to be on guard against that shit, 24/7.
Ultimately, what bothers me the most about conspiracy theorizing is that it’s fundamentally defeatist. There is no hope. Nothing is real. “They” control everything. As individuals we are powerless, and in those rare instances when we do try to team up with others to cooperate, we’re just being manipulated. Liberation is impossible.
What a dismal worldview!
(And, coincidentally, one that would well serve a clandestine elite seeking total control. #justsaying)
So how can I tell if my neighbor is an arsonist? One way is through investigation, using science.
But one cannot simply say, “Science!” and expect it dispel conspiracy theories.
Unfortunately for science, it’s reputation has been tarnished by a number of factors, some of them outlandish, but some of them deserved.
Here’s a quotation. Guess what kind of person said it:
“The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness… The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data.”
Who was it? An anti-vaxxer? A no-fluoridation freak? A COVIDIOT?
None of the above. These words were penned by Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal, in 2015. He was referring to a large number of wide-ranging scandals that had been exposed at the time.
He takes part of the blame himself:
“Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours. Our acquiescence to the impact factor fuels an unhealthy competition to win a place in a select few journals. Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairy-tale. We reject important confirmations.”
On this side of the pond, we have Dr. Marcia Angell, of Harvard Medical School, who wrote:
“It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.”
Horton and Angell are certainly not “conspiracy theorists.” They are respected, accomplished people in the world of science and they’re calling bullshit on what they’ve seen. Their words should be sobering to any pro-science cheer-leader. What’s effective and valuable and even “good” about science is in danger. The signal is at risk of being lost in the noise. It’s a real problem that can’t just be hand-waved away by making fun of people who believe “Plandemic.”
It’s a totally legitimate question to ask who we can trust.
For example, here’s a few cases where US scientific/regulatory agencies have been compromised by corporate interests:
- The EPA has continually refused to admit that Round-Up causes cancer in humans (Phys.org: US won’t approve labels that say glyphosate causes cancer), and this has been blamed on the influence of Monsanto, the herbicide’s manufacturer. (Bloomberg: EPA Official Accused of Helping Monsanto ‘Kill’ Cancer Study)
- Obama elevated people from Monsanto & Dupont to positions in the USDA & FDA. (Huffington Post: The Unholy Alliance: Monsanto, Dupont & Obama)
- The FDA’s guidelines have been in part dictated by Big Ag, leading to excessive amounts of sugar and high fructose corn syrup in the population’s diets. (Salon: The FDA’s phony nutrition science: How Big Food and Agriculture trumps real science — and why the government allows it)
- Big Pharma provides the FDA with 3/4 of its drug review budget. (Forbes: The Biopharmaceutical Industry Provides 75% Of The FDA’s Drug Review Budget. Is This A Problem?)
- The CDC has faced questions about ethics (The Hill: What is going on at the CDC? Health agency ethics need scrutiny) and the Trump administration’s first Director for the agency, Brenda Fitzgerald, resigned her post when it was revealed that she purchased tobacco stocks a month after her appointment. (Vox: The scandal that just forced the CDC director to resign, explained)
These are just a handful of the many instances in which the federal regulatory apparatus has been exposed for their too-cosy connections with industries they’re supposed to be watchdogging. The “revolving door” between the public sector and the business world is notorious, and has been active for years. Some skepticism of government pronouncements is certainly warranted.
Plenty of false accusations are also leveled against these agencies, it’s true, but—given the erosion of educational standards and accompanying decline in scientific literacy in the populace—it should hardly be surprising that people have difficulty differentiating the real scandals from the fake ones. Name-calling and snide dismissals by pro-science partisans do nothing to help elucidate such misunderstandings, either. This isn’t a damn team sport, people.
In sum: scientists are not infallible, the practice of science is not pure, and the policies of government too often support profit not people. The waters have been muddied, and are a perfect environment for breeding paranoia and confusion in a population that is poorly educated and heavily propagandized.
Conspiracy theories are certainly distracting too many of us, and with life and death consequences during this pandemic. But what could be an effective tool for truth-seeking—science—has been debased by avarice, chicanery and (not the least) ego. It’s a very real tragedy and the consequences might prove to be dire.
I’m afraid we’re on course to learn some lessons the hard way.
Recommended listening: “Funky Dollar Bill” by Funkadelic