At the end of each month, What Does This Mean? will reflect upon the previous four weeks of posts to correct mistakes, acknowledge discussion and generally put a bow on what we’ve come to know. Where most media fail to realize that a story doesn’t stop once the ink dries, WDTM? is proud to proclaim that the learning process never ends and that new information should always inform and shape our earlier interpretations. This inaugural edition will necessarily cover less and take a slightly different tact. Or is that just what they want you to think???
Frank Drake’s legacy, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), momentarily shut down in 2011. Was it because they had secretly found what they had been looking for? Was this year’s flu outbreak part of a government program to sadistically sicken the citizenry? And how about that meteor in Russia? Could it have really been an alien spaceship or a nefarious missile test? Well, I guess anything’s possible, but when you live in a probabilistic universe, you have to play the percentages, and none of those suppositions seem very likely. So why do major (and sometimes even minor) events always spawn these kinds of way out conspiracy theories? What does it say about us that we’re eternally looking to undermine the “official story?” You can probably blame our evolution-addled brains.
Michael Shermer, Editor in Chief of Skeptic magazine and monthly Scientific American columnist, has written several times on the subject. One of the main driving factors in conspiracy belief seems to be the human tendency to see patterns where they don’t exist. A phenomenon known as apophenia, it’s thought to be a hold-over from our more danger-plagued ancestors. Not every rustle in the bushes is a venomous snake, but it’s probably better to assume so and be wrong than the opposite. As one of the few organisms, if not the only one, to have a theory of mind (the notion that others can think just like I do), we’re also prone to over-observing agency. “Someone must have done it!” When we once saw guiding spirits in the rivers and the trees, we now identify shadowy manipulators behind the scenes. It’s almost comfortable in a way to believe that even if the forces are malevolent, somebody is actually in control of otherwise random events.
And the advent of the internet just amped up the virulence. Poorly printed leaflets have been supplanted by light speed video delivery. It’s a lot easier now to find credentialed kooks to back up what you already accept, too. Smart people are really good at defending views they came to through non-smart avenues. So when you can find engineers who think the Newtown shooting was staged, it seems a tiny bit more believable than when senile Aunt Edna yells it from the basement.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
Okay, I was way wrong about the Chelyabinsk meteor. I imagined UFO enthusiasts nervously chewing their fingernails, and we got half the Russian population invoking aliens and acts of God. But when you’ve been legitimately lied to by your government so much, maybe they get a pass. Let’s not forget, though, that propaganda is different than being able to keep secrets. Even in America, it’s hard to believe that a government full of Chatty Cathy’s itching for immortality and book deals can keep a lid on everyone involved in a massive Moon landing hoax. That’s preposterous enough to make a man violent.
But really, in the Information Age, not one disgruntled grip from the set of “Buzz Bounces Around” has blogged his complicity (or at least had his grandson do it for him)? Why hasn’t WikiLeaks busted this shit open? The internet is both the best and the worst thing to ever happen to the spread of weird ideas. You can bend the digital ears of anyone worldwide with your wackiness, but the rational rebuttal is also mere keystrokes away. Sites like snopes and the Skeptic’s Dictionary might be outnumbered, but the ammunition exists to combat the crazy if you’re willing to look for it.