About mentioning those dirty secrets, those elephants in the room!

The Dangers Posed Not By Conspiracies, But By Conspiracy Theorists (5)

August 28th, 2008 Posted in Sightings (All), Sightings: Phobias

Button Pushed:  Essay by Glenn Harlan Reynolds in the August 2008 issue of Popular Mechanics. “The measles, whooping cough and even polio have returned. Why? Because of a new breed of vaccine deniers who are ignoring campaigns for awareness… The reason for these incidents—and for recent outbreaks of polio—is that the percentage of parents vaccinating their children has fallen, perhaps because some parents see no point in warding off diseases they’ve never encountered. Religious or new-age beliefs may also factor into the decision: The San Diego outbreak spread in a school where nearly 10 percent of the students had been given personal-belief exemptions from the vaccination requirement. The East Bay outbreak started at a school that emphasizes nature-based therapy over mainstream medicine; fewer than half of the students were vaccinated.”


If you are convinced everyone is out to get you, your natural survival instinct makes you dangerous to everyone.” —Hippokrites

Of the five clinical categories of schizophrenia currently recognized by the psychiatric ‘Bible’ of diagnosis (the DSM-4), the only one that is normally considered potentially dangerous to others is Paranoid Schizophrenia.  Paranoids can be dangerous, and this even applies to non-clinical paranoids.  Conspiracy theorists are, by definition, paranoid.  The logical conclusion to the implied syllogism is obvious.

If you think your wife is trying to poison you, and no one pays any attention to your concern, it is only natural to take things into your own hands.  A ‘pre-emptive strike’ doesn’t seem unreasonable.  The danger of this on a global scale was painfully demonstrated by the U.S. administration’s paranoia about Iraq—and their delusions about Iraq’s “Weapons of Mass Destruction”.

But what about the individual who thinks his own government is out to get him?  Or that ‘corporate interests’ are?  Or the ‘Medical Establishment’?  Or Jews?  Or the latest ethnic group to immigrate to his country?  If you think these groups of individuals are trying to do you in—well, you can see where such reasoning leads.

The way in which a person responds to these different perceived threats varies—and certainly isn’t always violent.  However, it almost always adversely affects the welfare of those imagined to be conspiring, the true-believer himself, and only too often those he believes he is protecting—as happens when a delusional parent harms his own children.

As an example, consider the very prevalent conspiracy theories about the so-called “Medical Establishment”.  If you believe the paranoids, doctors don’t want us to get well, because it’ll put them out of work.  Doctors would become obsolete if everyone was healthy, right?  It’s true that immortality and universal perfect health definitely would make doctors as unemployable as stagecoach repairmen, but I don’t think doctors really worry too much about that happening.  There is no indication I know of that humans are getting close to curing death.  Life expectancy increased, but that only means that there are more old people—and older people have more health problems than the young.  There is a universal shortage of doctors and most doctors’ major complaint is having too many ‘customers’, not having too few.  Because of a sense of responsibility to their patients/customers, they don’t have enough time off to enjoy their often substantial incomes.  Oh yeah, but aren’t they getting rich on pushing pills and expensive treatments?  Aren’t they in collusion with the evil drug companies?   Profit from selling anything called ‘medication’ is made by practitioners of so-called ‘alternative medicine’—not by doctors.  Doctors don’t get a commission on the real medication they prescribe.

There is no question that the ‘Medical Establishment’ is an establishment, and like all establishments is self-serving and protective of its own interests.  There is no question that throughout history medical practice has often been misguided and has sometimes done more harm than good.  (Examples abound from treating syphilis with mercury to the very common practice of bleeding, but doctors then were doing the best they could with what scientific knowledge they had—as are doctors now.)

And there is certainly no question at all about the financial self-interest that determines policies of the major drug companies.  But reasoned and outraged criticism of the dubious practices, even wilful obstinate ignorance, of some doctors—or the notoriously unethical behaviour of some drug companies—is very different from  some conspiracy theory that claims all medical practices are a plot to keep us sick and empty our wallets.  Such a theory, if believed, sends one off into the murky underworld of so-called ‘alternative medicine’.  Now I won’t offer up an alternative conspiracy theory that claims these alternative medicine folk want to keep us sick either.  (Although it is no conspiracy theory to say that they are largely motivated by personal profit.)  What is true is that through sins of omission or commission or just plain ignorance, they sometimes do keep us sick—or even make us sick.

The person who rejects the conventional and currently judged most effective medical treatment for their illness because of a belief in a Medical Establishment Conspiracy, and instead turns to some alternative medical practitioner (or the clerk at a “health” food store), usually is being harmed.  Not always, of course, for sometimes the snake oil he buys will have a placebo effect, and he isn’t really seriously ill anyway.  But if you or someone in your care, such as your child, has cancer, and you are convinced chemotherapy is an evil plot, and so instead opt for a change in diet or some worthless homeopathic placebo, your belief in the conspiracy is doing what is potentially lethal harm.

It isn’t only conspiracy theories about medical practice that do harm.  Virtually all conspiracy theories do harm to a greater or lesser extent.  This because they are based on paranoid beliefs—not on reason and empirical evidence.  So the believer acts in unreasonable ways—ways that often are damaging to the believer or even other people.  The harm varies with the theory or the extent to which it is believed and obsessed about.  If you believe, like my grandmother did, that the famous 1969 Apollo moon landing was a hoax perpetrated by the government to make dem dam politicians look good and squeeze more tax dollars out of their gullible citizens, you’re not hurting anyone else, or even yourself—except perhaps your social life if you’re inclined to talk about your delusion in public.  But what if you really believe the government (or the medical establishment, or the eggheads, or the doctors who perform abortions, or the scientific researchers who test the safety of drugs on animals, or the teachers of heretic doctrines such as evolution, or the Liberals, or the new ethnic group in your neighbourhood) is out to get you and do dastardly evil deeds?  Then don’t you feel you have a moral responsibility to attack them—even with acts of violence?

Paranoid schizophrenics who perpetrate violence against other people invariably do it in a mistaken belief they are defending themselves or others.  The two defining characteristics of clinical paranoia are that the person thinks that harm is occurring, or is going to occur, to him or her, and the persecutor has the intention to cause harm.  Self-defense is a natural response.  But where do they get this fear?  With the truly psychotic, it is virtually certain that it is a form of brain dysfunction.  But even those who aren’t ‘clinical’ and treatable by medication are dangerous—probably more so.

Typically paranoids have what are called “delusions of reference”.   This means they see everything, no matter how incidental or insignificant, in terms of themselves or their delusional system.  Since our brains are hardwired to see relationships, an ability which may be good definition of intelligence, it isn’t hard even for the less than bright to find something in anything that supports a preconceived notion.  Nothing is seen as coincidental.  One is reminded of a classic Canadian beer drinker’s joke:  “24 hours in a day.  24 beers in a case.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so!”

It is easy to laugh at the crazy conspiracy theorists (for they often are unintentionally comical) and dismiss them as nut bars or eccentrics and just people not to invite to dinner.  What else can you do?  Trying to pry them from their entrenched beliefs with reason and facts is almost always futile.

In fact, probably nothing can be done with the true-believers.  For example, I’ve never met anyone, no matter how articulate and informed, who has successfully ‘turned’ a confirmed creationist.  The creationist knows the fossil record is a conspiracy by God, a trick to tempt us into sinful disbelief, and just feels sorry for us folk whom God has fooled.  What can be done is to try to educate those who are not yet deeply committed to some conspiracy theory on how to think critically and sceptically.  This should be a major item on the curriculum for public education.

Another remedy is satire and parody, as with the recent parodical Pastafarian Church which worships The Flying Spaghetti Monster as their God or whoever runs the hilarious “Flat Earth Society” website. (There actually is an official International Flat Earth Society that is entirely serious.)  Again, like reasoned arguments and facts, satire and parody won’t have any effect on the already deeply committed to some irrational belief, but it may give pause (to think) to those who are not yet fully converted and confirmed.

In conclusion, and out of fairness, it must be said that conspiracy theories aren’t always entirely unjustified.  Of course there are real conspiracies and deceptions—and some do fool us.  And often there is a grain of truth in the justification for even some of the most extremist theories.  Yes, politicians often do lie to the people they are governing.  Yes, drug company executives are more interested in profits than in human well-being and some are guilty of some damn sleazy practices.  As the saying goes—even paranoids have real enemies.  They are just not as many as the conspiracy theorists imagine. Only healthy scepticism and reason can truly vanquish the imaginary enemies and leave us the resources to focus on our real ones.

-D. D’Sinope

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