Last week, according to the evidence that’s available at hand, a pair of Chechen immigrants (who, once again, according to the available evidence, both emigrated to America legally) used several bombs to attack spectators and runners in the Boston Marathon. Three people are, as a direct result, dead and many more are injured. We have since captured one of the bombers while the other was killed in their attempted apprehension.
All’s well that ends well, right? Unfortunately, there are certain elements in our society that will seize on anything in order to either pursue an agenda or to make a few dollars off of the credulous. Alex Jones is precisely one such person.
Mere moments after the attacks, he was using his Twitter account to espouse theories on what was ‘really’ going on, when there was little to no information available. This is irresponsible at best and destructive at worst. I try my best to take people at their words and believe what they’re saying as being their genuine thoughts and values. When it comes to people like Alex Jones, I really can’t do any such thing. He’s made a very successful career out of sewing discord, enmity and distrust by making incredibly paranoid and totally invalid opinions readily available to people who are ready, willing and openly desirous of having those opinions fed to them.
As I’ve said in previous postings, I love conspiracy theories. The reason why I love them so much is because of the opportunity that they present to learn more about how the world works. Take, for instance, the 9/11 Attacks and the conspiracy theories that surround it (theories that I won’t dignify by referring to them as they want to be, with the word ‘Truth’ attached). These theories operate on people not understanding the entire attacks, or being too ready to seize upon an anti-government mindset rather than being willing to suspend an opinion until they’ve weighed up all of the facts. Since researching the conspiracy theories that surround 9/11 I have learned quite a bit more about engineering, psychology and physics than I had before. It’s actually an incredibly interesting line of inquiry, if you’re willing to have some of your pre-existing opinions challenged.
That really isn’t the case when it comes to the Boston attacks, where the conspiracy theories rely on people already having an overwhelming sense of suspicion about everything that surrounds them. These conspiracy theories rely on people being ready to leap to conclusions and then rejecting any sort of evidence after having arrived at that conclusion. This is because there is no direct evidence, or any other kind of evidence, that lends their theories any sort of credence. These theories are built around drills being conducted in the area as well the presence of trained professionals at the site. From these facts, we then make any number of assumptions to then arrive at a conclusion that isn’t supported by any facts. As a rule, when it comes to critical thinking, we have to outright reject any sort of theory that requires us to make any assumptions, not just assumptions that aren’t supported by any facts. This is what’s required as magical thinking, where a theory starts with evidence A, adds it to assumption B to arrive at conclusion C. For instance. I go out to a restaurant and order a hamburger. I didn’t see the hamburger made in the kitchen, but the hamburger is in front of me. I walked into the restaurant with a conclusion that food that’s served at the restaurant is beamed into the kitchen from a flying saucer that has avoided detection. So, I have my conclusion (C), and then I get my burger (A), which I make my assumption about (B). Once I’ve formed that line of reasoning, even if I’m showed the kitchen, there are any number of justifications that I can make that will continue to support my unsupportable theory.
Now, the rejoinder to my thinking will of course be, “What’s the harm?” This is often said whenever anyone tries to debunk or dispel any sort of subject whose harmful consequences are not readily apparent (opposition to inoculations, astrology and homeopathy being three good examples). This is usually because we give an air of credence to any party that seems to be in an underdog position, because we don’t see a ready reason for why people would run contrary to the ‘official story’ if they weren’t right, or if there wasn’t an aura of truth to what they’re saying. The problem could run from feeding into a conspiratorial mindset that could then lead to disastrous consequences to people being swindled out of money. But sometimes the harm could be as simple as someone suspending their rational judgment to believe something that has no empirical evidence to support it. Whenever we suspend our rational judgment, we run the risk of that suspension forming a pattern that could be hard to break out of. Once you’ve started down the path of assuming something that we have no reason to assume, it becomes easier to continue to do that until we only have a passing relationship with reality.
Generally speaking, a doss of healthy skepticism and an incredulous mindset towards ideas and concepts that have no support will never lead you astray. After all, the real world is already a fabulous place to live in, and anything that expects you to believe ridiculous things will detract from your ability to absorb the wonder and the mystery of that real world.