Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Conspiracies, Politics, and Common Sense

by Robison Wells

Okay, so in the past several months I've had a lot of jokey blog posts about the election. Maybe in the future I'll explain my real thoughts about the election, but at the moment I want to make this point:

When I was writing The Counterfeit, I read a lot of academic books about conspiracy theories. (Not that my book was very serious, but I wanted my plot and characters to be somewhat plausible.)

I was mostly researching why people believe in conspiracies, and rather than write a big explanation of what I found, here's an excerpt from my book--it's a conversation between the two main characters, Eric and Rebekah (both BYU undergrads). They have just had someone (Isabella) tell them about an elaborate conspiracy. (I've edited it a bit so that it makes sense if you haven't read the book...)

“I need to tell you something, Eric,” Rebekah said, a few steps ahead of me, picking her way carefully around chunks of broken rock.


With the penlight in front of her, and me behind, all I could see was her dim silhouette.

“I don’t believe it.”

“That we’re being chased again, and are now hiding in the catacombs underneath Paris? I can’t really believe it either.”

She laughed, but there was no joy in her voice. “I don’t believe Isabella.”

“What part? She hardly told us anything.”

“Any of it, really. I don’t believe that there are people in this world who control things like that – it’s too easy. You know why people believe in conspiracy theories, I think?”


“Just because they’re easy. You remember the midterm in Dr. Vigil’s American Heritage class?”

“Yeah. I remember that I did lousy on the multiple choice section.”

“For the essay portion I answered the question on the causes of the civil war. I wrote seven pages on that thing, all about slavery and the abolitionists, and do you know what grade I got?”

“An A?” Rebekah always got A’s on everything.

“A C-,” she said. The tunnel came to a fork, and she paused, turning to face me. “Dr. Vigil wrote one word across the top of the essay: monocausationalism. When I went to his office to ask him about it, he said that being called a monocausationalist was one of the worst insults an historian will ever hear.”

“Academics are weird,” I said with an uncomfortable chuckle. I had no idea where she was going with this.

Rebekah smiled. “What it means is that the historian claims that something happened just because something else happened. It’s extremely simple cause and effect: the civil war happened because of slavery, or the Great Depression happened because people were buying stock on margin. But it ignores all of the other causes.”


Rebekah nodded, and headed left. “It’s like what Isabella was talking about with the Pilgrims. I grew up hearing about how they came to America looking for religious freedom too, and that’s true – but it’s not the only reason. In fact, it’s just one of a dozen reasons.”

“And this is why you don’t believe Isabella?” I asked, confused.

“People believe in conspiracies,” she said, stopping and looking back at me, “because they don’t understand all the causes that go into the big events in history. They can’t understand what makes prices rise and fall – I mean, I got an A in economics, and I don’t really understand what makes prices rise and fall. So people think that it can’t possibly be as confusing as it really is, and they decide that prices rise and fall because a secret society somewhere has secret meetings in dark, smoke-filled rooms, and they’ve decreed that gas prices will go up and bread prices will go down.”

So, that was a very long way of getting to my point, which is:
  • When someone tells you that there is a simple answer to anything, be skeptical.

  • When someone says that some Y happened because of some single X, tell them to go back and read some more.

  • When someone says "This is common sense", they're almost always wrong.

Why? Because very few of the issues in this election are simple, and because if you believe the issue is simple, then you'll assume there's a simple solution, and then you'll be horribly, terribly WRONG.

I spend more time than I should reading the news and perusing political blogs. And I'm absolutely nauseated by the complete lack of nuance. Instead, all there seems to be is "I believe X because of Y", or "Politician #1 will destroy America because he believes X".

There is a cellphone commercial that's been running a lot lately, wherein a group of firefighters appear to be sitting in for Congress. The firechief reads off issues, and the firefighters vote -- "800 pages to tell us we need clean water?" the chief mocks. "Who wants clean water?" All the firefighters say "Aye." The chief tosses the 800 pages on the table and mutters "This is the easiest job I ever had."

The message of the ad is clear: these firefighters cut through all the political nonsense--they know how to actually get things done! I think that most bloggers and commentators have this same mindset: yes, we want clean water (or whatever), so let's just vote for it and get it over with. And they neglect the hundred important issues that have to be discussed: where will the water come from? How will it be paid for? What constitutes "clean"? Should it be flouridated? Those kinds of questions are not an example of politicians trying to overcomplicate the issue; they're an example of trying to make the right decision with all the information.

Lest you think I'm singling out any party or the other, I am not. I'm singling out stupid extremism. I'm singling out the people who spread goosebump-inducing stories rather than discuss facts and principles. I'm singling out the party apologists on both sides: Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, but also Arianna Huffington and Bill Maher. I'm singling out the people who write silly blogs about how this candidate hates America, and how that candidate is corrupt.

Anyway, thanks for letting me rant. I'll be funny next week. :)


At 10/21/2008 12:43 PM, Blogger Julie Wright said...

I am a wretched conspiracy theorist. I love to think about powerful groups holding all the cards and what that might mean for society in general. It's fun to consider. That said, I totally agree with you.

It's all fine and good to say that we need to cut government spending, but where are you going to cut? Are you really going to tell that town of a thousand people that they don't need that million dollar bridge so they can commute to work safely, and bus their kids across an icy river safely, just because it's a million dollars going to serve only a thousand people?

There are a lot of detailed decisions made in the political world that I don't understand. I can't even begin to understand economics and how that world rolls. Why are my stocks worth 280,000 dollars less today than they were three years ago? I don't think it's any one entity meeting in a dark smoky room planning the demise of me. But I do think it might have something to do with the press telling people there's a problem, and then people reacting to that news by panicking.

The press does it because bad news sells. The people panic because people are lame that way.

If people want the world to change, then they might want to BE that change. If we worried about the stock market failing, then the absolute worst thing we can do is sell off all our stocks. We should buy five or ten shares of something instead. If we're worried about banks failing, then we absolutely should not be pulling out everything in our savings accounts . . . because if we do, then the banks will fail. Self fulfilling prophecies are terrible things.

At 10/21/2008 1:22 PM, Blogger Ian said...

Certainly you have a point Robison. People who want an easy explanation for something major in the world will most certainly look to conspiracies to answer their questions. Not that some conspiracies don't exist, it's just that no one conspiracy can really be so wide reaching.

My father is one of those conspiracy theorists, I have read quite a bit about them myself. I have concluded that the vast majority of conspiracy believers already believe a certain way, and they will find all evidence to support that theory. They will most certainly ignore all evidence to the contrary.

My favorite Conspiracy theory to date? The flat Earthers. They honestly believe that there is a massive government conspiracy to hide the fact that the earth is flat. Good stuff.

At 10/21/2008 1:27 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

Clearly you wanted to be able to just cut and paste text from one of your old books. Therefore you made up a post about conspiracies. Cut and tried. Next topic?

At 10/21/2008 2:45 PM, Blogger Matthew Buckley / Marion Jensen said...

Oh, well that is just great. Now Wells is working for the Illuminati! Trying to throw up smoke and mirrors to keep us from the truth...well, I'm not buying it!

Just kidding, and I'm right there with you. That is why with the most recent economic crisis, the best explanation I found was here:

The gist of it was that there wasn't a single cause, rather about 10 different driving forces, and plenty of blame to share around. The Federal reserve, home buyers, Realtors, the Clinton administration, the Bush administration, and of course, the Illuminati. All were at fault, and helped cause or exacerbate the problem.

Anyway, nice post as usual.

As a side note, I just noticed your captcha is ooxo. Does that mean your captcha is flirting with me?

At 10/21/2008 4:51 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

And the funny thing about it all is that I keep getting emails FORWARDED to me that are so stupid, that I really wonder if anyone is actually putting in a decent day's work.

I think I'll just watch Saturday Night Live to stay informed :)

At 10/21/2008 8:43 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

I know the last thing Robison needs is a big head, but he did a truly AMAZING job with his Unknown Patriot stunt. I can't even imagine how much work went into that. And talk about your conspiracy nuts. =)

My personal opinion about this election is that it doesn't really matter who we elect - the country is not going to fall to pieces in 4 years. And maybe we can eventually stop hating Bush and find someone else to hate. Maybe Jeb will run in 8 years. Anyone? (or Jenna)

At 10/21/2008 9:54 PM, Blogger Anna said...

I hate those emails going around about how Obama did this or McCain did that. The first few I went to to see if they were true. Bits and pieces of the truth, but added to and twisted to make them look bad.

Now if I receive a political email about how awful one of the candidates are, I automatically delete it. If I want to know about the candidates, then I will go to a reputable website to find information.

I know voting and figuring out what you think is best for the country is something we should do..... but I can't wait until this election is over.

At 10/21/2008 11:24 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Jeff Savage, I get tired of your lip.

Mr. Buckley, I'm certainly not flirting with you. But I think Google is. (They've been watching your internet searches, and fallen in love with you.)

Heather, I have similar feelings about email forwards.

Jon, you're making me blush!

At 10/22/2008 1:04 AM, Blogger Nancy Campbell Allen said...

Really good post, Rob. I appreciate your level-headed approach to life. One of my biggest pet peeves is people who are so far on one side or the other that they can't even find ONE LITTLE THING they appreciate in the other party or candidate. Nothing in life is that black and white.


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