Conspiracies, Politics, and Common Sense
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. :)