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We Are All Conspiracy Theorists Now

The collapse of trust in mainstream authorities is discussed as if it is only one of many troubling data points. It's not. People are still underestimating the gravity of the interlocking trends that get summarized in this way.

For instance, when trust in mainstream authorities is sufficiently low, one implication is that conspiracy theories become true, even if you personally trust the mainstream authorities, even if you're a rational Bayesian, even if you're the type of person who is resolved to be above conspiracy theories.

Let's say you're an optimally rational person, with the utmost respect for science and logic and empirical reality. An optimally rational person has certain beliefs, and they are committed to updating their beliefs upon receiving new information, according to Bayes' Rule. In layman's terms, Bayes' Rule explains how one should integrate new information with one's past beliefs to update one's beliefs in the way that is best calibrated to reality. You don't need to understand the math to follow along.

How does a Bayesian update their beliefs after hearing a new conspiracy theory? Perhaps you wish to answer this question in your head right now.

For my part, I just watched the Netflix documentary about Flat Earth theorists the other night. I spent the next day puzzling over what exactly is the rational response to a film like that. The film certainly didn't convince me that the Earth is flat, but can I really say in all honesty that the documentary conveyed to me absolutely no new information corroborating a Flat Earth model of the world?

One could say that. Perhaps you want to say that the rational response to conspiracy theory documentaries is to not update your beliefs whatsoever. The whole documentary is clearly bunk, so I should assign zero credence to the thesis that the Earth is flat. This would be a little strange, in my view, because how many people understand astronomy deeply enough with first-hand familiarity to possess this kind of prior confidence? Ultimately most of us, even highly smart and educated non-astronomers, have to admit that our beliefs about the celestial zones are generally borrowed from other people and textbooks we've never quite adversarially validated. If I'm confronted with a few hundred new people insisting otherwise, I surely don't have to trust them, but giving them a credence of absolute zero seems strange given that my belief in the round Earth pretty much comes from a bunch of other people telling me Earth is round.

Personally I become even more suspicious of assigning zero credence because, introspectively, I sense that the part of me that wants to declare zero credence for Flat Earth theory is the part of me that wants to signal my education, to signal my scientific bona fides, to be liked by prestigious social scientists, etc. But I digress. Let's grant that you can assign Flat Earth zero credence if you want.

If you assign Flat Earth a zero likelihood of being correct, then how do you explain the emergence of a large and thriving Flat Earth community? Whether you say they're innocent, mistaken people who happen to have converged on a false theory, or you say they are evil liars trying to manipulate the public for dishonorable motives — whatever you say — your position will ultimately reduce to seeing at least the leaders as an organized cabal of individuals consciously peddling false narratives for some benefit to themselves. Even if you think they all started out innocently mistaken, once they fail to quit their propaganda campaigns after hearing all the rational refutations, then the persistence of Flat Earth theory cannot avoid taking the shape of a conspiracy to undermine the truth. So even if you assign zero credence to the Flat Earth conspiracy theory, the very persistence of Flat Earth theory (and other conspiracy theories) will force you to adopt conspiracy theories about all these sinister groups. Indeed, you see this already toward entities such as Alex Jones, Cambridge Analytica, Putin/Russia, etc.: Intelligent and educated people who loathe the proliferation of conspiracy theories irresistibly agree, in their panic, to blame any readily available scapegoat actor(s), via the same socio-psychological processes that generate all the classic conspiracy theories.

If I'm being honest, my sense is that after watching a feature-length documentary about a fairly large number of not-stupid people arguing strongly in favor of an idea I am only just hearing about — I feel like I have to update my beliefs at least slightly in favor of the new model. I mean, all the information presented in that 2-hour long experience? All these new people I learned about? All the new arguments from Flat Earthers I never even heard of before then? At least until I review and evaluate those new arguments, they must marginally move my needle — even if it's only 1 out of a million notches on my belief scale.

In part, this is a paradoxical result of Flat Earth possessing about zero credence in my mind to begin with. When a theory starts with such low probability, almost any new corroborating information should bump up its credence somewhat.

So that was my subjective intuition, to update my belief one tiny notch in favor of the Flat Earth model — I would have an impressively unpopular opinion to signal my eccentric independence at some cocktail party, but I could relax in my continued trust of NASA…

Then it occurred to me that if this documentary forces me to update my belief even slightly in favor of Flat Earth, then a sequel documentary would force me to increase my credence further, and then… What if the Flat Earthers start generating Deep Fakes, such that there are soon hundreds of perfectly life-like scientists on Youtube reporting results from new astronomical studies corroborating Flat Earth theory? What if the Flat Earthers get their hands on the next iteration of GPT-2 and every day brings new scientific publications corroborating Flat Earth theory? I've never read a scientific publication in Astronomy; am I suddenly going to start, in order to separate the fake ones from the reliable ones? Impossible, especially if one generalizes this to all the other trendy conspiracy theories as well.

If you watch a conspiracy documentary and update your beliefs even one iota in favor of the conspiracy theory, then it seems that before the 21st century is over your belief in at least one conspiracy theory will have to reach full confidence. The only way you can forestall that fate is to draw an arbitrary line at some point in this process, but this line will be extra-rational by definition.

Leading conspiracy theorists today could very well represent individuals who subjectively locate themselves in this historical experience — they see that this developing problem is already locked in, so they say let's get to the front of this train now! One could even say that Flat Earth theorists are in the avant-garde of hyper-rationalist culture entrepreneurs. Respectable scientists who go on stages insisting, with moral fervor, that NASA is credible — are these not the pious purveyors of received authority, who choose to wring their hands morally instead of updating their cultural activity in a way that's optimized to play and survive the horrifying empirical process unfolding before them? Perhaps Flat Earth theorists are the truly hard-nosed rationalists, the ones who see which way the wind is really blowing, and who update not only their beliefs but their entire menu of strategic options accordingly.

It's no use to say that you will draw your line now, in order to avoid capture by some hyper-evolved conspiracy theory in the future. If you do this, you are instituting an extra-rational prohibition of new information — effectively plugging your ears, surely a crime to rationalism. Even worse, you would be joining a cabal of elites consciously peddling false narratives to control the minds of the masses.

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6 comments on “We Are All Conspiracy Theorists Now”

  1. All of this just seems like saying that rationality is in accordance with Godels theorum and is not a complete system.

    It is possible, per Godel, per Hilbert, to create paradoxical statements in any system of expressing concepts. Youve run across one for rational expression.

    The only way to escape s paradoxical statement is to change systems. I prefer to go to one meta level. "This sentence is false" isnt true or false, because there is nothing about it to be true or false.

    The way out of your specific dilemma is to realize that it doesn't actually matter if the Earth is flat or not. Knowing that the Earth is round is a quaint bit of knowledge that is important for certain technological applications but largely doesn't actually mean anything. Anti-anti-flat Earth is just people finding people who believe a Dumb Thing and laughing at them to no real effect.

    More generally if you find yourself trapped by a conspiracy theory, most have easily demonstrable priors. For example, watching ships disappear over the horizon, the relatively simple math of the Greeks etc.

    For any other conspiracy theories, the simplest explanation is to resort to ol Occam's razor. Everyone I know of has vaccines but autism is rare, and seems to correlate roughly with the rate of "really weird and antisocial awkward sods" reported in media and history before the invention of vaccines or autism diagnoses. It's highly unlikely the CIA could keep the JFK assaination secret given what we know about their operations is more "horrifically comical" than anything else.

  2. "Even if you think they all started out innocently mistaken, once they fail to quit their propaganda campaigns after hearing all the rational refutations, then the persistence of Flat Earth theory cannot avoid taking the shape of a conspiracy to undermine the truth"

    Doesn't "conspiracy" some kind of conscious intent to deceive though? I think people have great capacity to spin and rationalize information that goes against their preferred narrative, so that even if the refutations seem very rational to the rest of us, they may still "innocently" think the refutations are unconvincing and that their flat earth arguments still make sense.

    Aside from rationalization on an individual level, it seems that groups too can engage in a kind of collective confirmation bias, where any argument that seems to support the narrative they prefer is strongly selected for memetically, while counter-arguments tend to be ignored, or dealt with by superficial responses that are just convincing enough to allow people within the group to believe their ideas have been successfully defended. And the fact that the internet makes it so much easier for people with unusual beliefs to connect with each other and form these sorts of memetic filters to mutually shore up their beliefs is probably a big part of the explanation for the increasingly patchwork-like structure of the memetic landscape.

    This is relevant to the use of Bayesian reasoning, too. The Bayesian update formula includes a term that basically amounts to "the probability of observation X, conditional on the assumption that hypothesis H is true", but if you want to apply that to the real world you have to take into account not just the fact being pointed to but also whether it came to you via some community with strong memetic filters for observations that support their hypothesis. I don't know what facts were being pointed to in that flat earth doc (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2gFsOoKAHZg for an entertaining response to some common flat earth arguments), but for another example look at the post at https://morton-yec-archive.blogspot.com/2016/04/age-of-earth.html responding to some creationist claims about radioactive dating. The post makes the point that the creationist cherrypicked a few results where the radioactive date disagreed significantly from the expected date based on the geological layer the samples came from, but if you plot all the samples in the study the creationist was looking at, it's obvious that the vast majority do agree with the expected age and the creationist was just picking outliers. Due to issues like contamination or experimental error it's probably inevitable that in a large sample of radioactive dating results there will be some outliers like this, so if you take X as "a creationist is able to find 5 examples of anomalous dates to put in an article", that observation is actually fairly probable under the hypothesis that mainstream assumptions about the age of the Earth are correct. Whereas if you yourself went and picked 5 samples at random and dated them, the probability of them all being anomalous under the mainstream hypothesis would be a lot lower, and by the Bayesian update rules it would therefore cause a more significant change in the probability you assign to hypotheses of young-Earth creationism vs. mainstream old-Earth geology.

    Scott from slatestarcodex makes a similar point about more general kinds of "evidence" for fringe theories at https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/11/05/the-pyramid-and-the-garden/ , pointing to an interesting coincidence by the aliens-built-the-pyramids crowd that the first five digits of the decimal value of the latitude of the Great Pyramid of Giza match up with the first five digits of the value of the speed of light in meters/second. This might seem like a highly suggestive coincidence until you think about the fact that the community of aliens-built-the-pyramids supporters probably looked many other physical measurements about the pyramids (say, the length of one of its sides in various measuring systems) and had many other natural and mathematical constants they could have seized on as a "hit"--Scott gives a bunch of other possible examples in the post--so the total probability that a community primed to seize on any such coincidence would find at least one to publicize, under the hypothesis that it is just a coincidence and the pyramid builders were humans who had no knowledge of these constants, may actually be fairly high. So although reading about such a match on the internet might justify some very slight increase in the probability you assign to aliens building the pyramids and some very slight decrease in the probability you assign to the mainstream historical explanation, it wouldn't be nearly as large of a change as if you had independently thought to look for matches between pyramid measurements and natural constants using only a very short list of measurements and constants.

    BTW there is something weird going on with your comments form where it doesn't tell you which line is for your name and which line is for your email address, it just shows three blank lines above the "post comment" button with no text in or next to them. I'm going to guess name first and email second, we'll see if that works...

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful comment, and for alerting me about the comment section formatting bug.

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