I am more than willing to talk politics with just about anyone I encounter. This has exposed me to a generous helping of wild-eyed kooks insisting that their pet conspiracy theory will decide the fate of the world. The phenomenon is not linked to any particular political persuasion, although I sometimes think people who are most susceptible to such ideas lean towards anarchic philosophies. Claire Berlinski recently posted on the topic at Ricochet, one of the blogs I check regularly. Ricochet charges a modest monthly fee for commenting privileges in an effort to crush trolls, and has an outright ban on conspiracy-mongers. One of its members asked “How do you decide what to ban?”, considering that occasionally, a conspiracy of one form or another comes to light.
Claire makes a crucial point: groups of humans are notoriously bad at keeping secrets. In essence, when a conspiracy theory depends on many people having kept a secret for many years, and no evidence has appeared, it’s just not credible. I can’t compete with Claire’s eloquence, nor her imagery (cat lovers take note!), nor the additional points she makes, so I highly recommend reading the whole thing.
It occurred to me that while humans are notoriously bad at keeping secrets, they are also very good at filtering out information that doesn’t fit their view of the world, and associating with people with similar views. This creates the appearance of conspiracies where none exists. In the modern world, the media has been fertile ground:
The “Journolist” was a real conspiracy to spin the media to the left. There were several hundred members, all presumably vetted by Ezra Klein, the operator of the e-mail list. But some of them couldn’t keep the secret. Some conspiracy theorists on the right, though, insist that the entire field of traditional journalism is waging a propaganda war on behalf of modern progressives.
OK, there’s clear evidence for media bias. But a conspiracy across the entire field of journalism? Wrap that in tinfoil, please. Are there progressive activists who wish to use the media to further their political goals? Of course, but they are right out in the open. “Rules for Radicals” is not hidden in a back room, after all.