Category Archives: reason

Wisdom from Dr. Fauci for Steinbach

 

On CBS Sunday Morning we were rewarded with a wonderful interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, probably the most trusted man in America. He was so trusted Donald Trump did not have the guts to fire him even though his fans at a rally chanted “Fire Fauci,” over and over again. He told them to wait until after the election, hinting that then he might have the courage to fire Dr. Fauci. The only reason they chanted that is they did not like what Dr. Fauci told them. Particularly, they did not like what he said because it contradicted everything their spiritual leader Donald Trump had said about the coronavirus pandemic. That’s what Dr. Fauci always did—he told truth to power as he saw it.

He never shied away from doing that. And make no mistake the message he always delivered was not as rosy as Trump wanted it and that is why he did not like the message, and as he usually did, why he wanted to fire the messenger. But in Dr. Fauci’s case Trump just did not have enough courage to do that. It might have made the 2020 presidential election even more lop-sided against him than it already was.

On the show they showed a number of views of Dr. Fauci.  Some considered him a saint. Some considered him a hero. Others considered him a disciple of Satan.  Dr. Judy Mikovits who unfortunately has garnered a lot of interest on the internet, said, “I believe Dr. Fauci has manufactured the coronavirus.” Not exactly the voice of reason.

It is not surprising that in a country as divided as the United States that there would be such diverse views of Dr. Fauci. Dr. Fauci said this about this issue:

“This is a dramatic example of the divisiveness in our country.  We have had a complete distortion in throwing out the scientific facts and evidence and a certain part of the country believed the ‘hoax’ aspect, the ‘fake news,’ aspect. The other half was longing for clarity, longing for facts, longing for truth.”

 

While some people see Dr. Fauci as a saint, others threaten his life and that of his wife and children. He can’t go for a walk with his wife without armed federal guards. 3 of his children are routinely harassed. As he said, “My 3 daughters are constantly harassed by the crazies.”

As Dr. Fauci said,

“The US had more than 400,000 fatalities as a result of Covid-19. Proportionately, based on its population the US ought to have about 80,000 fatalities. In other words, the US has 5 times the deaths from Covid-19 that it ought to have!”

 And not only that, as I keep reminding—and the US is the richest country in the world!

 

Dr. Fauci acknowledged there were many reasons for this but he emphasized one:

“You can’t have mixed messaging. You cannot have the politicization of public health messages. The idea that wearing a mask or not became a political statement. That makes it beyond difficult to implement good public health measures.”

 American public health officials were put in an impossible position.

Donald Trump on national TV with Dr. Fauci beside him said this about Hydroxychloroquine a drug that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for malaria treatment,  but not for Covid-19 patients except for experimental studies: “It may work; it may not work. I feel good about it. That’s all it is just a feeling.” Instead of reason he opted for feelings. And more than 70 million Americans thought that was all right. Coming from the president of the country with a legion of fanatically loyal followers this is an extremely dangerous thing to say. I would go so far as to say it was gross negligence. People believed him and risked their lives. Perhaps some died as a result.

As Dr. Fauci said, “the partisanship has been poisonous.” Health issues should not become political footballs. Health issues should be determined by the best science available not feelings.

As Ted Koppel the CBS interviewer said, “In 4 years, from the top, science has been constantly undermined. That is an epidemic of sorts and there is no vaccination for it.”

To this Dr. Fauci added, “We have to show by example that being united is much better than being divisive.  Divisiveness has really failed and it has failed in every single way.” 400,000 deaths instead of 80,000 deaths in the richest country in the world makes that pretty plain. Americans or Canadians don’t need more freedom, as groups like the Church of God Restoration claim. They need to respect the science and each other. They need to listen to reason, not feelings.

 

Anti-vax memes myth the mark

 

Confession: the Winnipeg Free provided me with that snappy title.

Today is December 20,2020 so you can expect crazy things. Besides the serial 20s,  this is my birthday. Yikes.

Today, I read a fascinating article by Joel Keilman in the Winnipeg Free Press  that reflected on exactly the issues I have been blogging about of late. The issues are truth, lies, and ethics. The article commented on some of the myths surrounding the vaccines that have now been developed and appeared in Manitoba this week. It’s time for people who have lost confidence in science to come out. And they have come out.

The lies and falsehoods are spreading out and a credulous public is lapping them up like thirsty dogs. Keilman reported on a TikTok video like this,

“As a melodramatic song plays, Rousseau, young, blonde and elaborately mascaraed, silently portrays a woman beaten to death for refusing to take a vaccine that contains a microchip carrying the mark of the beast. At the end, she enters a heavenly skyscape emblazoned with the words: “Well done, good and faithful servant.

The video has been seen more than 680,000 times, garnered 47,000 likes and, despite thousands of mocking comments (“Ma’am, this is a CVS”), earned plenty of positive reviews.

“This is so incredibly powerful,” one viewer wrote.”

Unsurprisingly, in our polarized world, thousands of people have been inspired by this video to praise the Lord and thousands have been inspired to mock the gullible. In this case at least, I think it is clear which side got it right.

Here are some of the myths (that is really too kind a word) people are spreading on line:

  1. The vaccine contains a microchip

Apparently this one has been around for years, but has been amplified recently. People fear that microchips have been secretly implanted in vaccines so that the government can keep track of you. People worry about this rather than the device everyone carries that can actually be used to do this—smart phones. This conspiracy theory has been spread by many, including in particular Alex Jones and InfoWars, the conspiracy theorist Trump loved so much. Supposedly Bill Gates is also involved as is 5G technology.

Other myths include these:

  1. The vaccine will alter your DNA
  2. The vaccine will give you COVID-19
  3. Our immune systems are better than vaccines

There are others but you get the idea.

The anti-vax movement has been strong and I suspect is growing stronger in recent years. According to Keilman’s article a recent poll showed that only 47% of Americas intend to take the vaccines. The percentages of Canadians are probably not that far behind. I know people who say they won’t take a vaccine. They are suspicious of it. There are some reasons to be wary, primarily related to the surprising speed of the development and approval of the vaccines and particularly to fear that the current American president may have had his foot on the accelerator.

The problem is that society needs people to trust the vaccines. Particularly because the vaccine’s have such a high efficacy rate, wide- spread use of them could bring about herd immunity soon and that would be a tremendous benefit for millions of people and our health care systems and workers. The vaccines’ high efficacy rate, much higher than that of flu shots, could swiftly bring about herd immunity that would prevent people from encountering the virus at all.  But if people are afraid to take the vaccines because of the lies they are fed on the internet all of us will suffer. Even those who take the vaccines because we all pay for our health care system and many of us won’t get the proper treatment because of unnecessary Covid cases in hospitals.

And this brings me to the point I have been trying to make. These credulous people are not innocent. They are dangerous! They are dangerous to public health. In times of a public health crisis we need to trust science, we need to respect the truth and the truth gathering process. We need to be suspicious of crazy stuff we find online. The misinformation being spread on the internet is dangerous. Fomenting distrust in public institutions as so many are now doing, including political leaders, is a dangerous and costly to us all. That is why irrational beliefs are not innocent. We should not tolerate them. We should voice that intolerance quietly and respectfully without scapegoating, but we should not keep quiet.

Beliefs have consequences. Therefore they are not all ethical.

 

Did you know Tump won 3 or 4 Noble Peace Prizes?

 

For quite some time, significant portions of modern society have demonstrated an impressive devotion to ignorance. They wear their ignorance on their sleeve, suggesting they are proud of it. As a result it is hardly surprising that ignorance seems so often to be on the march.

Just yesterday I posted about Baldwin’s profound  idea that “Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” Then later the same day I listened to a stellar example. A television interviewer on one of the Comedy News shows interviewed a Trump supporter. The interviewer wondered why the supporter continued to support Trump after he was soundly defeated in the 2020 election and his claims of voter fraud had been repeatedly rejected  by the courts. The woman gave an amazing answer. She said, “I support Trump because he won 3 or 4 Noble Peace prizes.” Then when the interviewer mockingly said, “You are very knowledgeable,” to which the woman responded “Thank you.” She had no idea she was being mocked.

Such stunning ignorance dos not happen by accident. It is the product of decades of disdain for knowledge, education, and reasoning. That’s what we get for glorifying ignorance.

I know that there are plenty of ignorant supporters of the left and the right. Ignorance is not unique to Trump supporters. There is plenty of ignorance to go around. But we must always remember, such ignorance is dangerous.

 

When reason sleeps madness rules

 

If you want to know more about what happens when people get in the habit of believing whatever they want to believe entirely without evidence, look no farther than the United States. Look right now.

The United States is in the midst of a pandemic. Recently the United States daily death rate has gone over 3,000 people. Every day more people die from Covid-19 than died in the 9/11 crash into the Twin Towers of New York. Yet what are Americans doing about it? They are going crazy!

The United States is now filled with Covid-deniers joining their climate change deniers. People are attacking each other over the issue of masks. Many people ignore the evidence that masks help keep people safe. One of the consequences of this is ugliness and violence.

As the Associated Press reported,

“Arguments over mask requirements and other restrictions have turned ugly in recent days as the deadly coronavirus surge across the U.S. engulfs small and medium-size cities that once seemed safely removed from the outbreak.

In Boise, Idaho, public health officials about to vote on a four-county mask mandate abruptly ended a meeting Tuesday evening because of fears for their safety amid anti-mask protests outside the building and at some of their homes. One health board member tearfully announced she had to rush home to be with her child because of the protesters, who were seen on video banging on buckets, blaring air horns and sirens, and blasting a sound clip of gunfire from the violence drenched movie Scarface outside her front door.

“I am sad. I am tired. I fear that, in my choosing to hold public office, my family has too often paid the price,” said the board member, Ada County Commissioner Diana Lachiondo. “I increasingly don’t recognize this place. There is an ugliness and cruelty in our national rhetoric that is reaching a fevered pitch here at home, and that should worry us all.”

 

South Dakota has recently rocketed to the top of the United States in Covid-19 caused deaths, but that has not brought the health officials any respite from the local crazies. Instead, things have got worse. In Rapid City the mayor and City Council Members were harassed and threatened over a proposed citywide mask requirements even though the proposal failed to gain support. It seems that as the city and really the country see a surge in American deaths and new Covid-19 cases the people are turning away from evidence and reason in favour of noise and mayhem. Meanwhile the Governor, Kristy Noem has been loud in her opposition to mask requirements. Amazingly, people who showed up at a City Hall meeting  vigorously endorsed the do-nothing approach even as doctors warned them that the only hospital in the western part of the state is in a crisis state for lack of space. Patients were being flown out of the South Dakota, but the public does not want to wear masks. Ignoring science, the people said the dangers of the virus are overblown and mask requirements violate their liberties.

In Boise people also threatened politicians leading to 3 arrests outside the homes where they were protesting. In Gallatin County in Montana protesters gathered for 2 consecutive weeks outside the Bozeman home of county health officer Matt Kelly to voice their vociferous objections to his regulations requiring state-wide mask wearing.

Reason doesn’t rule in much of the United States; madness rules.

The Sleep of reason produces monsters

 

As I said previously, we are not entitled to believe whatever we want. We have the legal right to do so, but it is a right we ought not to exercise. When we believe a statement without evidence that justifies the belief, just because we want to believe it, we are training the mind to do that again. Then the mind is ready to believe another untrue claim. We learn the habit of credulity and perhaps encourage others to do the same.

This can lead to dangerous situations. In modern society this has become a pandemic that is perhaps even more dangerous than the Covid-19 pandemic.

A good example of this was the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. Remember that one? By now everyone has heard of Qanon. I have called it the mother of all conspiracy theories.  It led to Pizzagate. This is what decades–no centuries of American unreason have led to. It is the product of credulity.

This conspiracy theory arose out of the 2016 American presidential election. It referred to a harmless family pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. called Comet Ping Pong that was also frequented by a number of Democrat political leaders. Many parents showed up with their children to eat pizza. Nothing strange about that.

However there was some strange fake news about it. There was a wildly irrational conspiracy theory about what was happening at that restaurant. According to the conspiracy theorists things were not that innocent. “Pizza” was actually a code word, they said, for young girls and boys who were trafficked for sex. Some were killed for their organs. It was said the liberals abused the children in the basement of the restaurant. Supposedly there was a cabal of Hollywood celebrities including Tom Hanks and political leaders like Hillary Clinton and other members of the liberal elite that molested young children at this restaurant. But there were no missing children. And no basement. and no evidence. None of this was needed to spread on the internet.

Some rabid right wing pundits like Alex Jones, whose status was enhanced by Donald Trump’s lavish praise after his election, amplified the wild theory. It all arose out of the hacked emails at the Democratic Party headquarters. People looked at emails from Hillary’s advisor John Podesta that kept referring to “cheese pizza” which obviously meant child pornography. After all they could not have been talking about pizza.

After frequent urgings, one of Jones’ Internet followers, a young married man with young children took him up on the challenge and showed up at Comet Ping Pong Pizza armed with a knife and an AR-15 style assault rifle prepared to die in the cause of rescuing those poor children he believed, entirely without any evidence, were in the grip of pedophiles in the basement of the restaurant. Imagine his surprise when he showed up and found there was no basement, just a ping pong room filled with kids and their parents playing ping pong and eating pizza! But it really was not that funny because on the way there he phoned his home and told his wife that he might be dying in the cause for he was fully prepared to sacrifice his life to defend these children he did not even know. He actually fired his gun in the restaurant but thankfully he was a woeful shot and no one was hurt. But someone might have died. Firing an assault rifle in a restaurant filled with happy patrons is a dangerous thing to do.

That is the point. It is one thing to believe whacky theories without evidence, but such beliefs can lead to serious consequences. People could get hurt. Believing crazy stuff without evidence is a dangerous thing. Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security advisor believed the pizza-gate theory. He re-tweeted stories about the pedophile ring. Remember he was, for a short time, the man who was advising the president of the United States on matters of national security! And he believed stuff like this entirely without evidence, just because he heard about it on the Internet. That is what the world has come to as a result of credulity. Credulity is not innocent; it is dangerous.

Often fake news originates from people who benefit from such stories. Like Trump, or more likely his faithful supporters. Amy Davidson, a New Yorker writer described the situation this way:

“Which is more alarming: the idea that Pizzagate is being promoted by politically motivated cynics who don’t actually believe it, or that people with influence and proximity to power, including people with access to the president , are really susceptible to this sort of nonsense? Both can be the case; fabricators and wide-eyed believers can be side by side, in Twitter feeds or Trump Tower, or, soon, in the White House. Many things are likely to go wrong for Trump and to disappoint his supporters. The fear is that he and they will try to explain his failings by pushing conspiracy theories of all kinds. The spirit of Pizzagate could become as commonplace, in this country, as the smell of pizza. And how does one even measure power and influence in the context of social media, or, for that matter, in a country with few effective gun-control laws and a President-elect who got crowds cheering with talk of armed citizens taking down terrorists in crowded cafés? How much power belongs to a man in his twenties walking into a pizza place with an assault rifle, looking for secret chambers and hidden messages?”

Fake news and conspiracy theories without evidence are never benign. They can easily bring dangerous consequences with them. They are not amusing. They are toxic. Pizzagate led to a man walking into a restaurant prepared to die to protect non-existent victims of sexual abuse and all of this was the direct consequence of fake news. In other words news believed without evidence.

The Spanish painter Francesco Goya was right: “the sleep of reason produces monsters.”

Coronaviruses of the Mind

 

I have been trying to explain why we are not entitled to just believe anything at all because we want to. If we do that we encourage ourselves and others to be credulous. People should only believe what the evidence supports.

Part of the problem is that people pass on their superstitions and their prejudices and irrational beliefs to their children. Added to that, ordinary people in ordinary situations can infect others with their irrational beliefs. Irrational beliefs are never innocent. Such beliefs often have seriously harmful consequences.

Philosopher Arthur Schafer “sees irrationality as a kind of infection.” If we didn’t before, we now know how dangerous infections can be. The same holds for infectious beliefs. For example, Lewis Weiss the Reeve of the R.M. of La Broquerie said if he did not feel sick he could not pass on Covid-19 to anyone else. The science says he is wrong. He should listen to the science or he might infect others who in turn can infect even more people. That is how a virus works. Weiss’ belief, just like the coronavirus, was not innocent. In fact it was dangerous.

When the evidence is not clear, people should suspend belief. But people love to take a leap of faith. This is exactly why irrational beliefs are so dangerous. They can spread like a virus leading to others believing what you believe, even though there is no evidence to support that belief, but even worse, can lead others to believe other irrational beliefs because they have been conditioned to do that by the culture of belief. I think that is what happened recently in the United States. Trump believed (or at least claimed he believed) that the recent election was laced with voter fraud and had been stolen from him. He had no evidence for that, as was shown repeatedly in various courts. Yet many people came to believe that. As a result these people won’t believe in the legitimacy of Biden’s election. That could have very dangerous consequences in a country as polarized as the U.S.

Because of our long-standing habit as people in both Canada and the U.S. and many other countries, “Credulity is a rampant disease in modern societies,” according to Arthur Schafer. Not only that, but it is one of the most dangerous diseases our world has ever faced.

Particularly where an issue is complex, such as Covid-19, or a complex election, it is very easy to confuse people. We are not a skeptical rational society, even though our very capacity to survive, not just flourish, is dependent upon our diligently, conscientiously, and thoughtfully looking at evidence to support our beliefs.

As a result Schafer concluded said those who feel a liberal tolerance to those who espouse superstitious or irrational beliefs (beliefs that are not supported by evidence) have got it wrong. “It is not permissible to believe whatever makes you feel good,” says Schafer. It is ethically wrong. And we ought to be willing to say so. According to Schafer those who take the attitude that it is permissible to believe whatever makes one feel good is sort of like stealing. “Such beliefs are equivalent to stealing from your fellow citizens by making yourself credulous.” says Schafer. That weakens society and we all suffer as a result.

We have to remember that giving up reason and evidence, as the only valid basis for beliefs, is not just unwise it is dangerous. If we base beliefs on sacred texts, authority, or wishful thinking we can come to believe absurdities. Voltaire got it right when he said, “Those who make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Perhaps a better current example, might be, those who can make you believe an absurdity can make you believe that the coronavirus is not dangerous.

We have to remember that irrational beliefs can have very serious consequences. We should not do anything to encourage them. We ought to do everything we can to stamp them out. We should be cultivating a spirit of questioning, of careful scrutiny of evidence, of diligent searching for the best and most reliable evidence, and of conscientious analysis of arguments based on evidence. We should listen to experts, but do so critically, not with blind acceptance. We should do everything we can to foster critical thinking for it is in such horribly short supply and our lives depend on it. If we could not see that before we can certainly see that in the midst of an international pandemic. That’s why it is unethical to believe without evidence. The rational life is the ethical life. The superstitious life is based on moral flaws. We should choose the ethical life.

The Ethics of Belief

 

In the United States Covid-19 has become the leading cause of death in adults. In other words, it causes more deaths than heart disease. What is really disappointing about that is that we could have done much better, had we paid more attention to science instead of theories without a sound evidentiary basis. Why do we do that?

We should know by now that when times get tough our best instrument at our disposal is usually critical thinking. At such times we need to weigh the evidence and data carefully, apply our best reasoning powers, set aside our prejudices and biases, and reach the best conclusion we can in the circumstances. We must ignore faith, feelings, instincts, guesses, hunches, and most important wishes. We live in a society where this is not commonly done. People usually prefer the opposite approach. This is particularly true in the United States, but it is true everywhere.

A while ago I learned from a University of Manitoba philosophy professor, Arthur Schafer, about the dangers of this approach. He said there is such a thing as the ethics of belief. Schafer in turn based his theory on what he had learned from a 19th century English philosopher by the name of William Kingdon Clifford. I had never heard of  him before.

Clifford argued, that to believe anything because it comforts you, or makes you feel good, or sustains you in life, or makes life a little less intolerable, is not just epistemically wrong, not just intellectually wrong, but actually one of the worst crimes that you can commit. It is a travesty and has some horrible consequences. We will get to those. According to Clifford this is a morally wrong. As Schafer agreed saying,

“ when we believe things because they make us feel good, rather than because we have good evidence for them, Clifford argues that we make ourselves credulous people.”

 

That is wicked according to Clifford and Schafer. If we are credulous people we can easily believe stories—like the story that Covid-19 was deliberately produced by Bill Gates in order to gain control of our minds and make profit by selling a vaccine entirely without evidence. Or we can believe that the end of the pandemic is “around the corner,” even though there is no evidence to support that belief. Or we can believe that the recent American election was stolen by evil Democrats despite the fact that there is no credible evidence to support the claim. If we are credulous we can believe anything because it makes us feel good. And that is a very dangerous thing.

 

According to Schafer “our society which many of us think of as secular, is actually “impregnated with a lot of irrational superstitions.” Now Schafer puts all kinds of things into the category of irrational superstitions such as religious beliefs. All of them. Now I know many of my readers will not accept that. I don’t want to tackle those beliefs now. Save that for another day. But I do want to tackle the beliefs people have had about Covid-19 entirely without evidence to back them up.

We have tolerated those beliefs. Often we have smiled at them or even mocked them. We have had such an easy target in the White House. We have had another easy target here in Steinbach with the crazy beliefs held by the nearby Reeve of the Rural Municipality of La Broquerie. Or the nearby Church of God Restoration. These are not beliefs we should tolerate. I have criticized them, but my criticism have been much too timid.

This is the attitude of tolerance. This is a liberal good—a very high good at that. Usually. But it is not acceptable in times of a serious health pandemic. Usually, we tolerate the fact that others have irrational beliefs. We tolerate that they believe any kind of superstition no matter how nonsensical as long as they don’t try to impose it on us. This is not the time for tolerance. According to Schafer “there are no innocent beliefs.” That is because all beliefs have consequences.

Many liberals hold that I have the right to believe whatever I want, so long as I don’t harm anyone else. Schafer says that by believing irrational things we are exposing ourselves to serious potential harms. As long as we would harm only ourselves that might be acceptable. But by our actions we are also  exposing many others to serious harms  through our credulity. That we are not entitled to do. That is morally wrong.

According to Schafer,

“we should not believe anything except those propositions for which we have good evidence and that the confidence we place in our beliefs should be proportional to the amount of evidence that supports them.”

He says we have a moral duty to engage in the hard work of looking at science, or our own good work, in order to consult the best available evidence conscientiously and honestly before we commit to believing. We have to be open-minded. That means that we have to be willing to accept evidence that contradicts our cherished beliefs or those propositions we would really like to be true and we must be willing to discard or modify them if the evidence entails such actions. Only on that basis are we entitled to believe something. Only on that basis can a belief be ethical.

Schafer says that if we believe a statement without evidence because we want to believe that, we are conditioning the mind to do that again. It will then tend to believe another statement without evidence just because we want to believe it is true. This is really a kind of slippery slope argument. Credulity leads to ever more credulity. It is not possible to sequester such beliefs in order to avoid contamination. Contamination will follow inevitably from our acceptance of beliefs without evidence in one case. Our mind is so trained to think that this is acceptable.

Professor Schafer gave an interesting example from his experience as an ethics consultant with hospitals. If you accept beliefs, such as religious beliefs, without evidence, you are more likely to believe that you should let their children die rather than giving them a needed blood transfusion. I don’t know if it’s true, but I was told the members of the Church of God Restoration don’t believe in modern medicine, trusting instead, without evidence, that God will take care of them. One irrational belief leads to another and that other may be seriously harmful.

This is what has happened with regard to Covid-19. The minds of too many people had been trained to accept irrational beliefs and hence misinformation has spread through our countries and disarmed people from looking instead at the actual evidence and taking reasonable precautions based on the best evidence.

Truth and Conspiracy Theories

 

I have a theory about conspiracy theories.

America is so filled with conspiracy theories it is difficult to decide where to start and where to end. They are ubiquitous. They are literally everywhere.

I have been trying to explain why in my opinion that is so. I believe it is because of their particular devotion to believing without evidence. That devotion has been around so long many don’t even see. Many people think it is normal to believe wild theories without evidence.

Here is a theory I endorse: the more unlikely a statement, the stronger the evidence we should demand before we believe it. The weaker the evidence in support of a theory the more suspect we should be about it. For example, if someone says Barack Obama was born outside the United States that is a statement that is hard to believe, but it is not so outrageous that it could not be true. I would require some evidence though, because it is not obviously true. If you say that Barack Obama is part of an international conspiracy of elite pedophiles that are attacking very young children to kill them and drink their blood that is a pretty wild statement. Such a statement requires deep evidence to be believed. Nothing else will do.

Yet to a lot of people such a statement about Obama is made and it is believed. It does not matter how outrageous it is, if it sort of fits in with their own world-view they believe it without any evidence at all. These believers live in a world of conspiracy theories and they find the current world very congenial. They fit in. Increasingly, those who demand evidence don’t belong in this new world. Increasingly, the new world is a world of make-believe or FantasyLand. According to a recent study, 25% of Americans believe Qanon theories while another 24% are not sure about them! What is there to be unsure of?

Believing crazy theories without evidence is good evidence of not cherishing truth. A country that is soaked in conspiracy theories without evidence is a country that does not respect the truth. That is a country where truth is dying.

What is Conspiracy Theory?

A conspiracy is the activity of a group of people acting in concert to accomplish a heinous act. Bad things happen. They always will. Sometimes they come about because of a conspiracy of bad actors to bring them about. Sometimes one person does it alone. Then there is no conspiracy. I am not talking about such a conspiracy.

For example, in the 2016 federal election for president in the United States there was a conspiracy, spear-headed by President Vladimir Putin of Russia and those who worked with him to interfere, illegally and immorally in the American presidential election to discredit Hillary Clinton and favor Donald Trump. They conspired in secret but the evidence is overwhelming. The Mueller inquiry clearly and unequivocally determined this to be the case. A joint non-partisan intelligence report reached the same conclusion.

This is not the type of conspiracy I am talking about. The reason this is not what I am talking about is that the belief in the conspiracy was reasonable and backed up by a mountain of evidence.

 

The type of conspiracy theory I am talking about now is the paranoid or unreasonable belief in a conspiracy. The key is the lack of reasons to support the belief. In such a case, the evidence does not support the belief in the conspiracy. The belief in the conspiracy is thus not justified. It is a paranoid belief in other words because it is based on an unreasonable fear.

Fears are important. Fears can be bad and they can be good. If a fear is based on evidence it is a justified fear and we should pay attention to it. Reasonable fears should not be ignored. For example, when scientific evidence is overwhelming that the climate will change dramatically unless we change our ways, we should follow the evidence. When 97% of the scientists or more say that irreparable damage to the environment and our society will result from our failure to act, we should pay attention unless we have an even better reason to do otherwise.

Reasonable fears can protect us from harm. Unreasonable fears can cause us harm. We need to know how to distinguish them. That is not always easy to do. For a while, that was hard to do with evidence about climate change. For a long time now the evidence has mounted to such an extent that it is no longer reasonable to ignore. Reasonable fears can lead us out of danger. These are good fears. Unreasonable fears can lead us into danger.

Unreasonable fears should be ditched. The sooner the better. Sometimes that is hard to do. I have an unreasonable fear of heights. That is a called a phobia because it is unreasonable. All of us know that when we are in high places where we might fall down, we must be careful. That is a reasonable fear. Sometimes the fear is above and beyond all the evidence. That is the type I have. That is a phobia. I am not proud of it, but there is nothing I can do about. I know when I am in a glass elevator there is nothing to fear, but I can’t stop being afraid. My fear is not based on reasons. That is why I can’t reason my way out of it. I wish I could. That fear sometimes is debilitating.

Recently Republican supporters had a garden party at the White House to meet and greet the Republican nominated candidate for the Supreme Court. It was held outdoors, but the attendees did not practice social distancing and most of them did not wear masks. A significant number of those in attendance contracted Covid-19 after that event. The event may have been a super spreader event of the Covid-19 virus. That was dangerous and unwise on the part of the reckless attendees. It may have caused president Trump or others to get the coronavirus. A reasonable fear of the disease could have led a number of those in attendance to take reasonable precautions.

A current conspiracy theory is being promulgated by QAnon, and others, that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Tom Hanks, George Soros, and other elite liberals are all part of a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles that drink the blood of babies. They also believe that Donald Trump is the saviour who will protect the innocent children from this conspiracy. This theory is about as absurd as a theory can get, but many people believe it entirely without evidence. This is the type of conspiracy theory I want to talk about.

When it comes to conspiracies we need to be able to detect the reasonable theories from the unreasonable ones. That means we have to carefully analyze and sift through the evidence in support of theories or that might contradict the theories. To do that we must exercise our critical thinking or reason. That is our best tool for this purpose. Not faith in the promulgator of the theory. We are entitled to take into consideration the reputation of the proponents of a theory, but only to a limited extent. Even experts can be wrong. It is much more important to look at the evidence and the analysis and reach a conclusion. Sometimes we can’t do that. Then we should look at all the evidence we can and consult as many experts as possible and reach a tentative decision about the theory, and be prepared to discard or amend it as soon as the evidence leads us to do so.

 

Inventing America: Dreamers and Doers

 

As I write this during the American election campaign you may notice things are getting crazier and crazier in the good old USA. Why is that? That is the issue I have been trying to explore.

 

The Puritans started to call themselves Pilgrims. According to Kurt Andersen, they saw themselves as “extremists of a better social station—talked themselves into leaving England and creating their own American religious utopia.

The Puritan were interesting fanatics. Of course which fanatics are not interesting? For one thing they did not cross the ocean to improve their economic well being. They had dreams of ideas! When you think about it that was amazing. Remember all the hardships they had to endure for their ideas! They wanted to create a New World. What did that New World entail? They wanted a theocracy where they could banish those evil Catholics that had persecuted them in England. They also wanted to banish Church of England clergy, for they were not better than the Papists in their eyes. They wanted religious freedom where everybody could be just like them.

John Winthrop was their first leader and he created a great myth that was constantly revived by leaders like Saint Ronald Reagan. He said in his famous sermon, “We are as a city upon a hill endlessly happy.” Saint Ronald Reagan used this mythology to enhance his claim to Sainthood. It worked. Yet, many Americans have forgotten that this means they must be better than everyone else, not that they are better than everyone else.

As Andersen said about the Puritans,

“If one has enough belief in the supernatural plan, if one’s personal faith is strong enough, false prophecies are just unfortunate miscalculations that don’t falsify anything. If you’re fanatical enough about enacting and enforcing your fiction, it becomes indistinguishable from nonfiction.”

FantasyLand was born and America is living the dream. Or is it the nightmare? The Puritans wanted a place where no one would knock them for their crazy ideas. That was America. They created America—a place where crazy ideas came home to thrive. Anderson called them “the most literal-minded fantasists ever.” The world they created was truly FantasyLand for adults. For both good and ill.

Now its time to look to see what  they created.