If you had a Tardis and you went back two thousand years and showed the druids some examples of modern technology, I bet you they wouldn’t be impressed. They’d look at wi-fi and jet engines and antibiotics and electricity and then they’d tell you why their Mystic Meg explanation of the universe was the only true one.
You don’t even need a time machine. These people are all around us nowadays. The Earth is flat. Vaccines cause autism (and/or implant microchips). 5G causes cancer (and/or covid-19). The climate isn’t heating up. Democrats eat babies on their pizzas. The moon landings were faked. 9-11 was a government hoax. Used to be that this kind of thing was limited to a few crazies, but the internet seems to have woken up a strain of hyper-gullibility. A friend of mine was told by a publican who believes covid-19 doesn’t exist that “scepticism is good”. And so it is. But only if you can tell scepticism from cussed denialism.
Why do people snap up these myths? There are two parts to the answer. The first explains why they are looking for myths to believe. If you ask people who convert to a religion later in life (and who therefore haven’t been conditioned early on to accept it without question), the most common reason they give for converting is: “Modern life was getting me down. Everything seemed so complex. But then I discovered this faith and it makes everything simple.”
Now, your first response if you’re a real sceptic would be: “Why should a complex system have an easy answer?” People lap up an easy answer because it makes them feel safer, and their need to feel safe overrides the issue of whether the easy answer is likely to be right.
Then there’s the question of amour-propre. A lot of people who buy into conspiracy theories are not dumb, but they’re self-educated and therefore only half-educated. They’ve never been trained in logical thought, never learned to spot fallacies. They have a vested interest, in fact, in not even wanting to spot fallacies.
Here’s why: if you feel left behind, accepting a logic-defying belief puts you on a level playing field with better educated people because if logic and evidence count for nothing then experts have no advantage. When you accept the conspiracy you gain self-respect. You think you’re special. You can sneer at the “sheeple” who accept science and reason. Those idiots with their qualifications and their degrees -- you know better from "the university of life" and a few hours trawling the internet.
The internet fuels this nonsense because it’s a junk store of unfiltered claims and mislabelled data. Demented conspiracy theorists trawl through it, apply a sort of green-ink, back-bedroom, halfwit parody of expert analysis, and suddenly you have them “proving” that President Biden doesn’t have access to Air Force One or that the coronavirus genome contains a human DNA sequence.
OK, so that’s why these people are susceptible to conspiracies and where they’re getting their “information”. But why these particular myths?
I got the answer to that the other night while I was watching Iron Man 2. If you haven’t seen it – well, watch Iron Man 1 instead (and don’t for the love of reason watch Iron Man 3), but here’s the recap. Tony Stark is dying of palladium toxicity. “I’ve tried every element to power my arc reactor,” he says, “but none of them works. I need a new element.” The arc reactor keeps his heart beating, you see, so no getting rid of that.
The problem of the new element wouldn’t really be its structure, of course. There aren’t a lot of puzzles when all you’re putting together are protons and neutrons. It’s how you’d synthesize it that would be tricky. But that’s fine. Give that a pass. It’s sci-fi. The point is how Tony learns the structure of the new element, like so:
See, his dad, Howard Stark, figured it all out back in the ‘70s but didn’t have the technology to synthesize it. He left Tony a home movie in which he says, “You can do it.” He doesn’t say what the element is. He doesn’t draw a diagram or tell Tony about a file where he could look it up. It’s a gnomic hint at a deep secret. At this point the conspiracy theorist in all of us sits up.
Tony goes to his old office. There he sees the model of the Stark Expo park that his dad was standing in front of in that movie. He takes it home, randomly removes lots of buildings, and then realizes that the remaining buildings, if thought of as protons and neutrons, look like a superheavy but stable atomic nucleus. The new element!
But hang on. If his dad had figured out arc reactor tech fifty years ago, why didn’t he publish? He was a weirdly secretive guy? OK then, but this is really important and it could die with him. So why would he hide the info in a cardboard model of an expo park, and make a sly hint about it on a home movie – and just hope neither would get chucked away? He could have tattooed the nuclear structure on baby Tony’s bottom, for heaven’s sake. Or just left him a Read This file.
It’s storytelling, that’s why. Offered a trail of breadcrumbs, moviegoers don’t ask, “What’s this trail of crumbs doing here? Who put it there? Why did they?” Instead they go, “Ooh, a trail of crumbs. Better follow it.”
And that’s how conspiracies work. They weave a story. Their audience: the poor saps who feel left out by a world where you have to apply reason, keep thinking, and continually update your theories. Offer them a conspiracy with the shape of a story, however simplistic, and they’re Pavlov-conditioned to jump through the hoop you’ve held out for them and feel they’ve done something really smart.
Just as you can defend yourself from demagogues by learning to spot the tricks of rhetoric, you can defend yourself against conspiracy-peddlers by knowing the techniques used by storytellers. The same twists, reveals, and reversals that a writer uses to pull you into a story can also be employed to snare you in a dangerous delusion. The world is complicated; get over it. Simplistic answers are often wrong. But you have a brain that’s more complex than any other structure that we know of in the universe. Use it. Don’t be the druids they’re looking for.