On conspiracies: truth and relativity

By Jill Trick
Reader Contributor

I appreciate the Reader including complex topics in your paper. Your article “Down the rabbit hole,” (Feb. 4) addresses some that definitely deserve discussion. I have numerous comments, my first regarding use of the label “conspiracy theorist.” This labeling, similar to when we say “communist,” “socialist” or “Trumpist,” tends to cause people to make huge assumptions instead of examining specifics of the ideas behind the label. In the same vein, I would object to describing someone’s ideas or viewpoint as “fringe beliefs.” If this term is used, it should be with great caution. 

Reasons for my objections become obvious when we remember the history of many of our scientific discoveries that we all hopefully learned in high school (i.e. Galileo accused of heresy for suggesting the Earth revolves around the sun). And if we research the history of other important discoveries, we learn they were considered fringe by the majority of people and science at the time. A local example is geologist and high-school science teacher in Washington, J. Harlan Bretz, who in 1923 suggested a gigantic flood created the scablands of eastern Washington, and whose idea wasn’t accepted by “mainstream” scientists until the 1970s. Now we in North Idaho know this as the draining of Lake Missoula when it broke through the ice dam on the Clark Fork River.

Your article makes the good point that we need media literacy. We could add that part of media literacy is understanding the history of our media. In the U.S., thousands of previously independent media voices across the country have more recently been bought up and run by a few corporations intent on profits. We also need to look at who sits on the boards and who votes for or against funding of our public broadcasting corporations, and where additional funding comes from for public broadcasting.

You quote Professor Joseph Uscinski’s writings on conspiracy theories and theorists where he says, “We live in a complicated world and common sense really isn’t that good … That’s why we have experts … we’re able to get by because we rely on other experts.” 

It’s my opinion that this is only partly true. “Experts” also get stuck in their particular viewpoints and often have a stake in keeping their own “theories” intact. They also run the risk of becoming entrenched in the dogma of the day. It’s my opinion that common sense is often pretty good. 

Also, as you say in your article, “skepticism is not necessarily a bad thing … [it] allows scientists to consider all possibilities and … question all information.” You quote Uscinski saying “some amount of skepticism is healthy in a democracy.” I would say skepticism is the essence of democracy, as well as the essence of discovery.

The late-philosopher Alan Watts said, “One of the real reasons why people can manipulate … why some totalitarian states can get away with re-writing history … is because people are accustomed to thinking there is some such thing as ‘the truth.’ And the moment we are, as it were, suckers in this sense, for ‘the truth,’ someone can simply misrepresent it and say ‘on the contrary, the truth is this and so.’” 

Watts also points out that, “anybody who writes history is presenting a point of view. In other words, what is true is always relative to a way of looking at things and an intention to do something.” 

So that, when we examine what someone is saying, we need to assess: 1) what is his/her point of view?; 2) what does he/she want to achieve?; 3) where do they get their facts and what source do those facts come from? (This last somewhat paraphrasing Alan Watts).

There is plenty more to say on these topics — maybe someone else will chime in. I hope the Reader will continue to provide us with these thoughtful articles.

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