Conspiracy theorists regard themselves as skeptics. They see people who accept mainstream or official accounts as credulous. A mirror image holds for people who reject conspiracy theories. Equally skeptical and equally self-assured, this group regards conspiracy theorists as credulous. Each side regards the other as too willing to accept false or questionable information.
Interestingly, conspiracy theorists tend to be more conservative in the terms they choose to describe their antagonists. On the other side, defenders of official accounts may use terms like whacko, beyond crazy, or nut job when they refer to conspiracy theorists. When you hear those phrases, take a moment to think why a person would use words like that. Why is ridicule their first response. If contradictory evidence underlies the disagreement, think about motives that might make someone call another person insane. Consider whether people who comfortably dismiss others with terms of ridicule and ostracism have grounded their beliefs on different types of evidence, or resp;onded with a balanced, discerning treatmemt of skeptics’ questions. People who value deliberation and analysis generally do not use words like that.
Historically, remember this important point when you hear people ridicule conspiracy theorists: independent researchers were right about the Kennedy assassination. Not every theory about who shot Kennedy, or why he was shot, is correct, but skeptics were correct to say that the government’s investigation was incomplete, that the case was not closed. After so many people dismissed independent researchers who began their work as skeptics, the outcome of their research vindicated both their tenacity, and their desire to comprehend all of the evidence related to the case.
That does not mean all conspiracy theories are correct. It does mean that we should never give benefit of doubt to official acounts. Official accounts necessarily displace responsibility – away from officials. Officials have not earned trust, do not deserve it, and certainly do not need it. The initial presumption for all investigations should be that the federal government is not trustworthy, that it does not tell the truth, and that anything it says in a particular instance is unreliable. Why would it even trouble itself with an investigation and written report if it did not need to allay well grounded doubts about its reliability? It has no claim on our beliefs.
If that seems overly skeptical, ask which is more reasonable, or safe, when stakes are high: to disbelieve institutions of proven dishonesty, or to grant them a third or a fourth chance. You might give a family member a second chance after a relatively minor instance of dishonesty, but is it reasonable to give governmental institutions – in particular intelligence and investigative agencies – a second chance after their demonstrable involvement in something as grave as the murder of a president? The wise course is to distrust a government like that, ignore it, set it aside, and create one in its place that does not harbor secrets about crimes it has committed.
The fitness of dishonest governments – the question of whether they have any claim at all on our loyalty – burdens discussion of conspiracy theories with more weight than most conversations can bear. Skeptics may act rather matter-of-fact about their beliefs, where for many, departure from orthodox beliefs may appear calamitous. Some fear the heavens may actually fall. Yet to discount conspiracy theories because they threaten a stable worldview certainly endangers everyone far more than discovery of the truth. To place your faith in a government that is actually an enemy clearly places you in a more dangerous position than any other civic mistake you might make.
Thoroughgoing skepticism of every official pronouncement – from everyday spin and self-serving arguments to formal investigative reports – gives citizens a robust strategy for safety and freedom, if they can bear the discomfort or sense of exclusion they may experience if they do not participate in mainstream arguments. Automatically denying authority or credibility to everything government says may seem to entail extraordinary cognitive overhead, but in fact it makes sorting information more efficient. When you disbelieve anything that originates with government, especially when the statement is consequential, you have a practical and accurate filter to sort evidence and discern truth.
As we evaluate skepticism and attitudes associated with it, we should also remember value of a Zen-like detachment from the world of argumentation and political alignments. Skeptical viewpoints become hard to maintain in the swirling currents of partisanship. When people speak on behalf of government, or analysts align themselves with a mainstream version of events, be slow to judge and open to all possibilities in your response. Above all, be cautious about reaching any conclusions until you have considered important pieces of evidence yourself. In the end no one cares which side you take, except you. No one cares whether you take any side at all.
The real world of political discourse, however, is anything but Zen-like. Michael Moynihan concludes, in a Daily Beast article about reactions to the Newtown mass casualty exercise, that conspiracy theorists are not people he cares to associate with: “After a week among the anti-Zionist conspiracy theorists, the pop-eyed Infowarriors, and various autodidacts and ‘independent researchers,’ I’m convinced that America is indeed overflowing with people who need their heads checked out.”
I think of autodidacts and independent researchers – no quotation marks here – as people who think for themselves. Apparently Moynihan, and our cartoon’, regard them as mildly insane, delusional, worthy only of disdain and dismissal. Moynihan does not say straight out that pop-eyed Infowarriors pose a danger to the rest of us, but you still wonder why he would choose a word like pop-eyed. When you regard people who disagree with you as insane, you have stepped into uneasy territory. The landscape looks both strange and familiar, its atmosphere somewhat threatening. Then you remember how much conflict and estrangement among groups turns on divergent beliefs, rather than greed or a primitive instinct for domination. You can transform other people into fearsome threats – objects, actually – merely because they do not think the same way you do. That’s something to be skeptical about.