Why Conspiracy Theories are dangerous
Conspiracy theories have been around since we have had written language, and probably even earlier. They’re rooted in suspicion and distrust, whether that be in an individual, organization, government, or group of people. These suspicions often exist within a group or groups of people, individuals who often share similar experiences, and are often wielded as a means to unite themselves against a common enemy.
These suspicions and fears may have legitimate origins, often rooted in past experiences. Fear of government abuse has roots in abuses governments have sponsored throughout history, including the present time. We can find several current historical events, showing human rights violations, such as what has been happening with China and Hong Kong and the Uighurs.
Fear of medical professionals can also have historical roots, especially for Black Americans. There are numerous examples where Black Americans were used and abused based on the color of their skin. Examples such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Trials, James Marian Sims “The Father of Modern Gynecology,” and many others illustrate the abuses seen by the black community at the hands of doctors and nurses. Medical Apartheid, provides countless examples for those willing to understand the reasons for distrust from Black Americans toward the healthcare system.
Other examples outside of the Black community include the Willowbrook Hepatitis Experiments and Dr Saul Krugman, a study which was trying to determine if there were more than one strain of Infectious hepatitis and if a vaccine could be created to prevent it. This research, while considered unethical, is the foundational research for the hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccines which have saved countless lives and prevented thousands of cases of Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B.
Most states have requirements now that nurses and doctors must have training on ethics. Many courses taught to nurses throughout the country use these (and other) examples to illustrate the importance of ethics, and how to we must be ethical in our practice and not repeat the unethical actions of the past.
We have all heard the adage “History repeats itself,” yet we don’t ponder the entirety of the thought. George Santayana most aptly summarized it as “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So we ask, what is the likelihood that we will repeat these offenses, when active effort is used to teach and train healthcare professionals to look at their care, their hospital systems, and their actions through an ethical viewpoint. Will we likely have these unethical instances re-occur? It is always possible, but considerably less likely if we continue to educate on ethics.
We have all heard the adage “History repeats itself,” yet we don’t ponder the entirety of the thought. George Santayana most aptly summarized it as “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Often the fears which create conspiracies are based on our own biases which are reinforced with hate. Conspiracy theories surrounding Jews, immigrants, and minorities are often used to justify hate and reinforce existing biases.
While for many, the suspicions and distrust imbedded in us is to protect us from unsafe situations, there are many groups which utilize conspiracy theories to imbed irrational fears. Fears of the government “coming to take our guns,” “stealing children for the black market,” etcetera are examples of fears which are not based in reality and are used to manipulate individuals. These are conspiracies designed to breed resentment towards groups or the government which want to require reasonable safety requirements to owning a weapon, or act to protect children from abusive and unsafe environments.
Often these conspiracies are adopted by individuals who already have a level of distrust, and the conspiracy theory aligns with their pre-existing distrust, adding to their distrust.
My experiences with the anti-vaccine movement spans decades, where it saw sharing among Christians in the 1980-1990s. The common talking points played off of existing anti-government sentiments, distrust of science, deficit in science education (often purposeful to avoid evolutionary theories), and a readiness to accept unobservable beliefs instead of observable facts as truth. The focus wasn’t necessarily on the potential for injury, but that the government was covering up thousands of children deaths, either through SIDS or other causes. They dovetailed on to the science deficiency, tagged onto the distrust of government agencies, and placed seeds of doubt as to the integrity of doctors and nurses, the safety of vaccines, and what they perceived as a giant conspiracy to cover up the damage of vaccines to maintain control of the population.
Do these tactics sound familiar?
I know that every time I see conspiracy theories being shared, they almost undoubtedly have the same rhetoric and pathway they follow: a specific issue is caused by the suspected/hated individual(s), with the intent to X,Y, Z (infringe on your rights, control you, etcetera). Once you have allowed yourself to accept one conspiratorial belief, it’s likely that you will accept another, since they undoubtedly will use the same tactics to manipulate you in subsequent conspiracies as they did in the first.
Having distrust or suspicions doesn’t make you conspiratorial. Skepticism is an asset, as long as the individual can accept contrary findings and change their views. Often those caught up in conspiracies believe they’re the ones being skeptical, which is why they commonly call those who aren’t “enlightened” and “Woke,” “sheep.” They believe they’re breaking away from the “sheep,” while they are, in fact, simply being manipulated by someone else.
Conspiracies require work and effort to be effective. They require cultivation and “keepers.” This is where the power of conspiracies come into play. While conspiracy theories are often accepted by the individual to “empower” and confirm their biases, the individual is simply becoming a pawn in the hands of the conspiracy creator. Here they are seeking liberty from imagined oppression, but in the very process of seeking freedom, they become tools of their own oppression. By creating and indulging in a non-existent reality, these individuals distance themselves from reality, seeking further evidence to confirm their suspicions and disregarding mountains of evidence to the contrary.
As one of our earlier posts alluded to, conspiracies attack our sources of truth, seeking to undermine shared sources of truth and substitute them with their own sources. This is fundamental to building a cult. To be able to control and manipulate the followers, the leader must destroy sources of truth which outsiders rely on for their understanding, which creates an “impervious” follower. We see despots and dictators use these same tactics to undermine democracy, to diminish the effectiveness of free press, and to protect themselves and their followers from external influence.
Once an individual doesn’t accept facts as truth, the creator has the ability to manipulate their followers as the sole source of truth. We have seen how these actions can have dangerous and violent consequences, even for those who peddle these conspiracies.
Here is another potential example of just how dangerous this is.