Dark Access of the Mind

Tao Lin is a writer whose work I don't necessarily enjoy, but I have long been interested in his thoughts. So when he went on Twitter last month to make big anti-vaccine arguments, I took the time to read it, the replies he made to dissenters, and did further reading on my own. Admittedly, he poses tempered stances that seem digestible and appealing to the casual passers-by like myself. But the moderation is what makes it more seductive and therefore damaging; like the political pundit that insists there's an ethical, clean way to launch an imperialistic war, or the oil company that assures you that clean coal is the way to a green future. It asks you to let your guard down so that the big, bad idea that all of it hangs from can exist uninterrupted. 

Still, I lost a chunk of the night because it triggered the obsessive part of my mind and I ended up reading enough anti-anti-vaccine counterpoints that I ended up where I was at the start of all this. I then turned my fixation on what gets people into this rabbit hole in the first place. There's a lot of useful material about the psychology that reels in parents into conspiratorial thinking about autism and vaccines, but it's also true that a lot of parents don't fall into that type of frenzy. Why do some people latch onto conspiracy theories?

To be fair, Lin does not believe in a conspiracy. That word implies a shadowy cabal operating a massive organization, all with a shared goal. But "conspiracy theorist" is just the best word available to describe what I'm really talking about: people seduced by the concept of a greater truth that only they and a few others see, and how it must be exposed to the masses of sheep. Chemtrails. September 11. The Illuminati.

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It might just be a question of wiring. In the same way that people are pre-disposed to the allure of excessive gambling, some people might just be especially open to conspiratorial thinking. Present a few glossed over facts, frame it as something some Other doesn't want you to know, and leave a few more bread crumbs of tantalizing, scandalous assumption-breakers -- that might be all we need to buy-in. Like a gambler tantalized by the sight of the card table, or an alcoholic gifted a whiskey bottle, these things are triggers. They open up a dark access road into the mind, unloading direct and instant gratification to fill something empty.

The problem is that not all human knowledge is actually knowable; at some point you have to trust someone else's opinion and expertise. The world's greatest physicist has to have faith that the world's greatest climate scientists have as firm a hold on her research as he does in his field. Even multidisciplinary experts will have gaps in their knowledge that they have to assign to others. No one has the capacity to read and vet research papers on climate change AND genetically modified organisms AND vaccines AND chemtrails AND whether the world is round AND Obama's birth certificate.

So society built institutions as best as we could, these signifiers of seriousness and study, and dedicated members of society to get in the weeds of particular topics and other people (journalists, writers, entertainers) to translate it to the rest of us. But to the conspiratorial mind this just reads as willful ignorance and no desire to challenge an oppressive system. When we don't engage with them on Twitter or comment threads underneath articles, they think we're shutting our minds and slamming the door in their face. "If I'm wrong you'd debate me."

But we're not equipped to debate, at a moment's notice, with people who have been fixated on the esoteric facts of a conspiracy theory. Maybe if given equal time to research and obsess, it would be a more level debate field. People who realize this "shut the door" on conspiracy theorists and are solid in their faith that institutions of expertise are working as intended. But there are also people who are caught unawares and off-balance by the confrontation of conspiracy theory pitches, and they are prime targets for conversion. They are people react to the realization that they don't have the answer with, "You must have the answer then" and not "It will take some time and work to get to the answer."

Combined with the static of the internet -- every voice at once, with varying degrees of credibility, so that no one is ever right because there's always someone more credible on top of them arguing against them -- and it seems that this glitch in human reasoning will thrive in the hyperactive information metabolism of the modern world. In a world where everything can be true if you want it to be, rare versions of truth will be coveted more than what the rest of us are sucking down.