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How Paranoid Should You Be?

Most of us disregard conspiracy theorists as cranks and zealots; at the same time, we value skepticism, and plenty of conspiracies have turned out to be true. Where is the line between skeptical inquiry and going off the deep end?

How Paranoid Should You Be?

Hazlitt regular contributor Linda Besner’s poetry and non-fiction have appeared...

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|| The Matrix (1999)

A few scenarios:

Elvis is alive. Princess Diana is alive, or the Queen killed her because she was pregnant and converting to Islam. Anna Chapman, CEO of PropertyFinder LLC, was a Russian spy. Fidel Castro shot JFK. The CIA hired mafia assassins to kill Fidel Castro. George Bush planned 9/11. The Jews planned 9/11. We all mass-hallucinated 9/11.

AIDS is a government weapon being deployed against African Americans. The flag in the moon landing photos is flapping in the earthly atmosphere of a California sound stage. The lattice construction of our universe shows that it is a computer simulation.

William Shakespeare was Marlowe. William Shakespeare was Francis Bacon. William Shakespeare was Queen Elizabeth I, or else a bunch of people. Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy is staged to soften Hilary’s image. The Earth’s atmosphere is warming and we are living in the end times. We are ruled by reptilian aliens from the centre of the Earth.

Anglophone and allophone voters from other provinces tried to register with fraudulent Montreal addresses in Quebec’s most recent election. The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was planned by the Illuminati, who planted clues in the lyrics to Pitbull and Shakira’s “Get It Started.”

At least two aliens are currently working with the U.S. government. We are alone in the universe.

*

The last time I saw John-James Ford he was waist-deep in a hot spring, discussing the mimetic nature of art with the late great novelist Paul Quarrington. It was at a writing residency in the mountains of Banff, and the rest of us were hanging on the side of the pool taking a break from serious talk. Someone commented that Ford and Quarrington had formed their own private Athenian gymnasium; Quarrington a Platonic good ’ol boy in a Hawaiian shirt and swim trunks, Ford the embodiment of kalos kai agathos, the handsome and brave. Mens sana in corpore sano, as the Romans would later say. Ford was already the author of a novel based on his experiences at the Royal Military College in Kingston—it had won an award and been favourably reviewed in The Globe and Mail—and he was good-looking; Harrison might have been his first name. The sulfate in the water eased the toxins from their pores. Above them, the peak of Sulphur Mountain, where there are still traces of an old observatory built to study cosmic rays.

Shortly after that day at the springs, Ford went back to the civil war in Sri Lanka. It was 2007, and he worked as an immigration officer in Colombo. Over eight years with the Foreign Service, he was posted to other countries too—Kenya and Ethiopia—and his son and daughter largely grew up in South Asian megalopoli. We were, of course, Facebook friends, and over the years I came across his updates; he had quit government work and begun training to be a yoga teacher; he and his family had moved to the country, coincidentally close to where I grew up; he couldn’t believe the lack of transparency of the Harper government; he couldn’t believe how long his shawarma order was taking.

This winter, I started to notice a turn in his status updates. “Really? Are you positive that all evidence-based medicine backs your position on #vaccines?” on December 17th. “ALL #media has been infiltrated by those who’d have you live in #denial; #Fukushima was intentional as much as the cover-up is,” on January 12th. On February 5th, “Those who claim most fervently to hold truth and ‘reason’ (or more amusingly, science) behind them are likely carrying the strongest denials.”

When I called a few weeks ago, Ford was just unpacking his moving boxes. “There was all this crap going on with my divorce and access to my kids,” he said. “I just needed to bug out.” He had rented a place out in the bush, next to a lake at the end of a dirt road. The property had nine raised beds and he would be growing as much of his own food as possible. He had been getting a lot of blowback, he said, for his questions about vaccines in particular, which was how he knew he was onto something. “The inquiry’s important,” he said. “Questions shouldn’t be perceived as dangerous.”

He had rented a place out in the bush, next to a lake at the end of a dirt road. The property had nine raised beds and he would be growing as much of his own food as possible.

The key to all government conspiracies, he told me, is something quantum mechanics is just starting to figure out. “One atom, the subatomic particle, is mostly space,” Ford said. “The actual amount of matter there is the size of a Frisbee in a cathedral. It’s all vibration.” An article in the medical journal The Lancet had recently shown that fluoride is a neurotoxin. “Fluoride causes calcification of the pineal gland, and from a yogic perspective the pineal gland is really important for evolution of consciousness. So there’s a reason people want to keep us at a low vibration.”

Ford used to read the Economist and then read Adbusters and figure the truth was somewhere in between. Then he started to read up on thimerosol (the mercury-based additive contained in some vaccines), and on HAARP, the U.S. government’s High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program stationed in Alaska. At a certain point, having worked for the government for much of his life, he decided government sources—and scientific studies funded by the government—weren’t trustworthy. “When you’re looking for research and science and data, you’re only going to find what’s out there, and what’s out there is mostly what’s controlled,” he said.

Somewhere in there, he became a drug addict, then got clean. He was diagnosed with PTSD and depression. When Ford was growing up his dad was, as he put it, an alcoholic, rageaholic cop, and Ford joined the army in part to prove he wasn’t a sissy. He was teased for writing poetry, and his novel is largely concerned with the brutality of the military school environment. But Ford perceives his current retreat from the wider world, physically and mentally, as part of his recovery rather than part of his illness. When I asked where he now got his information instead, he responded that our obsession with information was part of the problem. “Our cells are genetically coded with all sorts of memory,” Ford told me. “The answers are all inside.”

He quoted Schopenhauer on truth and denial, then remarked that there are whole lists of conspiracy theories that have been proven true. “I mean, why does the U.S. government want everybody to get RFID [radio-frequency identification] implants?” he asked. “The fact that anybody is even arguing for this just shows how deep the programming goes.” When it came to vaccines, what better way could there be to control a population than to have mandatory injections? I heard him take a sip of coffee. “It’s The Matrix,” Ford said. “That movie spoke a lot of truth.”

*

Skepticism is a virtue. We believe that a good education is one that fosters the habit of critical inquiry. We are encouraged to ask where information on a topic is coming from, to assess the reliability of our sources, and to search the arguments for logical flaws or inconsistencies. So how do we know when we’ve reached the rational limits of doubt? What is the distinction between a conspiracy theory and an ambitious critical analysis?

The study of conspiracy theories (conspiracy theory theory, if you will) takes as its foundational text a 1964 Harper’s essay by historian Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” The author’s answer to the above questions is a curious one; as his essay title suggests, Hofstadter sees this difference not so much as a matter of content as a matter of taste. “When I speak of the paranoid style,” he wrote, “I use the term much as a historian of art might speak of the baroque or the mannerist style. It is, above all, a way of seeing the world and of expressing oneself.” The flushed, breathless, agitated manner of one who claims to be exposing a conspiratorial plot, Hofstadter wrote, is a persuasively damning counter-argument in and of itself.

In 1855, for example, newspapers were saying things like this: “It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing the corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism.” From Hofstadter’s point of view, the proof was in the decadent histrionics of the pudding. “A distorted style is, then, a possible signal that may alert us to a distorted judgment, just as in art an ugly style is a cue to fundamental defects of taste.”

However, Hofstadter conceded, while an overheated style could mean that an author’s mind was just as addled, it would be silly to deny the conspiracy theorist’s claim that governments do not always tell the truth. In fact, Ford and Hofstadter agree about the potentially harmful effects of fluoride (although Hofstadter doesn’t pinpoint the calcification of our pineal glands as his main concern) and about one other important fact: that some conspiracy theories turn out to be true.

Before the summer of 2013, believing the U.S. government was monitoring our email by means of a secret intelligence program with the creepy moniker PRISM meant that you were a paranoid conspiracy theorist. After June 5th, it meant that you had read the newspaper.

A few (true) scenarios:

In the 1940s and ’50s, the Canadian government claimed to be giving vitamins to starving First Nations populations in northern Manitoba, but instead withheld them from a subset of patients so government scientists could study the effects of malnutrition.

In the 1950s and ’60s, the CIA dosed unknowing Canadians and Americans with LSD to study, as a governmental report from 1976 succinctly puts it, “chemical, biological, and radiological materials capable of employment in clandestine operations to control human behavior.”

Europe’s Jews were carted off to concentration camps to be gassed, not, as Hitler’s administration claimed, “resettled.”

Before the summer of 2013, believing the U.S. government was monitoring our email by means of a secret intelligence program with the creepy moniker PRISM meant that you were a paranoid conspiracy theorist. After June 5th, it meant that you had read the newspaper.

*

The idea of a true, or accurate, conspiracy theory runs counter to what we tend to mean by “conspiracy theory.” In 2006, the Australian philosopher David Coady edited a collection entitled Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, in which various authors debate the definition of the term as well as its ontological ripples. “Conspiracy” comes from the Latin con (“with”) and spirare (“to breathe”), hence its whispery intimacy. We tend to use it as a pejorative, but this is not necessarily a true reflection of its meaning; anything that involves two or more people planning in secret can be a conspiracy. Surprise parties, blind dates, and Just for Laughs gags are the result of conspiracies, and whether you love or hate these things they are supposed to be fun.

The definition Coady comes up with is that a conspiracy theory is simply a theory that runs counter to the official narrative, at least at the time and in the place in which the official narrative is being promulgated. For example, he writes, “Although here and now belief in the Holocaust does not qualify as a conspiracy theory, because it also has official status, there was a time and place (i.e., Nazi occupied Europe) in which what would now be called ‘Holocaust Revisionism’ was the official story, and belief in the Holocaust was belief in an accurate conspiracy theory.”

Once you accept that it’s rational to doubt official narratives, it’s a hop skip and a jump to a more radical skepticism. Coady compares conspiracy theories to Descartes’ evil demon hypothesis or the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment literalized in The Matrix. “Skeptical hypotheses and conspiracy theories alike,” Coady writes, “invite us to consider the alleged possibility of agents with both the power and the motive to deceive us in our beliefs about the empirical world.” If the fluoride in my drinking water is numbing my brain—or if the CIA has secretly had me drop acid and is watching to see how I react—I can’t be sure that my perceptions of reality are accurate. I even have to doubt my ability to reason.

Descartes got out of this quandary with what is now widely perceived as a weak move—the old “God wouldn’t let that happen” gambit. An argument with more currency is the pragmatic one: even if you are a brain in a vat, you aren’t getting out anytime soon, so who cares? Elsewhere in Coady’s collection, the American philosopher Lee Basham writes:

the proper epistemic reaction to many conspiracy theories is (at best) a studied agnosticism. Typically we are not in any position to seriously credit or discredit these conspiratorial possibilities…[But] a more solid ground for the rejection of conspiracy theories is simply pragmatic. There is nothing you can do…The futile pursuit of malevolent conspiracy theory sours or at least distracts us from what is good and valuable in life. Squinting at the increasingly imperial edifice of global civilization and wondering what’s really behind all this? gets us nowhere.

This is, I would say, how most of us approach explanations that differ from the official narrative in our own lives. We generally agree that while there may well be shady dealings going on that we don’t know about and that aren’t good for us (which most people will accept is the case), we would rather not spend our time worrying about it.

However, as Coady argues, the purely pragmatic approach to conspiracy theories leaves us vulnerable. And especially, it allows us to ignore the vulnerability of others. In the case of the Holocaust, as well as in contemporary wars waged on the basis of fabricated or distorted pretexts, others pay the price of our unwillingness to disbelieve. “Naivety makes it too easy for us to think that we can avoid responsibility for a state of affairs by appealing to the fact that we were not told about it,” Coady writes. “We may have had a duty to find someone who can tell us.”

*

Jesse Walker’s 2013 book The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory examines conspiratorial ideas by narrative type: stories of The Enemy Above, The Enemy Below, The Enemy Outside, and the Enemy Within. In the 1940s, white women believed the Enemy Below—black women—were bumping into them on purpose while shopping, in fulfillment of the mandates of secret “bump clubs.” Arabs are the Enemy Outside du jour. During the Salem witch trials, neighbours accused each other—the Enemies Within—of sitting complacently in church on Sunday morning after spending Saturday night with the Devil. The theories that John-James Ford believes—that fluoridation of water is mind control, that Fukushima was deliberate—are versions of Enemy Above narratives, in which the threat comes from our own government and institutions.

If the fluoride in my drinking water is numbing my brain—or if the CIA has secretly had me drop acid and is watching to see how I react—I can’t be sure that my perceptions of reality are accurate. I even have to doubt my ability to reason.

Recent research suggests that the current prevalence of Enemy Above conspiracy theories has a direct social consequence—lower voter turnout and public engagement. A study by psychologists Daniel Jolley and Karen M. Douglas, published in the February 2014 issue of the British Journal of Psychology, found that exposing subjects to conspiracy theories about the death of Princess Diana or climate change decreased participants’ self-reported likelihood to vote, donate money to political groups, or wear campaign stickers. In fact, even reading this article may have subtly coloured your views of government without you being aware of it. A 2008 study by Douglas and R.M. Sutton in the Journal of Social Psychology found that students exposed to conspiracy theories about Princess Diana’s death were right to believe that their classmates had been swayed by the stories; but they were wrong in believing that they themselves had not been.

In the immediate aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, people were inclined to believe the official story. In 1963, a poll showed that 29 per cent of Americans trusted the accuracy of the Warren Commission’s report; in 2001, only 13 per cent believed the official narrative. Similarly, the Joint Inquiry that compiled the government’s take on the events of 9/11 was initially well received, but by 2004 polls showed a growing disbelief in its findings. A polling company found that in April of 2013, 11 per cent of American voters believed the U.S. government let the attacks on the World Trade Center happen. The “truther” movement has been actively organizing lectures and tours to tout their point of view, and while mainstream audiences may not be attending these events, American voters are no different from British college students in their susceptibility to influence. Exposure to the doubts of others has a psychological effect, even when we consciously dismiss their objections.

Some conspiracy theories think all activist groups have already been infiltrated by government agents. I spoke with an old friend, Dru Jay, a fair-haired activist in his mid-30s with eyes of two different colours—one is blue and the other is brown—who did indeed receive an unexpected home visit in 2009 from a pair of CSIS officers. The CSIS agents, he said, seemed to hope that he would act as an informant. “They were very friendly,” he remarked. “They went to the lengths of stating that they were being friendly, like, ‘Look, we’re being friendly.’” They wanted to know what—hypothetically—he would think if an activist group were planning to bomb the Vancouver Olympics. “They’re trained to watch your body language,” he told me. (Jay did not know of any plans that corresponded to CSIS’ conspiracy theory about a plot to attack Olympic athletes.)

In 2012, Jay co-authored the book Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s Development NGOs from Idealism to Imperialism, and he helps run an independent media organization (full disclosure: we dated for a little while about ten years ago, and for three years I was the books editor for the organization’s newspaper, The Dominion). He agreed with the British study that belief in conspiracy theories can become a form of voluntary disempowerment. “People are in rooms—possibly smoking cigars, possibly not,”—he laughed—“planning things that are not good for me. I’m sure they are. But people sort of seize on that, obsess about it so that they don’t actually have to do anything. We have control over a tremendous amount, especially in Canada where we have a relatively democratic government.”

For Jay, conspiracy theories are a form of misdirection, sending people chasing off after phantom problems instead of confronting the real problems right in front of us. For example, he said, it’s easy to get people excited about biopiracy—the idea that when you go to the doctor, he or she could be taking samples of your DNA and selling them. But this is only a theoretical possibility; what we know right now is that big companies like Texas’ RiceTec have tried to patent strains of basmati rice, which would make traditional farmers in the global south subject to prosecution for saving seed. “The problem,” he said, “is that what is actually bad for society and the world at large isn’t necessarily what freaks people out.”

*

What freaks people out, arguably, is not the evil master plan that governs our world—it’s the lack of any plan at all. In this way, conspiracy theorists are luckier than the rest of us because they live in a world of order and reason. Whoever is in charge is diabolical, but at least someone really is in charge. “This enemy is clearly delineated,” Hofstadter wrote:

[H]e is the perfect model of malice… Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He is a free, active, demonic agent. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history himself… He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is in this sense distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will.

In a way, John James Ford is less cynical than I am. While I find it easy to believe that we are ruled by ignorance and apathy, Ford has faith that what look like accidents are actually the successful implementation of a secret plan. “When you see consistent, oppressive incompetence by government, that’s always a sign that it’s not incompetence,” Ford told me. “It’s made to look that way—it’s intentional.”

We don’t cart people away for believing in God or the Devil. In fact, if you run for office in the United States, you would be well advised to profess a fervent belief in the power of these unseen forces to impart order to the universe. It’s when you start saying that you have personally met the Devil or his henchmen, or have had a divine plan revealed to you personally, that the rest of us start to feel uneasy.

In general, as a society, we are tolerant of the views of others. If someone wants to believe 9/11 was a covert operation planned and executed by the CIA, we mostly let them get on with their truther conventions in peace. Anti-vaccinators only want to be extended the same courtesy—to be allowed to live their own truth. “To the people who are like, you’re fucking crazy, you’re a weird conspiracy theorist and you’re dangerous to the human race because you’re not getting your shots,” Ford tells me, “I’m like, hey, you know what? Go ahead—get two shots.” He laughs. “Take as many fucking boosters as you want. I’m gonna do my own thing.”

The “truther” movement has been actively organizing lectures and tours to tout their point of view, and while mainstream audiences may not be attending these events, American voters are no different from British college students in their susceptibility to influence.

What’s unfair about this particular conspiracy theory is that opting out of the official narrative—that immunizations are necessary to protect other people as well as yourself—means that the larger society can’t simply leave you to do your own thing. At least, we really don’t want to. A comment on a 2013 Gawker article about an outbreak of whooping cough in Texas linked to an anti-vaccination preacher at a megachurch reads: “You are a public menace if you don’t vaccinate your children. I refuse to be put in danger because your idiot ass doesn’t believe in science. I want people who refuse vaccines - at least some of the biggies - penalized. I realize the implications of this but for fuck’s sake.”

Even in an epistemologically pluralistic society, in which we try to respect people’s different approaches to understanding their world, some things require us to live in a consensus reality. When faced with a choice between a nebulous fear that vaccines are not as safe as government health officials claim them to be versus the very real mortality rate associated with measles, most of us choose to fight the devil we know. To live in socially cohesive groups, and to create large-scale projects that serve the public good, we have to trust.

*

Doubt can be a lonely thing. “From an external viewpoint, you could just as easily write, well, I’m mentally ill,” Ford says to me. “That’s my problem, that’s why I’m saying these things—because I’m depressed and have anxiety and I have PTSD.” Ford knows how other people think about someone who says the kinds of things he’s saying. “That’s the easiest way to deal with it. That’s what my ex-wife says. And if that’s what she wants to think then it’s none of my fucking business.” He’s reached a point where he’s sort of cheerful about all this; he no longer feels the need to convince anyone of anything. His beliefs, he says, lead him to moments of deep peace.

While the content of Ford’s theories makes him a conspiracy theorist, Ford doesn’t exhibit any of the overheated rhetoric Hofstadter identifies as the paranoid style. Ford sounds calm and reasonable, and he laughs when he says that his preteen son has now reached an age where “he doesn’t dig everything I say.”

Ford’s kids are now eight and 11, and they’ll be staying with him in his new place every other weekend. He’s excited for them to have a chance to get in touch with nature. He’s looking forward to pursuing his yoga practice, and getting his hands in the good dirt outside. “I’ve been a paper-pusher and a soldier and now I’m interested in gardening,” he says. “I’m betting it all on black—any money that I have is going towards supporting me here and supporting my writing.” He’s working on a children’s book about a boy and a girl who are lost in the woods, and have to rely on their internal resources to make their way alone.

Halfway through our conversation, while Ford was telling me about his disinclination to to inject mercury into his veins, there was a knock at the door. “Hold on one second,” he said, and I heard a man’s voice in the background saying that he had just come by to drop something off for Ford. “Cheers,” Ford said, and then his footsteps came back across the floor and he picked up the phone again. “What’s this?” he asked, then read: “Millions will be coming—will you? What is the event? The memorial of Jesus Christ’s death.” He broke off. “Oh, it’s the Jehovah’s Witness!” He burst out laughing. “Wow, how the fuck did he find me out here? I’m on a dead-end dirt road with nothing around me except a lake.”

Coincidence?