Conspiring against conspiracy theories

Calgary Herald, Nov 4, 2017: I wasn’t sure what to do when I realized the guy at the party wasn’t joking around. As he got into the details of the conspiracy theory explaining how Lady Gaga killed Lou Reed, I stopped laughing and started backing away, nodding as I went.

You can bump into conspiracy theorists pretty much anywhere, except at vaccination clinics. And I’ve yet to meet one who wears a tinfoil hat out in public. They appear to be ordinary folks who believe extraordinary things. And while I don’t really care if you think Lada Gaga is an assassin —that has zero bearing on my life — other conspiracy theories threaten public health.

Like many of you, I have tried to take on a few of the ‘vaccinations cause autism’ peeps over the years, explaining step-by-step how the original journal article that suggested a link was junk science and its author has been completely discredited. It’s baloney.

I rarely engage with those who claim 9/11 was an inside job — you don’t get the time back. But now, with the release of a pile of documents about the 1963 President Kennedy assassination, we know there will be a fresh round of ‘Who killed JFK’ conspiracy theories (and that Lee Harvey Oswald spoke “terrible, hardly recognizable Russian.”)

Yet another old chestnut — the Earth is flat — is also making the rounds again. “In today’s age of space travel, quantum physics and every form of conceivable science, it is mind-boggling that there would be a vast community of proponents claiming that the Earth is flat,” says author Frank Albo. “And yet there they are.”

Albo, an architectural historian, sees more than his fair share of conspiracy theorists. “There are thousands of websites that all promote ludicrous ideas based in some capacity on my research and they use it as a springboard to advance the most spurious ideas,” says Albo, who did his PhD at Cambridge on Freemason influences in British architecture.

He gives a popular tour of the Manitoba Legislature pointing out dozens of symbols put there a hundred years ago by the architect, a British Freemason. The symbols are meant, simply, to purify the building’s occupants. Not a drop of dark magic or malicious intent. Yet Albo’s tour attracts plenty of Da Vinci Code fans and at least one guy who believes with all his heart that the Manitoba Leg, the Egyptian pyramids and Machu Picchu are all connected on a golden grid that emits supernatural powers.

Albo manages to keep his eyes from rolling out of his head. “Truth be told I revel in it because I think it’s the capacity of the human imagination to go down these tributaries,” he says. “I’m fascinated by it.”

Back in the day, before the Internet, printing presses or the scientific method, it was easy for people to explain things away using ghosts, demons or gods. You just had to come up with a good story about the influence of some “hidden hand” and presto, people bought it.

So here we are in the information age right back in the dark ages. It’s easy to burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of some conspiracy theories. But others are far from funny: Take that gross little corner of humanity that maintains the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 was a hoax. The same awful ilk is harassing survivors of last month’s Las Vegas shooting, believing that the worst mass shooting in U.S. history was staged to bring in gun control in the U.S.

‘Facts first,’ CNN is blaring these days, along with an ad showing an apple and a voice reminding us that even if someone (an orange maybe) keeps screaming banana, banana, banana, it’s still an apple. I like the ad, I find it reassuring. But if we really want to reinstate ‘the fact’ in public discourse, perhaps CNN, Facebook and the rest of the media should stop giving platforms to people who just make stuff up.

If you can find the energy yourself, you can try taking a page from Albo’s book the next time you bump into someone talking nonsense. “I always challenge the nefarious ‘they,’” he says. “Whether it’s the 911 Commission report or the deep state, what I am always searching for is a name. Give me a name. An individual that we can point to. And that usually begins to obliterate the theories.”

Conspiracy theories thrive in the dark. Maybe if more of us shone a light instead of backing away, we would have a fighting chance in the game of whack-a-doodle whack-a-mole. “The more that you laugh it off, it’s almost like the multi-headed hydra: you cut off one head and three more emerge,” says Albo. “Conspiracy has become the new vanguard. We just have to contend with it.”

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