Thank you for your illuminating words in the July 22 issue about conspiracy theories. It is important we understand how to leave them behind us so we can pick up fact-based understandings and make helpful decisions about important problems. Effective public health decisions and finding useful solutions to other public policy issues are two areas that conspiracy theories only hamstring.
I was in 6th grade when JFK was murdered. My dad told me, "Charlie, some people just can't believe that one person could kill the President all by himself." So to this day, there are still people who don't believe the gunman acted alone. (And Oliver Stone's well-crafted movie tale further fanned those conspiracy theory flames!) Helpfully, the hard light of scientific and chronological evidence has shone forth. Belief after unfounded belief of those who have sanctified "the men on the grassy knoll" and Ruby's supposed involvement has been debunked. Decades ago, the facts were laid out meticulously in Gerald Posner's well-researched Case Closed and in the PBS Nova special .
I remember at age fifteen when my hometown of Pine Bluff, Arkansas (the only other home of red and white Zebras!) voted on putting fluoride in the water to help children grow up with stronger teeth. There was all sorts of conspiracy talk about how fluoride was "industrial waste" that would cause brain damage and a host of other ills.
And some claim that every moon walk was staged.
Then again, some conspiracies have been proven true. The Gulf of Tonkin incident provided the basis for widening our involvement in Vietnam and its facts were distorted by the US government. The reprehensible and racist forty-year Tuskegee syphilis study was sponsored by the US Public Health Service.
Your point is well taken that "Often, these theories give us someone to blame or someone to be angry at--which is cathartic, but wholly unproductive." May I also suggest that these theories offer those who hold them a perception of 1.control over a changing world that in other ways may seem so out-of-control and/or baffling; and 2. superiority over many others who are "ignorant" of the real story behind what's going on?
When I perceive as out- of-control so much of what is happening, what a comfort it is when I am convinced that my understanding of the situation helps me grab some measure of control over my own life. And when I perceive I have received a special "revealed truth," I can feel important. As you point out, "None of us want to exist in pain, uncertainty, or discomfort..." May I further suggest these two perceptions that I mention are powerful ways for conspiracy theorists to distract themselves from their anxious discomforts in a world of change that can seem overwhelming?
But, like every other distraction, they don't really help the one they distract deal constructively with their problem. Perception is most definitely NOT reality in this case. A conspiracy theory may help one cope and may provide a restful cushion for the spirit and mind, yet because such a theory is not based on critical thinking and discernment, ultimately, it doesn't really help one take effective action to gain control of a problem, nor does it offer a solid basis for self-esteem.
Editor’s Note: Mr. Ragland’s letter is in reference to a Wednesday, July 22 column headlined “Battling conspiracy theories with critical thinking.” The column can also be found at claremoreprogress.com