“I’m not a conspiracy theorist – I’m a conspiracy analyst” – Gore Vidal
In logic, a “vacuous truth” is a statement that ascribes a property to an empty set, which is tons of fun at parties and makes for a lively conversation, but otherwise imparts no knowledge. If I say, “No dogs in the room are brown”, whenever no dogs are in the room, the statement is true. Of course, whenever no dogs are in the room, it is equally valid to say, “No dogs in the room aren’t brown”. Thus, you end up able to say, “No dogs in the room are or aren’t brown”. Totally true, and not very helpful. There are more technical definitions in formal logic and pure mathematics, but if you are engaged in either enterprise, you’re probably not allowed access to the internet, or forks really, from your padded cell, therefore you’re likely not reading this and cannot chastise me for my laymen’s interpretation. And were you to emerge into the bright sunlight and turn on CNN, you would probably return to your room and request the dosage of your psychoactive drugs be increased, since either you or the world has gone off the deep end. When it comes to the locus of insanity, always bet on the world. It rarely disappoints.
Why am I talking about vacuous truths? Well, I checked the room, and no dogs in the room are brown, nor are any dogs available at the moment to make the proposition informationally useful. I don’t know about you, but my dog is rarely around when I need him. And being gray, he simply refuses to be brown on command. Dogs are simple, honest creatures and weep for the sins of man. And tend to hang out wherever food is most likely to fall, which is exactly what we did until we invented agriculture, which was really just all about having food fall in a designated location for easy retrieval, preferably near our mud hut. That’s why I built my mud hut near a grocery store. Momma didn’t raise no hunting and gathering fool. She raised a civilized fool.
Modern science is handy with a vacuous truth. They can use it with the kind of finesse that gets bushels of articles published, and they can use it like a club to dismiss entire realms of inquiry. That is because idealizations and assumptions are part and parcel of scientific epistemology. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it highlights science’s ontological shortcomings, which are multifarious and scrupulously ignored by skeptics who engage in a brand of “scientism” that chooses to accept assumptions and idealizations as laws for the convenience and intellectual laziness of the shortcut. The methodological scientist states their assumptions, whereas the skeptic mistakes the statement of assumptions as a statement of truth. Knowing what you take for granted and believing what you take for granted are not the same activity. Thus, we end up with an abundance of vacuous truths posing as universal laws, and an unreflective application of unqualified assumptions to further research.
Consider if you will, an article published by the October 2016 Journal of Experimental Social Psychology entitled, “The Dark Dide of Meaning-making: How Social Exclusion Leads to Superstitious Thinking” and with all the recent ado about “fake news” was picked up on by mainstream media as late as February 25, 2017 (I saw it on ScienceAlert.com). This is not the first, nor it will be last scholarly article that delves into the murky world of the psychological basis of “conspiratorial thinking”. The authors of the study are some heavy-hitters from Princeton. Journalists recommend we should take them seriously, as they can afford Princeton. In a nutshell, what they determined was that people who are socially excluded are more likely to endorse conspiracy beliefs. Normally, I would ignore such a thing, but my tautology alarms went off. And as I regard all existence as a conspiracy against my goals of watching my huge backlog of DVR’ed TV shows, decided to take it personally.
Let’s start with some minor irritations before we delve into full blown disdain. Socially excluded people believe in non-existent conspiracies. No shock there. Society conspires to exclude them. The conspiracy isn’t non-existent. See what I mean. There’s nothing like a “sciency” sounding presupposition to publish a paper that points out the obvious, while ignoring the obvious. Let’s rephrase this in a nice syllogism to make it clear. All believers in non-existent conspiracy theories are conspired against to be socially excluded. You see where I’m going with this? First, we assume there is a set we can call “believers in non-existent conspiracy theories”. Let’s neglect the fact that this is a vague and empty set in logical terms, since it presumes conspiracies are non-existent, thus anyone who believes in one is believing in something that doesn’t exist. This is an untenable argument as there are plenty of conspiracies. Don’t take my word for it, as I might be part of one, but we’ll get back to that later. Furthermore, doesn’t “socially excluded” by definition imply a conspiracy? It might not be the Rothschilds or Masons, and it may be a structural function of society or the upshot of cultural taboos, but heck why split hairs.? They’ve been conspired against. This sort of tautological reasoning is vacuous enough, but wait until what the researchers endorsed as conspiracy theories.
The study was conducted on 119 individuals (online, where nobody knows you’re a dog) and surveyed them as to their degree of “social isolation” and “feelings of exclusion”. The participants were then asked the degree to which they believed in the following: (1) pharmaceutical companies withhold cures for financial reasons; (2) governments using subliminal messages to influence the population; and (3) there are signs of paranormal activity in the Bermuda Triangle, and unsurprisingly, the researchers found a correlation between exclusion and strength of belief in the above propositions (which presumably the researchers found utterly ludicrous).
If there is anyone out there who doesn’t believe pharmaceutical companies withhold cures for financial reasons they’ve been living under a rock. Someone should introduce them to Martin Shkreli, the “Pharma Bro” from 2015, who obtained the manufacturing license for the antiparasitic drug Daraprim and unapologetically raised its price by a factor of 56 for no reason except he liked to roll around naked on piles of money. His behaviour is much more likely the rule, rather than the exception, just done much more subtly by folks that don’t have to leave work to play beer pong, and at least feel some embarrassment about profiting off holding people’s health hostage.
Secondly, governments do use subliminal messages to influence populations. It’s called propaganda. Does that mean every movie you watch shows “obey” for a microsecond, and you are turned into a willing slave of the powers that be? Of course not. We need only look at the power and influence of social media in the last election to understand that subliminality takes a lot of different forms, and that governments, politicians, and corporations employ armies of talented folks to do just that. Cambridge Analytica, anyone?
Now if you want to ask me if there are signs of paranormal activity in the Bermuda Triangle, I would be hard pressed to call this a conspiracy. Has there been a lot of literature produced suggesting weird stuff is afoot there? Sure. Personally, I figure if you draw a big enough triangle anywhere you’re going to find a clustering of strange phenomena. The difference is the assumption that strange phenomena don’t exist. I figure they’re everywhere, so I have no problem drawing triangles. If you assume nothing falls outside the purview of current naturalistic explanation, you probably regard all such things as conspiracies. And you’re a jerk. I hope the ghost pirates get you on your next Caribbean cruise. In a later study, the researchers then did similar tests with what are described as “superstitious” beliefs and found similar results.
Ponder the significance of this. A bunch of researchers determined that people who are socially excluded (conspired against by society in my book), tend to believe more strongly in conspiracies (conspiracies which are demonstrably true, in at least 2 out of 3 cases – I reserve judgement on the Bermuda Triangle). Now, this is just one glaringly ill-conceived abuse of scientific epistemology in a sea of scientific articles that nobody reads, but with the appropriate access rights (i.e. my academic library pays enormous quantities of licensing fees to some journal aggregator – oh wait, I don’t belong to any academy, and it’s prohibitively expensive for public libraries), we could no doubt sift through the shifting sands of a robust literature that is largely irreproducible, micro-focused, and so incredibly confident in its results that they issue press releases.
So, back to the logic of vacuous truths. The set of people who believe in non-existent conspiracy theories also feel socially excluded. Except, the set of people who believe in non-existent conspiracy theories (given the “conspiracy” theories used as criteria) is probably the empty set. Therefore, we can first and foremost conclude, quite logically, that the set of people who believe in “existent” conspiracy theories may also feel socially excluded. Or that people who believe in non-existent conspiracy theories (of which it appears there are none in the room, since the definition of conspiracy seems to suggest a belief in conspiracies that actually do exist) are not socially excluded, as they don’t exist and therefore can either be or not be socially excluded. This of course leads to the psychological pathologization of anybody who doesn’t believe the same things others believe, a hallmark of the skeptic world that clings so dearly to scientific epistemology without understanding the implications.
Too many folks focus on specific conspiracies, attributing nefarious goals to targeted groups, while blithely ignoring the structural conspiracies that don’t require a bunch of strange dudes performing esoteric rituals in their basements. The world has been engineered for millennia to make the rich richer, the powerful more powerful, the privileged more privileged, and to do so while holding the vast majority of humanity in thrall, bondage, or confusion. We call that civilization. Or as Matt Taibbi once said, “Conspiracy theorists of the world, believers in the hidden hands of the Rothschilds and the Masons and the Illuminati, we skeptics owe you an apology. You were right. The players may be a little different, but your basic premise is correct: The world is a rigged game”.
Graeupner, Damaris & Coman, Alin. “The Dark Dide of Meaning-making: How Social Exclusion Leads to Superstitious Thinking”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 69, 2016.