What do the following three Colorado stories have in common?
* Last year, after child protective services removed a boy from a Colorado woman’s care, the woman went on YouTube shows alleging that child protective services, in league with “evil Satan worshipers” and pedophiles, were running “child trafficking rings,” reports the Washington Post. She allegedly plotted with followers of QAnon to kidnap her child. (If you haven’t heard of QAnon we’ll get back to that.)
* In 2018, hundreds of people gathered in Denver to discuss the global conspiracy hiding the “truth” that the Earth is actually flat. That participants traveled from around the world to reach this Flat Earth International Conference did not deter them.
* In 1925, Catholics opened an abbey and boy’s school in Cañon City. Historian Robert Alan Goldberg relates, “The construction of the monastery, warned the Klan, was an ominous sign. The pope had ordered the construction of the [abbey] as his summer residence, a base from which to infiltrate Protestant America. Fiery Klan speakers who denounced this nefarious plot generated bomb threats, causing guards to be posted around the abbey.” The abbey was real; the conspiracy about it was a fabrication.
These stories are all examples of conspiracy thinking, the weaving together of loosely connected facts and fantasies into grand narratives about subversive plots and powerful forces operating in the shadows to direct world events to their nefarious ends.
What distinguishes conspiracism (or conspiracy mongering) from rational discussions of actual conspiracies is the quality of the evidence behind the claims. It is the difference between fantasy and fact, between unreason and reason, between coincidence and valid integration, between confirmation bias and the scientific method.
So, for example, there really was a conspiracy behind 9/11 involving members of the Islamist terrorist group Al-Qaeda to fly jet airplanes into American buildings. But the conspiracy theories on top of that, to the effect that 9/11 was a “false flag” operation or an “inside job,” are nonsense. (Michael Shermer has some good notes about that.)
There really were conspiracies to assassinate Caesar and Lincoln. There really were Soviet spies in the United States during the Cold War. Nixon and his aids really did conspire to break into Watergate. People in the Reagan administration really did conspire to sell weapons to Iran to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. Jeffrey Epstein really did lead a sex trafficking conspiracy. Recently a group of men conspired to kidnap the governor of Michigan; thankfully they were arrested before they could execute their plan. These are fact-based, verifiable events. We can find new examples of real conspiracies practically every day in the crime sections of newspapers.
On the other hand, the following are examples of irrational conspiracism: Donald Trump’s insinuation that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in assassinating John F. Kennedy, Alex Jones’s claim that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a “false flag” operation staged by government agents, the claim that Kamala Harris is not really a U.S. citizen and that her candidacy is a ploy to install Nancy Pelosi as president, and the claim that the moon landings were a hoax.
Although it’s easy to make fun of the “tinfoil hat” crowd, conspiracism can be extremely dangerous, so we should not take it lightly. The centuries-old anti-Semitic “blood libel,” the allegation that Jews kidnap children to take their blood, has led to the torture, mass murder, and dislocation of countless Jews. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories helped fuel the Nazi Holocaust.
In early America, devout Christians in Massachusetts murdered “witches” for allegedly conspiring with the devil. Under the banner of “law and order,” the conspiracy-inflamed Ku Klux Klan unleashed vigilantes to kidnap, terrorize, and murder people. In 2016, a man, swayed by the bogus conspiracy theory that Democrats were running a child sex ring out of a pizzeria in Washington DC, fired shots in the pizzeria before he was arrested. Thankfully he didn’t kill anyone. Earlier this year, a Loveland man held two roofing salesmen at gunpoint because he thought they were part of an antifa invasion. Conspiracy theories about Bill Gates wanting to use vaccines to implant tracking devices may result in more needless deaths from COVID-19.
Quite literally, conspiracism can kill you. Those who fall under its sway are sometimes driven to criminal violence, even murder, and to other extremely harmful actions. The conspiracy addled also are more likely to stand by passively, or as cheerleaders, when other conspiracists commit crimes or atrocities.
Earlier I mentioned the Colorado kidnapping plot tied to QAnon. Here is how Wikipedia summarizes the QAnon conspiracy theory: “It alleges that a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against President Donald Trump, who is battling against the cabal. The theory also commonly asserts that Trump is planning a day of reckoning known as ‘The Storm,’ when thousands of members of the cabal will be arrested.”
Recently I read Robert Alan Goldberg’s 2001 book, Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America, and interviewed Goldberg about the themes of his book and about more recent events. One thing that became clear to me is that QAnon invokes several old lines of conspiracy thinking, including a variant of the blood libel, claims of Satanic corruption, and fantasies about secretive deep-government plots. A difference is that, unlike older-style conspiracy theories with their hundreds of pages of intricate documentation, the QAnon sources present their claims without even the pretense of evidence. Goldberg calls these “conspiracy theories without the theory”—they’re closer to pure fantasy and gain their influence merely by invoking well-worn conspiracist themes.
Given that conspiracism related to QAnon is dangerous nonsense—the FBI has reasonably classified QAnon as a domestic terror threat—it is disturbing to see some Colorado Republicans play footsie with QAnon. State Senate candidate Lynn Gerber, for example, promoted a QAnon-related post that called COVID-19 a “deep state insurgency” and part of an “attempt to throw the world into chaos and bring in their dream of the NEW WORLD ORDER.” As Goldberg discusses in his book, conspiracism about the “New World Order” goes back decades and was a common theme of the John Birch Society (among others). If Republicans want voters to take them seriously, they need to clean up their act and reject conscpiracism.
Congressional candidate Lauren Boebert initially said of QAnon, “I hope that this is real.” After taking criticism, she clarified, “I’m not a follower. This is just a fake attack from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. QAnon is a lot of things to different people. I was very vague in what I said before. I’m not into conspiracies. I’m into freedom and the Constitution of the United States of America. I’m not a follower.” So it’s good that she’s distanced herself from QAnon—although I wish she’d more strongly condemn it.
Ultimately, conspiracism and the broader irrationality from which it stems threaten to tear apart our republic. Facts matter. The truth matters. Yes, reasonable people often disagree about things, and in many cases incomplete evidence allows multiple interpretations. And honest people can make and correct mistakes.
But what we absolutely must agree on, if we hope to live together in peace and civility, is to adhere to the methods of reason and logic in reaching conclusions. We need to seek out the full scope of relevant evidence, interpret the available evidence judiciously, avoid dogmatic “bubbles” and motivated “reasoning” driven by partisanship, self-consciously check our biases, and avoid flights of fancy. Of utmost importance, we must avoid demonizing others, attributing to them without justification dark motives and ties to evil cabals. All of us have different ideas and personal traits and participate in different subcultures, and, if we’re not careful, benign differences can give rise to irrational suspicions and hatreds.
The United States is a large and diverse nation. To preserve our country, we need to live together peacefully with many other people who do not always think like us, look like us, or act like us. Conspiracism threatens to pull us apart. Let us instead commune in reason.