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We Are All Conspiracy Theorists Now

The collapse of trust in mainstream authorities is discussed as if it is only one of many troubling data points. It's not. People are still underestimating the gravity of the interlocking trends that get summarized in this way.

For instance, when trust in mainstream authorities is sufficiently low, one implication is that conspiracy theories become true, even if you personally trust the mainstream authorities, even if you're a rational Bayesian, even if you're the type of person who is resolved to be above conspiracy theories.

Let's say you're an optimally rational person, with the utmost respect for science and logic and empirical reality. An optimally rational person has certain beliefs, and they are committed to updating their beliefs upon receiving new information, according to Bayes' Rule. In layman's terms, Bayes' Rule explains how one should integrate new information with one's past beliefs to update one's beliefs in the way that is best calibrated to reality. You don't need to understand the math to follow along.

How does a Bayesian update their beliefs after hearing a new conspiracy theory? Perhaps you wish to answer this question in your head right now.

For my part, I just watched the Netflix documentary about Flat Earth theorists the other night. I spent the next day puzzling over what exactly is the rational response to a film like that. The film certainly didn't convince me that the Earth is flat, but can I really say in all honesty that the documentary conveyed to me absolutely no new information corroborating a Flat Earth model of the world?

One could say that. Perhaps you want to say that the rational response to conspiracy theory documentaries is to not update your beliefs whatsoever. The whole documentary is clearly bunk, so I should assign zero credence to the thesis that the Earth is flat. This would be a little strange, in my view, because how many people understand astronomy deeply enough with first-hand familiarity to possess this kind of prior confidence? Ultimately most of us, even highly smart and educated non-astronomers, have to admit that our beliefs about the celestial zones are generally borrowed from other people and textbooks we've never quite adversarially validated. If I'm confronted with a few hundred new people insisting otherwise, I surely don't have to trust them, but giving them a credence of absolute zero seems strange given that my belief in the round Earth pretty much comes from a bunch of other people telling me Earth is round.

Personally I become even more suspicious of assigning zero credence because, introspectively, I sense that the part of me that wants to declare zero credence for Flat Earth theory is the part of me that wants to signal my education, to signal my scientific bona fides, to be liked by prestigious social scientists, etc. But I digress. Let's grant that you can assign Flat Earth zero credence if you want.

If you assign Flat Earth a zero likelihood of being correct, then how do you explain the emergence of a large and thriving Flat Earth community? Whether you say they're innocent, mistaken people who happen to have converged on a false theory, or you say they are evil liars trying to manipulate the public for dishonorable motives — whatever you say — your position will ultimately reduce to seeing at least the leaders as an organized cabal of individuals consciously peddling false narratives for some benefit to themselves. Even if you think they all started out innocently mistaken, once they fail to quit their propaganda campaigns after hearing all the rational refutations, then the persistence of Flat Earth theory cannot avoid taking the shape of a conspiracy to undermine the truth. So even if you assign zero credence to the Flat Earth conspiracy theory, the very persistence of Flat Earth theory (and other conspiracy theories) will force you to adopt conspiracy theories about all these sinister groups. Indeed, you see this already toward entities such as Alex Jones, Cambridge Analytica, Putin/Russia, etc.: Intelligent and educated people who loathe the proliferation of conspiracy theories irresistibly agree, in their panic, to blame any readily available scapegoat actor(s), via the same socio-psychological processes that generate all the classic conspiracy theories.

If I'm being honest, my sense is that after watching a feature-length documentary about a fairly large number of not-stupid people arguing strongly in favor of an idea I am only just hearing about — I feel like I have to update my beliefs at least slightly in favor of the new model. I mean, all the information presented in that 2-hour long experience? All these new people I learned about? All the new arguments from Flat Earthers I never even heard of before then? At least until I review and evaluate those new arguments, they must marginally move my needle — even if it's only 1 out of a million notches on my belief scale.

In part, this is a paradoxical result of Flat Earth possessing about zero credence in my mind to begin with. When a theory starts with such low probability, almost any new corroborating information should bump up its credence somewhat.

So that was my subjective intuition, to update my belief one tiny notch in favor of the Flat Earth model — I would have an impressively unpopular opinion to signal my eccentric independence at some cocktail party, but I could relax in my continued trust of NASA…

Then it occurred to me that if this documentary forces me to update my belief even slightly in favor of Flat Earth, then a sequel documentary would force me to increase my credence further, and then… What if the Flat Earthers start generating Deep Fakes, such that there are soon hundreds of perfectly life-like scientists on Youtube reporting results from new astronomical studies corroborating Flat Earth theory? What if the Flat Earthers get their hands on the next iteration of GPT-2 and every day brings new scientific publications corroborating Flat Earth theory? I've never read a scientific publication in Astronomy; am I suddenly going to start, in order to separate the fake ones from the reliable ones? Impossible, especially if one generalizes this to all the other trendy conspiracy theories as well.

If you watch a conspiracy documentary and update your beliefs even one iota in favor of the conspiracy theory, then it seems that before the 21st century is over your belief in at least one conspiracy theory will have to reach full confidence. The only way you can forestall that fate is to draw an arbitrary line at some point in this process, but this line will be extra-rational by definition.

Leading conspiracy theorists today could very well represent individuals who subjectively locate themselves in this historical experience — they see that this developing problem is already locked in, so they say let's get to the front of this train now! One could even say that Flat Earth theorists are in the avant-garde of hyper-rationalist culture entrepreneurs. Respectable scientists who go on stages insisting, with moral fervor, that NASA is credible — are these not the pious purveyors of received authority, who choose to wring their hands morally instead of updating their cultural activity in a way that's optimized to play and survive the horrifying empirical process unfolding before them? Perhaps Flat Earth theorists are the truly hard-nosed rationalists, the ones who see which way the wind is really blowing, and who update not only their beliefs but their entire menu of strategic options accordingly.

It's no use to say that you will draw your line now, in order to avoid capture by some hyper-evolved conspiracy theory in the future. If you do this, you are instituting an extra-rational prohibition of new information — effectively plugging your ears, surely a crime to rationalism. Even worse, you would be joining a cabal of elites consciously peddling false narratives to control the minds of the masses.

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