Are Americans losing their grip on reality? It is difficult not to think so in light of the spread of QANON conspiracy theories, which posit that a deep-state ring of Satanic pedophiles is plotting against President Trump. A recent poll found that some 56% of Republican voters believe that at least some of the QANON conspiracy theory is true. But conspiratorial thinking has been on the rise for some time. One 2017 Atlantic article claimed that America had “lost its mind” in its growing acceptance of post-truth. Robert Harris has more recently argued that the world had moved into an “age of irrationality.” Legitimate politics is threatened by a rising tide of unreasonableness, or so we are told. But the urge to divide people in rational and irrational is the real threat to democracy. And the antidote is more inclusion, more democracy—no matter how outrageous the things our fellow citizens seem willing to believe.
Despite recent panic over the apparent upswing in political conspiracy thinking, salacious rumor and outright falsehoods has been an ever-present feature of politics. Today’s lurid and largely evidence-free theories about left-wing child abuse rings have plenty of historical analogues. Consider tales of Catherine the Great’s equestrian dalliances and claims that Marie Antoinette found lovers in both court servants and within her own family. Absurd stories about political elites seems to have been anything but rare. Some of my older relatives believed in the 1990s that the government was storing weapons and spare body parts underneath Denver International Airport in preparation for a war against common American citizens—and that was well before the Internet was a thing.
There seems to be little disagreement that conspiratorial thinking threatens democracy. Allusions to Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay on the “paranoid style of American politics” have become cliché. Hofstadter’s targets included 1950s conservatives that saw Communist treachery around every corner, 1890s populists railing against the growing power of the financial class, and widespread worries about the machinations of the Illuminati. He diagnosed their politics paranoid in light of their shared belief that the world was being persecuted by a vast cabal of morally corrupt elites.
Regardless of their specific claims, conspiracy theories’ harms come from their role in “disorienting” the public, leading citizens to have grossly divergent understandings of reality. And widespread conspiratorial thinking drives the delegitimation of traditional democratic institutions like the press and the electoral system. Journalists are seen as pushing “fake news.” The voting booths become “rigged.”
Such developments are no doubt concerning, but we should think carefully about how we react to conspiracism. Too often the response is to endlessly lament the apparent end of rational thought and wonder aloud if democracy can survive while being gripped by a form of collective madness. But focusing on citizens' perceived cognitive deficiencies presents its own risks. Historian Ted Steinberg called this the “diagnostic style” of American political discourse, which transforms “opposition to the cultural mainstream into a form of mental illness.” The diagnostic style leads us to view QANONers, and increasingly political opponents in general, as not merely wrong but cognitively broken. They become the anti-vaxxers of politics.
While QANON believers certainly seem to be deluding themselves, isn’t the tendency by leftists to blame Trump’s popular support on conservative’s faculty brains and an uneducated or uninformed populace equally delusional? The extent to which such cognitive deficiencies are actually at play is beside the point as far as democracy is concerned. You can’t fix stupid, as the well-worn saying has it. Diagnosing chronic mental lapses actually leaves us very few options for resolving conflicts. Even worse, it prevents an honest effort to understand and respond to the motivations of people with strange beliefs. Calling people idiots will only cause them to dig in further.
Responses to the anti-vaxxer movement show as much. Financial penalties and other compulsory measures tend to only anger vaccine hesitant parents, leading them to more often refuse voluntary vaccines and become more committed in their opposition. But it does not take a social scientific study to know this. Who has ever changed their mind in response to the charge of stupidity or ignorance?
Dismissing people with conspiratorial views blinds us to something important. While the claims themselves might be far-fetched, people often have legitimate reasons for believing them. African Americans, for instance, disproportionately believe conspiracy theories regarding the origin of HIV, such as that it was man-made in a laboratory or that the cure was being withheld, and are more hesitant of vaccines. But they also rate higher in distrust of medical institutions, often pointing to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and ongoing racial disparities as evidence. And from British sheepfarmers’ suspicion of state nuclear regulators in the aftermath of Chernobyl to mask skeptics’ current jeremiads against the CDC, governmental mistrust has often developed after officials’ overconfident claims about the risks turned out to be inaccurate. What might appear to an “irrational” rejection of the facts is often a rational response to a power structure that feels distant, unresponsive, and untrustworthy.
The influence of psychologists has harmed more than it has helped in this regard. Carefully designed studies purport to show that believers in conspiracy theories lack the ability to think analytically or claim that they suffer from obscure cognitive biases like “hypersensitive agency detection.” Recent opinion pieces exaggerate the “illusory truth effect,” a phenomenon discovered in psych labs that repeated exposure to false messages leads to a relatively slight increase in the number subjects rating them as true or plausible. The smallness of this, albeit statistically significant, effect doesn’t stop commentators from presenting social media users as if they were passive dupes, who only need to be told about QANON so many times before they start believing it. Self-appointed champions of rationality have spared no effort to avoid thinking about the deeper explanations for conspiratorial thinking.
Banging the drum over losses in rationality will not get us out of our present situation. Underneath our seeming inability to find more productive political pastures is a profound misunderstanding of what makes democracy work. Hand Wringing over “post-truth” or conspiratorial beliefs is founded on the idea that the point of politics is to establish and legislate truths. Once that is your conception of politics, the trouble with democracy starts to look like citizens with dysfunctional brains.
When our fellow Americans are recast as cognitively broken, it becomes all too easy to believe that it would be best to exclude or diminish the influence of people who believe outrageous things. Increased gatekeeping within the media or by party elites and scientific experts begins to look really attractive. Some, like philosopher Jason Brennan, go even further. His 2016 book, Against Democracy, contends that the ability to rule should be limited to those capable of discerning and “correctly” reasoning about the facts, while largely sidestepping the question of who decides what the right facts are and how to know when we are correctly reasoning about them.
But it is misguided to think that making our democracy only more elitist will throttle the wildfire spread of conspiratorial thinking. If anything, doing so will only temporarily contain populist ferment, letting pressure build until it eventually explodes or (if we are lucky) economic growth leads it to fizzle out. Political gatekeeping, by mistaking supposed deficits in truth and rationality for the source of democratic discord, fails to address the underlying cause of our political dysfunction: the lack of trust.
Signs of our political system’s declining legitimacy are not difficult to find. A staggering 71 percent of the Americans believe that elected officials don’t care about the average citizen or what they think. Trust in our government has never been lower, with only 17 percent of citizens expressing confidence about Washington most or all the time. By diagnosing rather than understanding, we cannot see that conspiratorial thinking is the symptom rather than the disease.
The spread of bizarre theories about COVID-19 being a “planned” epidemic or child-abuse rings is a response to real feelings of helplessness, isolation, and mistrust as numerous natural and manmade disasters unfold before our eyes—epochal crises that governments seem increasingly incapable of getting a handle on. Many of Hofstadter’s listed examples of conspiratorial thought came during similar moments: at the height of the Red Scare and Cold War nuclear brinkmanship, during the 1890s depression, or in the midst of pre-Civil War political fracturing. Conspiracy theories offer a simplified world of bad guys and heroes. A battle between good and evil is a more satisfying answer than the banality of ineffectual government and flawed electoral systems when one is facing wicked problems.
Perhaps social media adds fuel to the fire, accelerating the spread of outlandish proposals about what ails the nation. But it does so not because it short-circuits our neural pathways to crash our brains’ rational thinking modules. Conspiracy theories are passed by word of mouth (or Facebook likes) by people we already trust. It is no surprise that they gain traction in a world where satisfying solutions to our chronic, festering crises are hard to find, and where most citizens are neither afforded a legible glimpse into the workings of the vast political machinery that determines much of their lives nor the chance to actually substantially influence it.
Will we be able to reverse course before it is too late? If mistrust and unresponsiveness is the cause, the cure should be the effort to reacquaint Americans with the exercise of democracy on a broad-scale. Hofstadter himself noted that, because the political process generally affords more extreme sects little influence, public decisions only seemed to confirm conspiracy theorists’ belief that they are a persecuted minority. The urge to completely exclude “irrational” movements forgets that finding ways to partially accommodate their demands is often the more effective strategy. Allowing for conscientious objections to vaccination effectively ended the anti-vax movement in early 20th century Britain. Just as interpersonal conflicts are more easily resolved by acknowledging and responding to people’s feelings, our seemingly intractable political divides will only become productive by allowing opponents to have some influence on policy. That is not to say that we should give into all their demands. Rather it is only that we need to find small but important ways for them to feel heard and responded to, with policies that do not place unreasonable burdens on the rest of us.
While some might pooh-pooh this suggestion, pointing to conspiratorial thinking as evidence of how ill-suited Americans are for any degree of political influence, this gets the relationship backwards. Wisdom isn’t a prerequisite to practicing democracy, but an outcome of it. If our political opponents are to become more reasonable it will only be by being afforded more opportunities to sit down at the table with us to wrestle with just how complex our mutually shared problems are. They aren’t going anywhere, so we might as well learn how to coexist.
“Gift to Big Oil.” “Toxic.” “Dangerous.” Planet of the Humans, which criticizes the idea that green energy will solve the climate crisis, has made a lot of people very upset. Some critics have gone so far as to equate its argument with climate denialism or demand that the film be taken down. While the documentary is far from perfect, far worse is the shallowness of the discussion about the film. Both Planet of the Humans and the critical response of it illustrate everything that is wrong with our fact-obsessed culture, one in which perspectives on controversial topics aren’t honestly engaged with but merely “debunked.”
Most of the critics have zeroed in on parts of the film that are outdated or potentially misleading. The 8% efficient solar panels shown early on of the documentary are now 22% efficient. Most electrical grids are dominated by natural gas rather than coal, greatly improving the relative carbon footprint of an electric car. While the share of different renewables in Germany’s total energy mixture—which includes transportation and home heating—do hover around the single digits, altogether they comprise some 40% of electricity production.
But the facts used in the rebuttals are usually themselves only slightly less simplistic or equivalently misleading. Life-cycle analyses of electric vehicles (EVs) show that they have approximately a 30% advantage in cradle-to-grave greenhouse gas emissions, but their impact on water sources and aquatic life is higher because they require exotic mined materials. So, while critics do have a point that the carbon outlook on electric vehicles are better than what director Jeff Gibbs implies, they don’t actually provide much to counter his argument that EVs may not actually be good enough to deliver on promised environmental outcomes. Will their carbon advantage balance out the harms if we end up building billions of them? Likewise, isn’t it deceptive to only use electricity production statistics to tout the progress made by renewables, since all energy use outputs CO2?
Neither do critics prove themselves to be dispassionate fact arbiters when they cherry pick parts of the documentary to shore up their own narrative of it as misinformed energy heresy. Much has been made of co-producer Ozzie Zehner’s statement in front of the Ivanpah concentrated solar facility: "You use more fossil fuels to do this than you're getting benefit from it. You would have been better off just burning fossil fuels in the first place, instead of playing pretend." Critics aiming at a “gotcha” moment have used this quote to portray Zehner as so obtuse as to believe that no solar technology has a better carbon footprint than fossil fuels. The more reasonable interpretation is, of course, that he’s talking specifically about the Ivanpah solar facility that he’s standing right in front of at that very moment. At this point, critics’ claim to the moral or factual high ground starts to seem suspect.
The underlying problem with the whole debate is the widespread belief that “the facts” will tell us that we are on the right track, that clear-eyed carbon accounting will clear out all the messy political and moral debates inherent in the climate crisis. If only. We get simple answers only by making simplifying assumptions and using reductive metrics, blinding ourselves to the multifaceted ways that our technologies often harm both people and the environment and obscuring far deeper questions about what humanity’s relationship with the planet should be.
The focus on “debunking” distracts us from the recognition that the climate crisis poses far more complex question than the mere carbon footprint of alternative energy technologies, that whenever we generate energy we commit ourselves to doing harm. The framing of PVs and wind turbines as “green,” “renewable,” and “zero-carbon” distracts us from how all energy technologies lead to deaths (animal and human), ecosystem destruction, massive levels of extraction and processing of raw materials, pollution, and even the disruption of our experience of non-human spaces.
If we get too caught up in the dream of green-energy-fueled progress, we risk sleepwalking through the innovation process, ignoring deeper problems until it is too late and setting ourselves up to repeat the same kind of mistake that we made with fossil fuels. In massively expanding wind or tidal energy, will the potential effects on wildlife be worth it? Is it a fair trade to give up the ability to climb a mountaintop in Vermont and hear nothing but the rustling of the trees? Will the probable environmental and sociopolitical consequences of mining rare earth metals in South American and African countries be a worthy sacrifice?
Even then, it is unclear if promises of a 100% renewable consumer society can ever be delivered. Even though a life-cycle analysis of an individual car or photovoltaic unit can produce a nice-looking number, things become far more complex at higher scales. Take Stanford professor Mark Jacobson’s proposal, which would require nearly two billion roof-top solar installations along with thousands upon thousands of tidal turbines, Ivanpah-like facilities, and geothermal plants. One would think they were reading a proposal to terraform Mars, given the sheer material requirements of such an endeavor. And even then his proposal has been pilloried for simplistic assumptions about the power grid, environmental constraints on hydropower capacity, and land use. Gibbs’s core worry that the green energy dream may be a deceptive illusion remains an important one, for the dream remains but a speculative future, one that we are by no means guaranteed to achieve.
To be fair to the critics, the documentary tends to be pretty ham-fisted, and that main point gets lost as Gibbs chases a tale of corporate greed and corruption. My sense of the film is that Moore’s and Gibbs’s voices are too loud, and that the perspective co-producer and environmental scholar Ozzie Zehner is only present in disjointed fragments. For those who feel the urge to condemn the documentary to the dustbin, I recommend taking a look at Zehner’s 2012 Green Illusions.
Surprising as it may seem to viewers of Planet of the Humans, Zehner actually concludes halfway into his book that he believes that the world will eventually be powered by renewable energy, just not in the way that we usually think. He contends that the least expensive and most environmentally beneficent way to shut down a coal plant is to not have to replace it with anything. That is, energy reduction beats green energy any day of the week. But the dominant media narrative is suffuse with speculative ecomodernist hopes and dreams of a world almost entirely unchanged from what we enjoy today, albeit powered by PVs and wind turbines. So, we dedicate far too little money and effort to all the ways that we could use far less energy, needing not only fewer fossil fuel plants but also significantly less green energy to replace it.
Zehner’s book further parts ways from Planet of the Humans by actually providing solutions. A key part of his recommendations is that none of them actually require us to “sacrifice” for the climate. There’s no bleak demand for energy “austerity” here. For example, he advocates designing cities to require far less driving and be made up of denser, more energy thrift housing. Such neighborhoods would provide residents with a level of community engagement that they likely haven’t enjoyed since college (if ever) and a quality of life difficult to find in most contemporary American cities.
Especially noteworthy is Zehner’s answer to the population question. Because Gibbs leaves the viewer to read between the lines when he proposes population control, critics have taken it upon themselves to assume the worst possible interpretation, linking Gibbs’s suggestion with something called “ecofascism” and “far-right hate groups.” (Does that also count as misinformation or is it merely misleading?) Despite the left-wing tendency to dismiss the idea inherently racist and “problematic,” Zehner’s proposal for population control couldn’t be more progressive: gender equality. He simply notes that cultures that afford the equal right of women and girls to go to school and have careers produce fewer babies. That’s certainly not ecofascist by any stretch of the imagination. But why wasn’t that in the film?
So, the problem with Planet of the Humans isn’t so much that it is factually flawed. (I mean, if other large-scale technological controversies are any guide, many critics would use even more minor empirical failings to dismiss an inconvenient perspective in its entirety.) Rather, the real limitation of the film is that it lacks a compelling vision of the future. It too easily allows others—whether it be “big oil” or nuclear energy fanatic Michael Shellenberger—opportunistically fill in the void with their own self-serving conclusions. It allows critics to dismiss it as a paean to ecofascim or nihilism. But Gibbs’s film still alerts us to something important: the need to pause and reflect upon exactly where all this “green” industrial energy activity is supposed take us. But will the critics be too preoccupied with “getting the facts right” to really hear it?
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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