Michaels: Tragedy is best served without conspiracies

Conspiracy theorists are undermining the very basis of the society we live in.

Waking up to daily reports of death and destruction is dispiriting. In the days before breeding, I would have turned to my trusty craft brewery to take the edge off.

These days I simply have to digest the horror of the day straight-up from reputable sources closest to the story. Or, as the case has been for this news cycle, I try to glean what I can from the horse’s mouth.

This week I spoke to several people who were in Vegas when a gunman opened fire. They told me about the sound of bullets raining down so steadily that all they could do was hunker down in ditches holding on to the ones they loved, because it may have been their last chance to do so. Or about running for safety as chaos engulfed the crowd.

They talked about seeing massive numbers of people blood splattered and shocked—some of whom live in this community. They talked about what it was like to witness someone die. Because, you know, people died in this shooting. There were 58 of them at last count, and 10 times that amount were injured.

Some of those injured are back in their communities pulling support from their loved ones. Others are sitting in hospitals far from home, afraid and hurt and embarking on an emotional healing I can’t even begin to imagine.

Reality, of this kind, isn’t always easy to swallow.

That could be why so many people have turned away from the R-word. It’s why some people think the days after such carnage is a good time to turn to YouTube and point fingers at the “sheep” who merely accept the facts from people who are trained in collecting it, whether they be newspaper reporters or police.

These ones know that there was more than one gunman. Some are simply sure there was no shooting. It’s all a big fake.

These reality-denying people have historically been referred to as conspiracy theorists, but that’s too kind a term. They are undermining the very basis of the society we live in. They’re the ones who brought us Trump, they’re the ones who made the term “Mainstream Media” a nasty epithet. They’ve turned previously reasonable people to the dark corners of the interweb to learn about the world around them. They’re basically ignorance purveyors and their world view boggles my mind and frustrates me as much as the fact that nothing is being done to curb the American impulse to shoot each other up.

When something frustrates me this much, however, I know I need to look at it through a different lens—a more learned one, in this case—so I called the university.

“Conspiracy theories are driven by wanting a conclusion to be true rather than following the evidence where it leads,” said Andrew Irvine, a UBC Okanagan professor in math and philosophy.

“If you are a dentist, you don’t just put in fillings where you want. You do the work, take the X-rays follow the evidence and then put in the fillings. The same goes when you are a police officer—you follow the evidence. ”

Humans have always relied on finding meaningful patterns in the world around us and making causal inferences. We sometimes, however, see patterns and causal connections that are not there, especially when we feel that events are beyond our control.

Historically there were ways we could deal with that. We’d turn to institutions we trust to guide us through the dark, but we as a society are deep in the throes of an information distribution shift and trust is becoming a rare commodity.

For every horrible story steeped in reality, there’s another website offering something less mundane and what was once relegated to the fringe of society has risen in both numbers and prominence.

“If conspiracy theories are going up in popularity it’s in part because of a lack of trust in our institutions, like politicians, the media or (universities),” Irvine said.

“A certain amount of skepticism is good and healthy in society but we need to have trust in our neighbours and our institutions to function.”

So what caused people en masse to turn away from the institutions that follow evidence?

“We have new media—in one sense it’s wonderful, it’s democracy in action and everyone can have a say. People can go online to start a website or a blog inexpensively,” he said.

“In another way, we have to realize not all news is made equal. Some fact check, some don’t. And we have to understand the quality of output we are getting there.”

So has our collective rush to conclusions undermined the institutions that have historically made society work? If so what does that mean for the future?

It’s enough to drive one to the drink. Or, at the very least, to stop ignoring the creeps who are shilling conspiracy theories and to start calling them out on their evidence-free tangents.

Extraordinary claims, as Irvine said, require an extraordinary amount of evidence and we should all call for that.

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