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The Paranoids Will Get You If You Don’t Watch Out

Last week, I happened upon the 2002 video clip of Buzz Aldrin punching a moon-landing conspiracy theorist in the face–a joyous artifact that had never before come to my attention. The punchee was filmmaker Bart Sibrel, who confronted Aldrin (then 72) and his stepdaughter outside a Beverly Hills hotel, screaming ”You’re the one who said you walked on the moon and you didn’t!” Aldrin warned him to back off, at which point Sibrel called him a “thief, a liar and a coward.” When Sibrel initiated physical contact (as attested to by several witnesses), Aldrin hauled off and clocked him one.

As skeptics, we’re supposed to be elegant in our arguments, relying on the power of sweet reason and airtight logic to flummox the opposition. But I don’t think I’m alone in tipping my hat to old Buzz. Even for those of us who fight our battles with words — maybe especially for us — there’s a primal, meaty satisfaction in watching a judiciously wielded fist interact with an eminently deserving face.

In the vast panoply of hoo-hah merchants, conspiracy theorists are simultaneously the most infuriating and the most difficult to dismiss. Infuriating because their theories come cloaked in righteous wrath; point out the holes in their reasoning and they hurl thunderbolts of moral indignation. Difficult to dismiss because, unlike proponents of homeopathy, for example, they are not trafficking in physical impossibilities. There is nothing intrinsically irrational about the notion of a conspiracy, though the use of the word by paranoid extremists has given it a certain wild-eyed, arm-waving taint. A conspiracy, after all, is merely a scheme — a plot by two or more people to do something nefarious. It happens all the time.

So how do you tell whether the conspiracy theory in question is genuine or jive? One way is to check how far the conspiratorial tentacles extend. (Considering how lousy human beings are at keeping secrets, I’m always amazed at the faith conspiracy theorists have in people’s ability to sit on juicy and potentially profitable information for indefinite periods of time). So: the mafia ordered the assassination of John Kennedy? Not obviously improbable. Kennedy’s assassination was plotted by an intricate network of conspirators including the CIA, Lyndon Johnson, and the White House men’s room attendant? You’re probably talking to a loon, and/or Oliver Stone.

Another telltale sign can best be illustrated by consulting Monty Python, specifically Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). Set during the time of Jesus, the film concerns a hapless fellow named Brian who is mistakenly acclaimed as the messiah. Pursued by hordes of rabid followers, Brian turns to them and yells, “But I’m NOT the messiah!” A disciple responds, “Only the true messiah denies his own divinity.”  Exasperated, Brian responds with reverse psychology: “All right then, I AM the messiah!” The crowd, its beliefs confirmed, shouts, “He IS the messiah!”

Heads I win, tails you lose.  If you tell a conspiracy theorist he’s right, you’re simply confirming his world view. Unfortunately, if you tell a conspiracy theorist he’s full of it, you are also confirming his world view, since the very act of denying the conspiracy proves that you’re in on it.

In an article titled “Who Are the Birthers?”, which takes on the pitiful Obama birth-certificate flap, Brian Montopoli quotes Michael Barkun of Syracuse University on the psychology of the conspiracy hounds. ”There are people out there who firmly believe that the truth is always hidden….That whatever is presented as public knowledge is necessarily false….[I]n a strange way, conspiracy theories are comforting….They give people a feeling that we know the truth…That we have secret knowledge, and that we know how the world really works.”

In any dubious area of “knowledge,” the true mark of the crank is a stiff-necked, righteous refusal to be persuaded. If a conspiracy theorist won’t revise his opinion in light of new information, he’s not dealing in theory at all, but in revelation.

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