Watching the January 6th insurrection was like watching a train wreck. It was hard to look away, but in the end, all that I could see was the wreckage.
Why do we believe that the election was stolen and other conspiracy theories?
We have several inherent biases that make us susceptible.
One is our old friend and nemesis, confirmation bias, where we form an opinion and gather facts to prove it. For example, when Donald Trump was elected in 2016, I was unable to reconcile how someone who lost the election by almost three million votes could win; so I became convinced Russians had successfully injected themselves into the elections in a few key districts. Why? I had such a negative opinion of Donald Trump it was impossible for me to believe that people would vote for him. Similarly, in the 2020 election, it was inconceivable to ardent Trump supporters that he would not be re-elected, so they became convinced that the only explanation was wide-scale voter fraud.
We share other biases as well. Proportionality bias happens when an event is so significant that a simple explanation does not seem possible, such as, the death of Lady Diana. It was too catastrophic to believe that her death was merely caused by an inebriated driver chased by relentless photographers. We looked to coincidences and then made our next error. Confusing correlation with causation. We looked for anomalies that were correlated with the event (for example, the unknown Fiat) and assumed that they were causal. But correlation is not causation.
The well-known conspiracy theory about Roswell centers on the belief that an alien spaceship crashed into the desert in 1947. Seventy years later there is no physical data, but there are eyewitness accounts. The heavy-handed treatment and misinformation by the military added to fuel to the conspiracy theory. In the 1990s, the Air Force researched the incident and concluded that a top-secret nuclear test surveillance balloon from Project Mogul containing test dummies crashed at the site. But Ufologists remain unconvinced.
For the Roswell incident to occur there must be confirmation bias (the belief that there are extraterrestrials) and another phenomenon, the inability to prove the null hypothesis.
Put simply, when conducting an experiment, there is a treatment group and a placebo group. The null hypothesis states that there is no difference between the two groups. If there are statistically significant differences between the two groups, then we reject the null hypothesis, and conclude that the treatment had an impact. But if there are no differences there could be other reasons unrelated to the treatment for no differences.
No one has discovered alien materials from the Roswell crash site. Yet, it is impossible to “prove” the null hypothesis (that there was no alien spaceship crash) because there are other explanations that those materials have not been found (e.g., the Government removed all the materials, they disintegrated over time). The null hypothesis that there was no alien crash can never be proven.
In the case of the 2020 Presidential election, it is impossible to prove that there was no fraud, because it is the null hypothesis. However, there is data from over 50 rejected lawsuits and the inability of the mass effort to uncover substantial fraud support the conclusion that this was a fair election.
Many conspiracies have at their heart a good vs. evil story (with the proponent’s side being “good”). Those who listen to QAnon fabrications believe that Democrats are child molesters or socialists (evil), while they are good Christians who want to take back the government.
Then there are the “Uncle Know-it-Alls.” You know the guy, who speaks with absolute certainty and knows virtually nothing? So, what do you do when “Uncle Know it All” tells you that JFK Jr. is alive and attends Trump’s rallies?
And finally, there is the “Need to be Right.” People who suffer from this (and I am a recovering NTBR’r), just cannot accept that they could be wrong.
Sadly, the most important casualty of conspiracy theories are facts. We no longer have the media filter that we had 40 years ago (local press, national news). Biased and inaccurate information is promoted without consequence…a lie repeated often enough becomes a “fact.”
Critical thinking is crucial to stopping the spread of conspiracy theories. For example, why would Democrats decide to eschew basic human values and engage in child molestation? How could Russia have invaded our decentralized voting system? How could a 7 million vote differential be overcome? Why has no valid evidence for wide scale voter fraud been uncovered, despite millions of dollars devoted to the cause?
We must find some way to ensure that the press does not stoke conspiracy theories. For example, Fox News segments gave airtime to “Stop the Steal” demonstrations and baseless claims by politicians who frankly knew better. Some anchors rebutted these speakers, but others allowed it unchecked.
“Those outlets that propagate lies to their audience have unleashed insidious and uncontrollable forces that will be with us for years,” said James Murdoch (who has broken with the family over Fox News content). “I hope that those people who didn’t think it was that dangerous now understand, and that they stop.”
Social media platforms have finally taken a stand against the spread of misinformation. But is it too late?
Somehow, we must find a way to assign consequences to the spreading of misinformation. It doesn’t mean that we won’t have different perspectives, but we will disagree using the same facts.
I wish I knew the answer, but we do know how dangerous it can be. Historians have proven that misinformation is the first step to totalitarianism, and then, as we saw last week, insurrection.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.