The human brain is an amazing thing. We cram it full of stuff and nonsense and song lyrics and daydreams and it rummages through the facts and factoids and sorts them into some sort of worldview.
We commit to that worldview; we get too attached. It’s called confirmation bias. We hunt down and prioritise information that reinforces what we already hold to be true; we ignore or dismiss that which threatens the edifice we’ve built from half-formed thoughts and snippets of Alan Jones.
My brain has eagerly absorbed dozens of headlines proclaiming that red wine and chocolate are good for you. But my Pollyanna grey matter blithely skips the ‘only in moderation’ footnote. It even hurt to write that, to be honest. That’s the pang of cognitive dissonance.
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Writer and activist Susan Sontag said: “I envy paranoids. They actually feel people are paying attention to them”.
People were quick to call mining giant Clive Palmer a ‘crackpot’ and a ‘nutjob’ for his bizarre claim that the Greens are a tool of the CIA being used to undermine mining. And they are wacky claims. But the human mind is an amazing thing and comes up with sophisticated ways to protect itself from the real world. He’s not simply ‘wacky’.
Conspiracy theories are a protective mechanism.
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Welcome to this week’s I Call Bullshit, a regular column where we look at shysters and shenanigans, bad science and mad conspiracies.
This week is going to kick off a series on men’s rights extremists (MRE). Like all extremists, these guys ruin it for those who have genuine concerns for men in today’s society with their pseudoscience and shonky stats, strawmen and very thinly veiled agendas. In the same way that extremist feminists make it harder for women to voice their own concerns.
Over the coming weeks we’ll look at some of the main issues, including intelligence and gender, false rape allegations, family court issues, sexism, domestic violence, relative advantage, misandry and so on. If you’ve got a topic you want covered, dive in below.
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It’s tempting – very tempting, in fact - to dismiss conspiracy theorists such as the 9/11 ‘truthers’ as tin-foil hat wearing nutters. And there is a substantial element of crazed paranoia out there which invites such frank contempt.
But there are interesting and telling reasons so many people have come to believe that al Qaida had nothing to do with September 11, that the US Government was responsible for the attack or at the very least knowingly let it happen in order to trigger a war.
The UK’s Telegraph newspaper ranked September 11 as number one in its listing of the greatest conspiracy theories, trumping the moon landing, Roswell, Jesus’ bloodline, and the JFK assassination.
The political impact, the copious amounts of footage, and of course the internet have bolstered the truther movement to the point where polls consistently show that one in three Americans believe in it to some extent.
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Welcome to this week’s ‘I Call Bullshit’, a weekly look at the strange twists and turns of the human mind.
It’s not surprising at all that conspiracy theories have shrouded Osama bin Laden’s death. Before the dust had settled from September 11 crackpot ideas started surfacing, the most persistent of which is that it was an ‘inside job’ carried out to trigger the war on terror. People love to doubt the official line.
And it took mere cyber seconds – in this crazy interweb-connected world of ours – for people to start speculating that Osama was not dead at all, the whole extravaganza just concocted to boost Obama’s election chances. Or an alien plot. Or something.
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It didn’t take long for the whackjobs and nutbags to start pushing their spiteful little barrows in the aftermath of the Japan earthquake and tsunami. In fact, it took them all of about two minutes.
The minute The Punch threw up an open thread for people to express sympathy, or share other information related to this unprecedented catastrophe, the snide, narky little comments started sneaking in. And it happened not just here but all over the internet, the twittersphere, and beyond. Sometimes, all this connectedness really is a curse.
Ludicrously, some hailed the event as evidence of climate change. Others thought they’d restart the age old religious debate on God, and the Problem of Evil. Others jumped headlong into the nuclear debate, like that couldn’t wait a day or two. One reader cheekily but tastelessly suggested the event was fair payback for Japanese whaling. Most astonishingly of all, some thought they’d harness the terrible moment to have their daily dig at Julia Gillard. Like this website hadn’t had 10 stories in the last week where people could vent on the PM.
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There’s a large contingent of Beatles devotees who firmly believe that the Fab Four replaced Sir Paul with a look-a-like after he secretly died in 1966.
Start googling “Paul McCartney” and you’ll find that the second most popular search term is “Paul McCartney dead”. Modern conspiracy aficionados say this is because Google killed the real Paul McCartney so a fake Paul McCartney could form a real band called “Wings”, which would make Google a small amount of money, allowing them to purchase part of The Beatles catalogue so the real Paul McCartney could buy shares in Google.
Confused? So is poor ol’ Paul who routinely has to fend off sandal-wearing fat blokes who shove Wikipedia printouts in his face as conclusive proof that he’s dead.
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The British Medical Journal has devoted an editorial to stating that an article published in popular medical journal The Lancet in 1998 linking childhood vaccination with autism “was in fact an elaborate fraud.”
The Lancet had already retracted the article by Andrew Wakefield early last year, but BMJ now sought to totally discredit the “study”, which led to a decline in the triple vaccination of measles, mumps and rubella in Britain as well as in the United States and Australia.
Sadly, despite the strength of the BMJ articles - brought on by the work of Sunday Times investigative journalist Brian Deer - there will still be people who will not only ignore it but view it as further evidence of the conspiracy.
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Jeff Greenfield, CBS News Senior Political Correspondent once quipped that more things in politics happen by accident or exhaustion than happen by conspiracy.
Inarguably his four decades of experience - which includes time as a speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy - enable him to make such informed statements, but as the son of a politician I will venture that if it wasn’t for John Della Bosca’s sex antics and the occasional fantastically implausible conspiracy theory, politics would be as boring as bat guano.
Conspiracy theories have been a popular part of Western politics since 10.15pm on April 14, 1865 when John Wilkes Booth walked into Ford’s Theatre and assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Immediately after Lincoln’s assassination questions arose. Was Booth solely responsible or was he someone’s hired gun, and if so, whose?
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