So You Just Found Out You’re in a Cult: A Socratic Dialogue
Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
Hey, you’re Luke T. Harrington, right? That guy who writes a column about fads, panics, cults? And you also do that podcast where you talk to people about why they changed their minds about things?
And you also wrote that hilarious book about the Bible that everyone should definitely buy?
Not really relevant to the conversation at hand, but thank you for mentioning it. Anyway, how can I help you?
Well—I’ve been thinking about what you’ve said in the past about cults, conspiracy theories—that sort of thing.
And when I saw what happened at the U.S. Capitol on the sixth, I started worrying maybe I’d been barking up the wrong tree.
Like, what if the election wasn’t stolen?
Yeah, that’s possible.
And maybe there isn’t a global cabal of Satanist pedophiles waiting for Trump to unmask them.
Yeah, see, that one always did seem a tad farfetched.
But I was so sure.
That’s probably what we need to talk about, then.
What do you mean?
Well, maybe we should talk about why you were so sure.
See, one of the things I try to push pretty hard in my work is this thing called epistemology.
I thought potty humor wasn’t allowed on Christian websites.
No, see, epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies how we know the things we know. How evidence works.
One of the fundamental principles in philosophy is that we have to have a reason for knowing the things we know. That’s why most conspiracy theories fall apart under scrutiny.
But conspiracies happen all the time! Why are people so down on conspiracy theories these days?
Well, first of all because most of us aren’t good-looking enough to afford David Duchovny’s credulity. But mainly because, by definition, most conspiracy theories aren’t falsifiable. And falsifiability is one of the most important principles of epistemology.
Falsifiability? Like, proving things false?
Yeah, and it’s actually a vital tool for understanding the world around us. If a theory or hypothesis is falsifiable, that means that we can imagine some sort of evidence that would prove it wrong. For a silly example, let’s say I believed all cats were white. Do you see how that would be a falsifiable belief?
I guess if someone showed you a black or brown cat, right?
Right, I would immediately know I had been mistaken, and I could revise my belief. My belief would have been falsified. The vast majority of conspiracy theories don’t allow for that possibility.
What do you mean?
Well, suppose I told you that the nation of Canada didn’t exist. I’ve never been there. I don’t know anyone who’s ever been there. It’s probably a lie made up by travel companies so they can feed us all to polar bears.
But I’ve been to Canada!
I mean, of course you say that. You’re part of the conspiracy.
What? But I could introduce you to all sorts of people who have been to Canada! I’ve got friends who live there!
Yes, obviously. They’re part of the conspiracy as well.
I could sing you the Canadian national anthem! I could show you photographs of Montreal! I could introduce you to their prime minister, who probably wouldn’t even be in blackface!
That’s just how deep the conspiracy goes, man.
Well, what would change your mind about this???
That’s the question, isn’t it? Do you see my point?
The problem with a conspiracy theory is that it gives you license to wave away any evidence by appealing to the conspiracy. You can seize upon any scrap of data that seems to confirm your viewpoint, while dismissing anything that calls it into question by chalking it up to the actions of conspirators. I talked about this a bit in my column on the Satanic Panic.
The Satanic Panic? I loved their third album!
No, dude. The Satanic Panic was a conspiracy theory back in the 1980s and 1990s. It actually bore striking similarities to the modern-day QAnon theory. People believed there was a global Satanic cult that was torturing children.
Yeah, that pretty much is QAnon.
Yeah, I know. The difference with the Satanic Panic was that they actually had kids coming forward, claiming to have been abused. Except the kids in these most well-known cases admit they were making it up.
Yep. These kids—now adults—mostly say they were just telling the adults around them what they thought they wanted to hear. In the example I talk about in my column, kids were claiming they had been shuttled through an underground tunnel under a daycare to a hideout where they would be forced to engage in the dark rituals. But obviously, that claim was easily falsifiable.
They just looked to see if the tunnel actually existed.
Right. And there wasn’t one. But a lot of people insisted on continuing to believe in the Satanic cult.
I assume they said something like what you said earlier—“That’s just how deep the conspiracy goes,” or whatever.
Yep. But if you think a lack of evidence is the same thing as evidence, you can believe whatever you want. But no conspiracy is so perfect that it leaves behind no evidence. If there were really a global conspiracy of Satanist child rapists, we’d have something to prove it. Emails, text messages, phone records—or just people who had had a crisis of conscience and confessed.
I assume you’re about to tell me the same thing about QAnon.
You’re not wrong. Consider that Q has made countless predictions that didn’t come true—but that his followers have waved them all away, saying “That’s just part of his plan!” Well, you need to ask yourself: What’s an example of a piece of evidence that would prove to you that Q is a fraud? If you can’t think of one, your belief isn’t falsifiable.
Okay, but what about the stolen election? A lot of people believe the election was stolen!
Okay, but the only reason a lot of people think that is because Trump keeps saying it was stolen. Trump has yet to present either the courts or the media with evidence it happened. Which brings me to the next fundamental principle of epistemology—
—it’s definitionally impossible to prove a negative.
What do you mean?
Well, just for a silly example, imagine that I told you there was a Sasquatch in my backyard. You said, “Prove it!” and I said, “Prove there isn’t one.”
Wait, that’s not fair.
Right. It’s not fair to place the burden of proof on the one making the negative claim. If there is a Sasquatch in my backyard, it would, at least theoretically, be possible for me to find him and show him to you. But you couldn’t prove there wasn’t one. You and I could search my backyard all night, and if we didn’t see a Sasquatch, all that would prove is that the Sasquatch wasn’t in the places we looked, at the exact moment we were looking at them. Unless we could look everywhere all at once, there would be no way to know with certainty that he wasn’t out there.
Ah, I see.
Now for a better example: imagine you’re in court, accused of murder. You say you didn’t do it, and they tell you to prove you didn’t do it.
That sounds uncomfortable.
Right. If you’re lucky, you’ll have an alibi—maybe you were at the movies at the time the murder occurred, and someone saw you there. But if you stayed home reading a book that night, and no one knew where you were, you’re pretty much screwed. That’s one reason our legal system has the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven. It’s neither fair nor epistemologically reasonable to ask people to prove their innocence.
So you’re saying that—
Right, the way our system works is that—
Stop interrupting me. My word, you’re condescending. What I was going to say was that, for those alleging election fraud, the burden of proof is on them. Since you can’t prove a negative, they need to prove their positive claim that fraud occurred.
Right. And Biden won the popular vote by seven million votes. He won his closest state by almost eleven thousand. If Biden’s win was somehow illegitimate, that would mean that hundreds of thousands of votes across half a dozen states were fabricated. That makes an allegation of fraud a conspiracy theory, by definition.
Well, that’s a little dramatic.
I mean, not really? No one person could fabricate all those votes by him- or herself. It would require, at minimum, hundreds of people working together, thousands of miles apart. That’s what a conspiracy is.
And if this conspiracy had happened, we would have real evidence of it, like what you described earlier.
Right. We’d have emails or text messages between the conspirators. We’d have phone records. We’d have checks from all the payoffs that would have had to have happened. One of the hundreds (or thousands) of conspirators would have had a change of heart and come forward—for the schweet book deals, if nothing else. And we have none of that.
But that’s just how deep the conspiracy goes—oh wait.
Do you get my point now?
Yeah. But why are you writing stuff like this for a Christian site?
Because they pay me. But the real reason is that an awful lot of the people who have stuck with Trump on this stuff seem to at least self-identify as Christians. And, well, there’s definitely a stereotype out there about Christians believing whatever they’re told.
Well, the whole “Godman who rose from the dead” thing is a bit far fetched.
Sorta yeah, sorta no. Every supernatural claim carries a certain weight of unprovability with it, but the resurrection is about as close to provable as any supernatural claim can be. The writers of the New Testament appeal to eyewitnesses again and again, telling their readers, “If you don’t believe me, go ask those guys. They saw it happen!” It’s pretty clearly written for an audience capable of checking the facts.
So you think belief in the resurrection is reasonable, given the evidence we have?
I mean, yeah. I do. And at the very least, it’s not leading me to kill cops and overthrow governments.
Cool. Want to go get pizza, or something?
Sure. But not at one of those places owned by Satanist pedophiles.