I am not one of the conspiracy theorists, but I am in almost constant contact with them. I get several emails a week from family and friends telling me that I should take my hotel room key home and cut it up because it contains information about my credit card and bank accounts. I get messages telling me to throw away our expired cake mixes because they might contain yeast spores. I am told that the government is spiking jet fuel with chemicals that fall onto populated areas and cause diabetes. I hear that astronauts never landed on the Moon, that the president planned the attacks on September 11th, that artificial sweeteners were originally invented to kill rats. Even as I write this, I bet someone is pleading with me to air out my car on hot days because the plastic in the dashboard expels poisonous benzene molecules at a certain temperature — and urging me to relay this critical advice to everyone I love.
Sixty seconds of research into these ideas produces plenty of evidence that they’re groundless. The people who send the messages could have done the same research, saving me and their other recipients a lot of time and needless concern. But they didn’t. These people are driven by a need to believe that the rich and powerful conduct secret meetings in order to devise and implement evil plans. The world is controlled by bankers and billionaires. The rest of us are pawns. Those sounding the alarm also seem to believe that science is too blind to identify dangers, journalists are too oblivious to recognize the truth, and everyone in a position of power is too deceitful to expose criminal activity. Somehow, though, their unnamed sources are experts in every field, have access to all manner of essential knowledge, and are unfailingly honest.
The undercurrent of these messages is also clear: If you don’t believe them, you’re a fool.
I understand that individuals and small clusters of people are capable of doing great damage. But I also think that as a group grows, it tends to become less efficient and less intelligent. When a tiny company becomes a large one, it begins to forget everything it knew and everything it learned about how to be successful, and how to treat employees and customers. When a government reaches a certain size, it begins to fragment into thousands of agencies and committees, until it reaches a point of nearly total incompetence and stupidity. When a nation begins to expand into an empire, it becomes inept, disorganized, corrupt — and eventually, weakened and vulnerable.
That’s why I don’t believe any of the conspiracy theories that others so quickly embrace. If you tell me a lone maniac is planning to blow up the Hoover Dam, I think that’s possible. Or that a fringe group carried out an assassination, sure. But if you want me to believe the United States government can conduct any kind of large-scale operation in a smooth, coordinated, and clandestine manner, I have to stop and think. Isn’t this the same government that couldn’t hide a pointless burglary at a hotel called the Watergate in 1972? Took weeks to figure out who won the presidential election in 2000? And couldn’t manage to get portable bathrooms into New Orleans after a hurricane in 2005? This is why, if you tell me the US government (or any government) is planning to improve education for public school children, a chill runs up the back of my head.
On the other hand, there are a few things that do make me wonder. For example, at some point somebody started telling us to drink a minimum of eight glasses of water a day in order to avoid dehydration. It wasn’t too long afterward that we started seeing commercials for medicine to treat Overactive Bladder Syndrome. Conspiracy, coincidence, or just opportunism? When I was a kid, we played outside all day in the summer. Nobody ever got dehydrated. Sometimes we got thirsty, and when that happened we’d go inside and gulp down some water, then go back out. Today, kids can’t play ten minutes without stopping for a drink. I’ve seen signs at the health club that say, “If you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.” Is this true? I’m skeptical. If it were true, then feeling hungry should mean that you’re already suffering from starvation. If you feel cold, you already have hypothermia. If you’re feeling a little sick, you’re actually near death.
We seem to have reached the point where we can’t tolerate any level of discomfort, and have lost faith in the human body’s stamina and resilience. We panic and rush to the drugstore every time we have a sniffle. Our cars have climate control, so we never have to endure any fluctuation in temperature. We study food labels as though any imperceptible amount of preservative is going to threaten our survival.
We’re afraid of everything. Especially germs. We love to kill germs, don’t we? All of the household cleaners I’ve examined claim they kill 99.99% of germs. The hand sanitizers that have sprung up everywhere say the same thing. There is, apparently, a very tiny population of germs (0.01%) that aren’t killed by these products. Supergerms. What are we doing? I’m not an expert, so I’m not sure. But in my mind I see an unimaginable number of microbes competing with each other for survival. Supergerm is among them. We spray and soak and disinfect. Our kitchen counters are nearly sterile. We wash our hands when we enter public buildings. We attack germs wherever we go and we do an amazing job of killing them. At least 99.99%. Meanwhile, Supergerm is sitting back and watching us eradicate its competition. What do we have left? We have Supergerms left, its survival made easier because we’ve eliminated the weaker germs, and because it’s invulnerable to our existing products. We’re clearing the field for it to multiply. In addition, by eliminating or avoiding all other microbes, we’re making our immune systems weak from disuse, and therefore more susceptible to the germs that are still around.
So if you’re planning to send me one of those emails, please don’t. I’m not worried about a hotel room key having my financial information. If anything, I’m worried about the front desk clerk having it. I’m not concerned about a fatal allergic reaction to eating cake made from a mix that’s so old it contains mold spores. If I’m dumb enough to use moldy cake mix and unlucky enough to also have a life-threatening allergy to the same mold, I’m probably already dead. As for the government putting disease-inducing chemicals into jet fuel, I can only ask, why would they do that? To sell more drugs? Do the human beings who form the government not fear disease? Do they not have families and friends who would also be exposed? If those were the kind of people we elected to lead us, we’d be in bigger trouble than we could imagine, and it would have nothing to do with a few wispy clouds of airplane exhaust.
Astronauts didn’t land on the Moon? Of course they did. The alternative is that thousands of people kept their mouths shut on what would have been the biggest story of the century. And billions more were fooled, including scientists, friendly nations all over the world, and our enemies, such as the Soviet Union.
The president planned the 2001 attacks to justify a retaliatory war? When has the US ever needed such an extreme reason to start dropping bombs?
Aspartame was intended as a rat poison? If any of the products smeared with similar claims were so dangerous, wouldn’t we be hearing about thousands, even millions, of related deaths? An occasional story about someone who drank diet soda and later developed a brain tumor is not evidence. A lot of people consume artificial sweeteners and, unfortunately, some people get brain tumors; there’s bound to be some overlap between those two groups.
As for the bankers and billionaires deciding our doom in secret meetings, they’ll probably succumb to the chemicals boiling off their dashboards before they arrive at any workable plan.
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Somewhat of an exaggeration, obviously. There are things we should fear, others we should investigate, and still others we should at least consider. But the only thing we really have to be paranoid about is paranoia itself. And that paranoia is what I fear the most.