Last year, Super Deluxe patched together snippets of monologues by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and reimagined them as the lyrics to an indie folk song. Sung in the breathy style of Bon Iver, unhinged non-sequiturs like “vampire potbelly goblins running around coming after us” made perfect sense as impressionistic folk lyrics.
But many accept those sinister nonsense phrases as truth. Even when it’s a claim that seems inherently ridiculous, like the idea that the U.S. government is turning frogs gay. And as ridiculous as it seems, it’s hard to dissuade people from believing in what seems like obvious bullshit.
Jones’ audience is vast. His Infowars media empire reportedly rakes in over $10 million a year peddling conspiracy theories and pitching snake-oil products. Jones is hardly alone in profiting from conspiratorial nonsense. Donald Trump’s fervent, embrace of tabloid-worthy speculation helped put him in the White House and today cements the loyalty of his base who look to QAnon and other transparent hucksters for signs of Trump’s swamp-draining master plan.
This lunacy is so effective because Jones, Trump and their ilk shrewdly exploit a quirk in rational discourse: there’s almost nothing we can know to be true with absolute, 100 percent certainty.
Consider one of Jones’ more bizarre theories: that Barack Obama is a demon. Not demonic, mind you. Jones doesn’t think Obama is a bad person with a mercurial temper, but a literal, Old Testament imp reeking of hellfire and surrounded by flies. It’s a ridiculous assertion. Still, Jones claims it’s confirmed by security personnel and “high-up folks.”
Absurd? Yes. But is it disprovable beyond any possible, conceivable doubt? No. In fact, it’s surprisingly hard to argue. Countering such a claim in a good faith argument lends the claim credence as acknowledging it at all becomes a tacit admission there’s a chance, however small, that the claim may be true.
In his treatise “Discourse on the Method,” René Descartes introduced his famous proposition “I think, therefore I am,” proving to himself he in fact existed and was not some mere artifact of a Matrix-like alternate reality. As proofs go, this was a slam dunk. Any attempt Descartes could make to argue otherwise inevitably leads to the conclusion that there’s a someone—Descartes himself—formulating the argument.
Unfortunately, there’s little else that can be known with the same degree of unimpeachable certitude. Our physical senses are notoriously unreliable and our capacity for reason is compromised by innate cognitive biases. We lack a logical basis even for claiming that the sun will definitely rise in the east tomorrow or that a coin released from my hand will certainly fall down, not fly up.
True, there are highly effective heuristics like Occam’s razor, the principle that the simplest explanation is often the likeliest explanation. Also, the philosopher Karl Popper’s observation that a valid theory must be falsifiable, by which he meant that there must be some reasonably conceivable evidence which, if it existed, would disprove the theory. The famous illustrative hypothesis is that all swans are white, which is falsifiable since swans of another color could be discovered.
A typical Jones fever dream, by contrast, can never be proven false. Jones isn’t constrained by a need to be plausible in his explanations. There’s no physical evidence proving Obama is a diabolical minion vomited up from the bowels of the underworld but that doesn’t disprove it. After all, a tricky demon would be able to cover its cloven-hoofed tracks, wouldn’t it?
That tiny, unkillable mote of uncertainty is enough for the trolls and shit-posters who are interested in promulgating Trumpian-style falsehoods. They’re not aiming to change minds but to cloud them. They want to induce in the public a sense of futility whenever they try to determine whether any given assertion is factual. And, paradoxically, the most fantastic claims are some of the best tools for undermining a sense of a shared reality.
How can this be? Imagine debating Jones about whether Obama is a spawn of Satan. The well-meaning, rational person, having gone through life without ever considering the possibility of a demonically possessed U.S. president, may have no immediate response beyond gape-mouthed disbelief in the face of such a preposterous charge. But someone like Jones has already amassed “evidence” to support it, forcing his interlocutor to burn at least a little energy in formulating the obvious counter-arguments. And even at the end of that wearying process, a trace residue of uncertainty still remains. As the conspiracy theories proliferate in the public sphere, so too does the general sense that the real truth is forever beyond our grasp, despite the best efforts of journalists and others pulling debunkery duty.
Jones’ bad-faith tactics are nothing new in America but they do have particular salience in 2018 as the investigation into Russian interference in the most recent presidential election continues. The regime of Vladimir Putin, a former foreign intelligence officer for the old KGB, aimed to get Trump into the White House partly by spreading Jones-like conspiracy theories but probably had another goal as well: to delegitimize Hillary Clinton’s presidency in the event she had been the winner instead (which had seemed like the most probable outcome almost up until Election Day). The spurious charge of widespread “voter fraud” perhaps was to be for Clinton what “questions” about his U.S. citizenship were for Obama.
Fortunately, we can easily inoculate ourselves against the conspiracy theorists’ quasi-gaslighting once we stop trying to reach for ontologically absolute truth and accept that 99.9 percent certainty is more than good enough for everyday life. When confronted with outlandish, Jones-style claims, it’s helpful to think of ourselves as jurors in a theoretical defamation lawsuit tasked not with finding a judgement beyond all possible doubt, but beyond all reasonable doubt. And by that standard, we’d have a tough time finding Obama guilty of failing to disclose his infernal origins.
A reasonable-doubt standard, a flat refusal to engage on Jones’ terms, is a powerful tool. It’s strong enough to pull apologies from Jones, who knows full well that he would have been filleted on the witness stand had he not retract. It remains to be seen whether he’ll end up settling with his latest round of accusers—which include a man falsely identified as the shooter in the Florida high school massacre early this year—but that seems likely. Jones probably won’t experience genuine remorse for compounding the heartache of people who’ve lived every parent’s worst nightmare. But hey, there’s always a chance.