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Covidiotism and conspiracy theories as rational nonsense

Monday, 28 December 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

The internet made us accustomed to nonsense theories that now look like familiar faces in our daily digital routine: dinosaurs and Australia don’t exist, the 5G enables mind-control and the coronavirus is a hoax to put chips in our brain — or something like that.

The temptation is great to simply scoff at these theories and belittle their proponents. However, their influence and widespread popularity is no longer a laughable epiphenomenon that can be ignored. Taking them seriously does not mean to consider that they hold some truth, but rather that they should be analysed as a logical consequence of broader social changes.

When investigating what he called the “Social Division of Labour”, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim acknowledged that it was a double-edged sword. Modernisation as a social process means that more and more tasks of our daily routine are outsourced to professionals.

For example, even cooking is progressively being taking care of by professionals through ready-meals and similar services. Such an evolution can either increase solidarity between different part of a growingly interdependent society, or it can alienate us from our direct environment that we are no longer able to understand.

This is especially the case in modern “knowledge societies” that Brey Antoni, Daniel Innerarity and Gonçal Mayos have rightfully decided to rename “ignorance societies”. This expression does not mean that members of these societies are more ignorant than their predecessors, but rather that the status of science, knowledge and ignorance has changed.

The vast amount of information available to us through modern technologies and sciences was supposed to enlighten us and make ignorance a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the exact opposite happened. Complexity means that individuals have to overspecialise in intellectual niche; even world-class experts are only able to understand a teeny-tiny portion of the world that keep shrinking at a dramatic pace. Furthermore, it is growingly difficult for the general audience to determine what expert should be listened to.

Our access to information has dramatically increased, but our ability to “connect the dots” and turn information into knowledge symmetrically plummeted. Instead of enlightened philosophers, the overabundance of information changed us into confused cynics.

In addition, the status of science itself greatly suffered from the development of the so-called “knowledge society”. The ideal of a bright new world created by science has been long killed by a series of catastrophes such as nuclear accidents, food-scandals showing that science turned our subsistence into poison, an approved pregnancy test that causes birth defects and dead infants, a new drug for thyroid that turned out to be toxic, etc.

As pointed-out by Brey Antoni, Daniel Innerarity and Gonçal Mayos, these events profoundly altered the status of knowledge and science. Both science and knowledge are no longer defined as the opposite of ignorance. Instead, experience showed that science could not ban uncertainty but only manage it — better science only equating to better odds.

However, the final blow to public trust came from the piling evidences of the lack of independence of science. French authorities manipulating science to minimise the impact of the Chernobyl catastrophe or respected scientists lying for the greater benefit of oil and tobacco companies are just a few illustrations of this lack of independence.

Corrupted scientists and the weaponization of science in favour of authorities and private interest did not reveal that science was worthless. Simply, it showed that this institution was human, all too human.

The entanglement between science and power is nothing new, but somehow, a threshold has been unwittingly crossed.

In its infamous “The Betrayal of the Clercs” (“La trahison des clercs”), the French writer Julien Benda harshly criticised thinkers of the beginning of the 20th century. According to Benda, they betrayed their old and sacred function, which was to contemplate timeless ideals such as justice and equality. Instead, following Marx’s injunction, they became obsessed with turning their ideas into actual changes. Consequently, the age-old but fragile division between power and knowledge was jeopardised. Being a thinker was no longer seen as an individual quest for wisdom and happiness; rather, it was agreed that anyone making such a claim was at best a hypocrite and at worst someone working for the ruling classes.

However, Michel Foucault was the first to accurately identify the incestuous relationship between science and power in modern societies. According to Foucault, power constitutes knowledge: the connections between different ideas and concepts is not something that comes from logic or reason. Rather, it is a social force, power, that makes these connections for us.

When even a communist thinker such as Jean-Paul Sartre could still see knowledge as an emancipatory force, the post-modernists described knowledge as a by-product of the social hierarchy. In such a world-view, as the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson pointed out, knowledge reveals more about a person’s position in the social hierarchy than about his self-proclaimed wisdom.

Originally defined as a framework to structure collective efforts in understanding the world, science was imperceptibly downgraded to the status of a subjective narrative at the service of power.

In conformity to Durkheim’s warning, trust in science is collapsing while a new form of social anomia is taking shape: the belief in conspiracy theory. The growing inability of a discredited science to help us navigate and understand the world makes new forms of superstition ever more tempting.

Indeed, conspiracy theories follow a narrative structure strikingly similar to religion’s: the world around us is a lie but, to perceive it, one must open its mind to a truth that is unattainable to non-believers. And this “truth” is that everything around us depends of the will of an omniscient being or group of being. Despite their apparent pessimisms, conspiracy theories thus offer hope as the solution to all our miseries is simple: to save the world, one must find and remove the evil plotters/the devil.

How to escape such a situation?

Replacing an exaggerated use of science as sole source of legitimacy for policy-making by a greater involvement of the masses is the indispensable first step toward a sustainable cure. Progressively, through path-dependency, the empowered general audience and its elites would rebuild mutual trust and respect. In other words: democracy is the solution.

Things are unfortunately not that simple as the “ignorance society” causes the rise of conspiracy theories while making its democratic cure less appealing. Elites draw their legitimacy from their self-proclaimed intellectual supremacy, something that they will no easily surrender. Especially as the “ignorance society” keeps on widening the knowledge gap between experts and citizens whose faith in nonsense theories further damage both the credit and the power that elites are ready to share with them.

Democracy works, but it requires people to trust each other, the real question is if we are still able to do it.

And the answer is far from being clear.