Discover more from The Questioner
When Conspiracy Theories are Real
Who fact-checks the fact-checkers?
I want to talk about something very serious and potentially traumatizing today, so please take a seat before continuing to read this blog post so that you don’t injure yourself should you happen to faint from shock. Are you ready? OK, here goes: what if a belief you strongly hold might be wrong?
You’re still reading? I guess that wasn’t wild enough to make you faint, so I’ll try again. What if a world leader or scientific expert is wrong about something? Well, that’s slightly more alarming. We trust our experts to give us good advice: in fact, sometimes they are even paid to provide assistance and direction to the government, such as during the recent Covid crisis. If they’re getting important things wrong, that could potentially be a big problem.
OK, you’re clearly still conscious, so let me try one more time. What if all of the experts are wrong about something? And as a result of the expert consensus being wrong, our world leaders - who depend upon the expert consensus for advice - are wrong too? So basically that means everybody would be wrong about a major piece of information, except for a handful of people on the internet, who get ridiculed as “conspiracy theorists” - because that’s what we call anybody who defies the expert consensus. As a result, world leaders are making terrible governance decisions, venture capitalists are making terrible investments, and the public in general is making really dumb mistakes that cause a lot of suffering despite being easily preventable, while the “conspiracy theorists” who are actually correct about everything get censored and deplatformed by social media outlets for “spreading misinformation.” Does that sound plausible to you?
At this point you may be starting to feel a bit more light-headed. “Stop spreading conspiracy theories!” you may want to shout at me. But doesn’t every great truth start out as a conspiracy theory? In the 1400s, the idea that another continent might exist in the western hemisphere was a crazy conspiracy theory, mocked and derided by the experts. Even after Columbus discovered America, there were a lot of people who thought that he was either crazy or lying. “Maybe he lost his bearings and got turned around in the ocean and hit Africa,” some people gossiped. “He’s clearly lying for fame and attention!” other people said. It wasn’t until trade routes opened up and mercantile corporations started to make a lot of money off of the new locations which were now accessible that this “New World” narrative gained traction, because suddenly people had skin in the game. The truth is that throughout all of history, the “expert consensus” has never been 100% accurate, and “conspiracy theorists” who disagree with the expert narrative are always mocked and ridiculed until some of them turn out to be entirely correct and go down in history as visionaries. We call this process - of debunking the expert consensus and gradually replacing it with a more accurate narrative - “science.”
What are some modern day examples of the expert consensus being debunked?
Considering that we just got through the worst pandemic in a century, let’s start with Covid, which is a textbook example of the experts getting literally everything wrong. First the expert consensus was that Covid was not going to be a big deal. Then the experts told us that masks didn’t help against Covid. Then they said that Covid was not an accidental lab leak and that any suggestion that China had created the virus was racist. In the space of less than a year, we’ve discovered that the experts were wrong about practically every single thing to do with Covid, and millions of people died as a result of their mistakes.
Another example would be the recent deluge of UFO reports. It wasn’t that long ago that people who believed in UFOs were mocked, called conspiracy theorists, and even had their bands break up over their controversial beliefs. The “expert opinion” was that UFOs didn’t exist. But today, our military has openly admitted that UFOs (or UAPs, as they call them) do exist, that the government has been studying them for years, and that based on the technology disparity, they are unlikely to be human in origin. It is no longer just alternative news sources that are saying these things - this phenomenon has been reported on reputable mainstream news media such as 60 Minutes, CNN, or the New York Times. Just another situation where the “conspiracy theorists” were correct and the “expert consensus” was totally wrong.
Given that the “expert consensus” has so frequently been wrong, you’d think that the experts would be a little more humble about criticizing people who disagree with their consensus. But in fact, this is not the case - quite the opposite, in fact. Even if you show documented proof and hard evidence that their opinions are inaccurate, most experts will completely ignore all evidence that you present them with until public opinion shifts enough that it is “safe” for the expert consensus to shift with it.
Doesn’t that seem a little cowardly to you? I mean, we respect experts and pay them a lot of money because they are supposedly very knowledgeable people who tell us what we need to hear, regardless of whether we want to hear it or not. If it turns out that most of these people are too gutless to tell us difficult truths - or even admit difficult truths to themselves - then what is the point of them even existing? I’m happy to lie to you and tell you whatever you want to hear; in fact, I have it on reputable authority that I’m very good at that. If experts lack the courage to disagree with the consensus or even cross-examine the consensus for the possibility that it might be wrong, then all they’re doing is telling you sweet lies that are dangerous and hurtful when a crisis erupts and you require some hard truth-telling (such as the recent Covid outbreak, when two million people died because our faith in the “expert consensus” turned out to be so badly misplaced). If the experts are this useless, why not just get rid of them and hire me instead? I’ll tell you all the sweet lies you want for a fraction of the price you pay to the useless experts. (Here, I’ll even give you a few for free. You’re smarter than everybody else, those jeans make your ass look amazing, and anybody who disagrees with you is either evil or stupid.)
Let me ask you a question. Do we even have an approved method for debunking the expert consensus? Suppose that you are an unconventional scientist and you realize that the expert consensus is wrong and an entire field of science thought to be credible is in fact fraudulent pseudoscience. This has happened many times in the past so it’s not implausible that it could happen again. For the sake of the thought experiment, let’s assume economics is a fraudulent pseudoscience and you discovered a better way to predict the market, called superforecasting. What evidence could you display to prove that the experts were wrong?
First, you would have to demonstrate superior knowledge in a measurable objective way. If you just started telling people “Hey, the experts are wrong, here’s why,” nobody would pay attention to you because society is currently structured to defer to and respect the expert consensus, whether the experts deserve it or not. You would need a gimmick of some sort to draw people’s attention. Something that would make them think “Hmm, the experts tell me this guy is just a crazy conspiracy theorist, but I definitely want to hear what he’s saying because it could be valuable to me.” Making a lot of money on the stock market would definitely fit this criteria. Everybody likes making easy money, so if you can show demonstrable skill at it then people will want to pay attention to you and copy what you’re doing. They may not initially believe you, but getting them to pay attention despite the experts trying to discredit and deplatform you is already half the battle. Additionally, one advantage of making money off the stock market is that your success is highly quantifiable. The experts might try to dismiss you and pretend that they know more than you do, but at the end of the day all you have to do to humble them is publicly compare your results to theirs. If you were to do something wild like, say, triple your investment portfolio very rapidly, then any “expert” who wanted to claim superior knowledge to you would have to equal or exceed your success if they wanted to appear credible when criticizing you. It’s very hard for anybody, even “experts,” to claim superior knowledge when there are hard numbers that show they have worse results. By achieving phenomenal returns on the stock market, you could limit the number of people who could challenge your credibility.
Second, you would have to demonstrate that your success was the result of strategy and planning rather than just random luck. To do this, you would have to demonstrate that you knew beforehand that your methodology would get the results that it did. Anybody can have a good month or even a good year on the stock market and come up with some wild explanation for it after the fact, but for your theory to be taken seriously, you would have to show that you knew beforehand what the outcome would be. For example, maybe you could publish a list of your predictions online. In fact, why not be extra thorough and write a book about your methodology which you then self-publish? That way, you effectively have a time-stamped document proving that you knew your market-forecasting technique would be effective, and that you were so confident about your future success that you even wrote a book describing your success techniques before implementing them.
So suppose that you did all that. Published a book about superforecasting, immediately went on to make a lot of money in the stock market, and made several predictions on the internet which subsequently came true. Surely that would be enough to debunk the expert consensus? After all, no matter how much people hate thinking for themselves, being able to make easy money by investing in the stock market is an important skill. By ignoring you, people would literally be leaving money on the table. So no matter how incorrect the expert consensus might be, surely this level of proof would demonstrate that you are right and the experts are wrong? Surely the experts wouldn’t still deny that your scientific theories were superior to their “expert consensus” even after you had openly predicted the future and made a ton of money doing so?
Actually, they would. The truth is that this is not just a thought experiment, this is something I literally did. I wrote a book about superforecasting, published it online, then subsequently tripled my money in two and a half years simply by using superforecasting techniques. Yet still, despite all this hard evidence, not only do the experts deny that my superforecasting science is superior to their economics, but I haven’t even managed to find even a single reporter or scientist who is willing to publicly examine my evidence so that I can prove that I’m telling the truth. The sad fact is that no matter how much we like to think that the expert consensus can easily be debunked or disproven if the experts are all wrong about something, there is currently no guaranteed method of debunking the expert consensus short of armed conflict.
Doesn’t that seem a little concerning to you? Personally, I think it would be nice to have some sort of process or methodology in place so that we could update the scientific paradigm whenever it is defective - whenever the “experts” are wrong, and the “conspiracy theorists” are right - without having to start a literal crusade to exterminate every so-called “expert” who opposes us. But perhaps I’m just a little old-fashioned that way.