A jarring and nauseating twinge bubbled through my brain when I read the first inevitable torrent of tweets and Facebook posts declaring the Boston Marathon bombings a “false flag” operation perpetrated by the Shadow Government. In truth, it was a kind of cognitive dissonance, because while I wanted to feel angry at those peddling this offensive twaddle (and did block of few of them from my newsfeed), I also felt a sickening kind of empathy… because if this tragedy had happened ten years ago, I’m afraid —and a bit embarrassed to admit— that my first thought would also probably have been to label it a “false flag”.
For me, this November will mark ten years of sobriety as a recovering conspiracy theorist. Yes, my name is Paul S. and I was once one of these people. I was someone who read every book by David Icke and Jim Marrs. I watched every documentary by Alex Jones, listened to his radio show and visited InfoWars and PrisonPlanet every day. I thought the CIA assassinated JFK, that world policy was being dictated in smoky backrooms by the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, and the Bilderbergers, that the Global Elites were performing black magick rituals at Bohemia Grove, that 9/11 was an inside job, and that Freemasons were elbow-deep in doing some sorta, uh, thing with stuff that was, like, totally not good, man.
I know what it’s like to view the world from such a perspective. And, luckily, I also know what it’s like to snap out of that nonsense. So, I write this as a former conspiracy kook and with as much empathy as I can muster to plead with those who still hold such views to… just… stop. Seriously, just fucking stop. You’ll thank me for it someday. Granted, we don’t yet know who was behind the bombings or why they did it, but, I can assure you, dollars to donuts, you know what the most unlikely explanation is? That it is was an inside job “false flag” operation. I’d more readily believe it was perpetrated by some secret sect of Quakers than the work of the government.
While I would love to spend several hundred words parsing through the nonsensical logic for why “false flag” theories are better relegated to the mouth-breathing delusions of paranoid schizophrenics, I see little point in doing so. Instead, I’d like to briefly share my own experience of how I made the conversion from conspiracy kook to proper researcher.
The most essential impetus on my journey to recovery was happening upon the book Cosmic Trigger by Robert Anton Wilson on my nineteenth birthday, at a time when I still resided deeply in the viscera of Conspiracy Land. No single piece of writing has made a greater impact on coloring my perspective of the universe than the preface to that book (for those who haven’t read it, I highly recommend digesting it immediately). Wilson instilled in me, as I explored the wacky world of conspiracies and the occult, that it was better to approach such topics with an agnostic sense of humor, lest you emerge a “stone cold paranoid”. So, even though I was stuck in the full throes of conspiracy-theorism, after reading Wilson, I began to view conspiracy theories as the most likely explanation for many events, rather than believing in them dogmatically as the only explanation. This subtle shift in perspective would prove to have profound implications in nearly every facet of my life to come.
Besides Wilson, the other person I have to thank for my conversion is, strangely enough, the recently passed Roger Ebert. It was November of 2003, and to mark the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, Oliver Stone’s JFK was released as a special edition DVD. Ebert made it his “pick of the week”, saying he thought it was a brilliant film but agreed with Walter Cronkite’s assessment that it was also, unfortunately, absolute historical garbage. Being a huge fan of JFK and Oliver Stone (this was years before he did World Trade Center, mind you), I decided I was tired of hearing people disparage the film and wanted to know specifically what the critics and historians claimed Stone got wrong. What started with me browsing through a couple of JFK conspiracy criticism websites soon ballooned into a two-month-long research project whereby I devoured a dozen books and scores of articles presenting counter arguments to the conspiracy claims.
I resisted what I read at first, willing to acknowledge that the conspiracy critics made a handful of interesting points but unwilling to let go of the conspiracy altogether. But slowly and begrudgingly, I realized I had to accept that the evidence overwhelmingly suggested Lee Harvey Oswald was guilty and acted alone. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say I was crestfallen to learn that almost everything in Stone’s film was either inaccurate or just plain wrong and that most of the claims about the assassination by conspiracy theorists did not stand up under scrutiny. It felt like being socked in the gut. Everything I had put so much stock in for years unraveled before me.
And as the years went by and I continued my research, the rest of Conspiracy Land’s greatest hits unraveled as well. My world was suddenly less interesting. No more black helicopters and “false flags.” No more sinister plots by the Illuminati. And, frankly, it seemed like no more fun. But there was also something incredibly liberating about the experience. I had spent so much time living in the insular world of the conspiracy community I forgot what it meant to do proper research and apply real analytical thinking. I realized I had been doing the very thing I accused of others: uncritically swallowing a narrow version of events just because it comported with my worldview. Making this realization was like Dorothy opening the door to see the world in its full Technicolor glory. It not only made me a better researcher, but it made me a better person.
I know those in the conspiracy crowd think they have a highly-tuned bullshit detector, but I’m here to tell you: I’m sorry, but your bullshit detector is fucking broken, stuck perpetually in the red. You’ve lost the ability to discern the rational from the irrational and are left jumping at shadows. It’s classic confirmation bias: You see what you want to see without realizing it. And I know because I was once just as guilty of it—and I still catch myself doing it on occasion. As a friend once said to me, if you look at a brick wall through a giraffe-shaped telescope you’re bound to think you’ve found a giraffe made of bricks.
This is not to say that there have never been conspiracies (Iran-Contra, for example), that there are no unanswered questions about the Kennedy assassination (Oswald’s trip to Mexico was pretty weird), or that there have never been “false flag” operations (the Reichstag fire comes to mind). What I ask of the conspiracy-inclined is this: Clear your mind’s slate and drop any preconceived notions about “false flags”, the New World Order or black helicopters, and, then, carefully reexamine the evidence. There’s nothing wrong with being skeptical of the official story. Logical skepticism is healthy and necessary for research. But don’t just read the articles on conspiracy websites; also read the conspiracy criticism articles. Hell, read everything you can find. Wait for the evidence to creep in and work through the scenario logically. And, for fuck’s sake, have some humility and concede that you don’t have all the answers. So, when the inevitable next tragedy like Boston occurs, realize that when you immediately howl about “false flags” on social media before the facts are in, not only are you exhibiting an offensive form of confirmation bias… but you’re just wrong… I should know; I was once just like you.
*Note – There’s a follow-up to this piece here