So, you’ve elected a conspiracy theorist

I’ve not written about this election believing the flaws of the Republican candidate were pretty obvious; further litigating his failures as a candidate is now moot, he is now the president-elect of the United States. However, it is worth discussing what this administration will now bring given what we know about how conspiracy theorists behave and I believe our experience with conspiracy theorists and denialists gives some insight into what we can expect from a conspiracy theorist (CT) politician. There are some questions that may be answered and may help the scientific community develop strategies to respond to unique challenges of the leadership of our country now being dominated by those who reject the scientific method and the advice of scientific efforts in the fields of medicine, biology, and climate. After all, we now have a president and vice president elect who have conspiratorial views on vaccines, evolution and climate change, rejecting, effectively, the most important public health intervention of all time, the underpinning of all modern biology, and arguably the greatest threat to human survival on earth. So, what can we expect from a CT administration? Have there been previous examples that can guide us on what to expect? What type of impact will this have on funding for various agencies, both scientific and regulatory, that study and implement such policies? How will they operate their administration? What types of mistakes will they make? How can we mitigate, and possibly litigate for the advantage of the sciences and scientific progress?

The most important thing to realize about CTs is that they project their worst impulses onto others. Over the years studying denialists and CTs the pattern that emerges over and over is that they routinely commit the wrongs do what they accuse others of doing. The way the CT believes the world works, and how power is wielded, is how they would wield power if they were in control. Take, for example, Mike Adams, regarded by some skeptics as the internet’s number one crank for his work at Natural News. Adams routinely accuses medical doctors and scientists of crimes against humanity, selling medications which do not work and only make us sicker etc. However, a brief foray into his activities show that he is the one who recommends obviously useless medical therapies for profit and incites violence. After studying CTs for years, one sees this behavior replicated again and again, the projection of the CTs own worst behaviors onto others. Need more examples? Look no further than Mike’s competition for number one internet crank Alex Jones, who shouts to the heavens over unending lying by politicians and the media while peddling in an unending torrent of false stories and lies, including Sandy Hook truthism, 9/11 truth, chemtrails, and whatever other conspiratorial nonsense he can find. No national tragedy can occur without Alex Jones instantly inventing a CT narrative from whole cloth, with no evidence, yet everyone else is the liar. His list of beliefs reads like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and there is ample evidence our president-elect goes to him for news.

So far the empirical evidence assembled by journalists like Kurt Eichenwald suggest the president-elect is no different. Almost every single thing he has claimed about his opponent more accurately described how he ran his business and his life, including crooked business deals, a self-enriching charity, mass deletion of emails in violation of court orders, and an astounding record assembled by fact checkers this year of unending lies for political gain. His opponent’s crimes were actually his crimes. We should not be surprised. The fact that he is conspiracy theorist told us everything we needed to know. It told us he would be promiscuous in his beliefs, unskilled or unwilling to distinguish between fact and fiction, and willing to believe and promote any falsehood if consistent with his ideological bent. That his prevailing ideology seems to only be “I am great” makes me wonder if the secret to his support is just to stroke his ego, and he’ll promote whatever nonsense you like.

What will this mean for the incoming administration? Like most CTs he will be unwilling to tolerate dissent, yet will tolerate almost any kind of madness from those individuals that agree with him. This will be no “Team of Rivals”, this will be a true basket of deplorables. What will be assembled is an administration of similarly factually-deranged crank sycophants who will harbor any number of absurd beliefs consistent with crank magnetism, but who will otherwise be tolerated by their boss no matter what they do, as long as they maintain loyalty to, and stroke the ego of, the president. Evidence suggests this is already happening as he has named a climate denialist to head his EPA transition team from the ideologically deranged Conservative Enterprise Institute – CEI being a bogus “think tank” that presents ideological anti-science as some kind of academic endeavor. These people are the classic example of the fake expert – an agent who has no actual expertise in science or policy but who does share your ideology and a semblance of academic legitimacy with which they can give your BS a patina of truthiness.

Is there any upside to this? Or is this all bad news? What is the upside to hiring criminally-incompetent non-scientists into positions of power? Well for one thing, the spoils system does not change the fundamental institutional structure of these agencies, the hard-working people and scientists who work for the EPA or NIH or NSF will not simply turn around on a dime and accept this nonsense, they will buck against incompetent leadership and still try to accomplish their mission. The bureaucracy is not so easy to replace and only a minority of positions at the top of agencies tend to be political appointments. Second, the people he appoints will truly be criminally-incompetent. I have little doubt that we will find his administration immediately trying to abuse power, criminally, almost the instant they take over. If we are vigilant, and anticipate the type of abuses which will be typical to such actors we should be able to use the institutions of government designed to prevent abuse to limit their damage. I fully expect the same type of self-dealing, self-enriching and fraudulent behavior that have typified his business career to extend directly into the white house. This is the hysterical error that those that want people with “business experience” to run government make. You doom yourself to incompetent leadership because government is not a business and it can’t realistically be turned into one. It is a fool’s errand, and all they will do is run afoul of the built-in protections of our institutions that are designed to prevent people from behaving like petty tyrants.

After all we do have one example in our history of a CT-lead government and that was Richard Nixon. He, however, lived in a time where the loud proclamation of his anti-Semitic conspiratorial beliefs about Jews and the media would actually result in some kind of backlash, while the current candidate ended his campaign with an ad directly alluding to a Jewish banking conspiracy. Instead we know about Nixons behavior from recordings at the time which captured his paranoia and despicable beliefs. Similarly Nixon surrounded himself with loyalists who adhered to the same ideology, and whatever other foibles they had were then forgiven. It was Nixon, after all, who in recordings could be heard suggesting “why don’t we just use the bomb on north Vietnam” and had to be talked down by then secretary of state Kissinger. Conspiracy theorists are not the type of people you want running government. They are quite mad, and dangerous. But they also tend to commit the very crimes they are always accusing others of committing, and indeed, Nixon was ultimately caught in a criminal conspiracy (there’s a difference!) to undermine his political opponents.

So, a piece of advice from another Mark so long ago applies, and we should enter the next 4 years with it in mind at all times. Follow the money.

P.S. It looks like its time for me to start writing more consistently. More to come.

Comments

  1. #1 Paul Hutchinson
    November 10, 2016

    Good post it’s nice to have a reality based perspective, thanks. I look forward to your future posts to help me cut through any CT fog from the new administration.

  2. #2 See Noevo
    November 10, 2016

    “…who reject the scientific method and the advice of scientific efforts in the fields of medicine, biology, and climate. After all, we now have a president and vice president elect who have conspiratorial views on vaccines, evolution and climate change, rejecting, effectively, the most important public health intervention of all time, the underpinning of all modern biology, and arguably the greatest threat to human survival on earth.”

    Three ways wrong, but the biggest laugh is this:
    “evolution… the underpinning of all modern biology”.

    What a lie. What a bad joke.

    • #3 MarkH
      November 24, 2016

      Are you a fellow biologist I presume? Probably not if you are also antivax and don’t believe in climate change. This is actually a wonderful example of crank magnetism. I present three of the most substantiated theories in science and you are in denial of all three. Fascinating.

  3. #4 Wesley Dodson
    November 10, 2016

    What do you think about the distinction between paranoia and pronoia? Do pronoiacs see the world as they do because that’s how they would run it if they were in charge? Is that phenomenon a good thing, and in fact the source of moral leadership? Aren’t these two sides of the same valuable coin? Also I think Trump is more of a pandering con artist than a true CT.

  4. #5 Wesley Dodson
    November 10, 2016

    Hillary is the Nixon here, the paranoiac projecting on Russia. Literally the friend of Kissinger. The one who said “Can’t we just drone Assange?” We just kept a Nixon out of office. Count your blessings.

  5. #6 MWS
    November 10, 2016

    There’s an interesting political tactic of accusing your opponent when common sense suggests that is a bad idea. Consider the 2000 Republican primary, with Bush and McCain. McCain was a PoW in the Vietnam war, while Bush used his father’s contacts to ‘serve’ in the Texas Air Guard to avoid the Draft. Common sense would suggest that attacking McCain on his military service would be a _very bad idea_, but that’s exactly what Bush and Rove did. Exactly the same tactic was used in 2004 against John Kerry.

    I think this tactic only works when the candidate with the weaker record attacks first. Then any mention of the weak record looks like retaliation, and not an legitimate attack. I have no idea if this has been studied scientifically, but it should be.

  6. #7 MarkH
    November 11, 2016

    Nixon founded the EPA, served in the military, and had a lifetime of public service, albeit misguided and ideologically bent. Trump can’t hold a candle to a Nixon. That might be the saddest thing of all, this guy makes Nixon look like a patriotic and reasonable man.

  7. #8 dean
    November 17, 2016

    “What a bad joke”

    Yes sn, you certainly are a bad joke – and a poor excuse for a human.

    The “hillary is the new nixon” idea is laughable, the implication that the difference between she and trump is minute is either intentionally dishonest or made out of ignorance.

  8. #9 Chris Mannering
    November 20, 2016

    What extent do you regard the argument and general content of your post as scientific? It’s just that there a lot of signalling that you are scientific and you are an authority on these matters and therefore your statements and generalization are robust, such that counter argument, scepticism (of your standards) can be put aside safely, as well as supporting argument. Because that is what you are saying to the reader. It’s ok for you to string together assertions all of appear to sit at an extreme of whatever spectrum they are best placed with.

    I’ve studied denialism and the character nspiracy-centric envisioning. Some of what you say doesn’t strong suggest a serious academic interest in these matters. For example, one would expect just from the process of developing insight and knowledge, that you’d have a great understanding of the ways the basic defining characteristics of CT, can be abstracted away from the emotive and widely manipulated conception of a generic conspiracy. Or the categories of consipiracy that are plausible in terms of human nature, and/or historical precedent. And also through that, to see lthe ways in which people are the same, once the personal interests and loyalties and birth condition and so on are stripped out.

    You cannot have seriously done any of that. I mean, when you talk about CT people simply envisioning the world that they would create given the power, onto those that have power, and simply projecting their onw crimes and ciminalituy onto those they set themselves against. That’ is nothing more than an outrageous truism of human behaviour. You’re talking about mirroring and projecting. These are general traits, and you don’t go on to mention the same traits at higher encapsulations. What do people do those they set themselves against, in the context that you personally have. They write a post a lot like yours.

    You say things that clearly cannot be true or cannot have the significance or part in things that you assert. You say Donold Trump made up about Hillary Clinton, using his own conduct as material for the projection.

    Which specific claim would that be? Because he was getting the material for the criticisms from wiki leaks. So how does that work, and while we’re on the matter, why didn’t you know that? Why didn’t you care that the media systematically ignored and covered up the material that was coming out from wiki leaks?

    Why do you believe that her foundation despite the hard evidenve from the wiki leaks material of serious irregulatories, large donations from foreign powers like Saudi Arabia which put 2 billion into th fund. Or how about the outcomes of that foundation. I’t;’s product.

    I’m not an exception self awareness, morality or integrity, or serious scholarly accomplishment about the nature of the things you purport expertize in.

    You probably won’t publish this obviously but I’ll leave you with this. Tell me, was McCarthy a conspiracy theorist?

    Also given every generation has its own conspiracy theories, the vast majority of which have since been settled in tems of what was true. I’m talking specifically about historic instances of suspicions shared by some growing body of people, that were at the time discredited with terms like conspiracy theorist. How many of the biggest historic instances that have been settled turned out to be true? All of them. All the big ones.

    • #10 MarkH
      November 24, 2016

      What extent do you regard the argument and general content of your post as scientific? It’s just that there a lot of signalling that you are scientific and you are an authority on these matters and therefore your statements and generalization are robust, such that counter argument, scepticism (of your standards) can be put aside safely, as well as supporting argument. Because that is what you are saying to the reader. It’s ok for you to string together assertions all of appear to sit at an extreme of whatever spectrum they are best placed with.

      There is actually quite a substantial literature that is growing on conspiracy theorists. From a population perspective, altered risk perception based on ideology is well studied by Dan Kahan at Yale. From an individual perspective, I would suggest Stephan Lewandowski’s work including “recursive fury”, which was retracted when the CTs threatened to sue the journal. Can still be read, and I think is still quite valid. I argued from two specific examples of exaggerations of the conspiratorial personality – Mike Adams, and Alex Jones – but in the years and years of reading conspiracy websites, examining very careful assessments of how conspiracy theorists have assembled their evidence (I would suggest Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi as an excellent primer on the bullshit generation by JFK conspiracists for example) the pattern is evident. While decrying the dishonesty of whatever authority they reject, CTs routinely lie, fabricate, cherrypick, and rely on fallacious logic. More examples needed? You can read some posts under the conspiracy tag below.

      I’ve studied denialism and the character nspiracy-centric envisioning. Some of what you say doesn’t strong suggest a serious academic interest in these matters. For example, one would expect just from the process of developing insight and knowledge, that you’d have a great understanding of the ways the basic defining characteristics of CT, can be abstracted away from the emotive and widely manipulated conception of a generic conspiracy. Or the categories of consipiracy that are plausible in terms of human nature, and/or historical precedent. And also through that, to see lthe ways in which people are the same, once the personal interests and loyalties and birth condition and so on are stripped out.

      Once again, one of the central themes of this blog is denialist and conspiratorial reasoning is common behavior, and is in fact the default behavior for defending ideology from evidence. Almost every one has some wacky theory they believe, or will resort to the tactics to defend a core ideology. That doesn’t make it right. Again for research see Kahan. There is also a literature on a tendency for conspiratorial reasoning from people who specifically feel disempowered.

      You cannot have seriously done any of that. I mean, when you talk about CT people simply envisioning the world that they would create given the power, onto those that have power, and simply projecting their onw crimes and ciminalituy onto those they set themselves against. That’ is nothing more than an outrageous truism of human behaviour. You’re talking about mirroring and projecting. These are general traits, and you don’t go on to mention the same traits at higher encapsulations. What do people do those they set themselves against, in the context that you personally have. They write a post a lot like yours.

      The grammar is failing but I think I get your point. What I’m describing here is both a historical pattern, the psychological tendency of reaction formation, and the fact that we have learned that the president elect did engage in all of these behaviors. After all we have now a settlement of a fraud case from him running a bogus university, an admission of self-dealing with his empirically corrupt charity, and already piling evidence of abuse of his political position for personal gain while literally saying to the NYT that its impossible for a president to have a conflict of interest. This is in just one week. It’s an observation we’ve made here of CT behavior, again and again. I wish there were a literature for it, and in fact there are hints at it in some of the psychological deception literature, but in this case, I don’t need one. He has proven my point multiple times just in the last week.

      You say things that clearly cannot be true or cannot have the significance or part in things that you assert. You say Donold Trump made up about Hillary Clinton, using his own conduct as material for the projection.

      See the last week of news stories. You see this behavior from CTs at all levels. They accuse others of what they then do to prove their conspiracies. Chose a denialist group and I will find you examples of fabrication, misrepresentation, dishonesty – always what they are accusing others of doing.

      Which specific claim would that be? Because he was getting the material for the criticisms from wiki leaks. So how does that work, and while we’re on the matter, why didn’t you know that? Why didn’t you care that the media systematically ignored and covered up the material that was coming out from wiki leaks?

      This makes you sound unreasonable. All we heard about was what was in her goddamn emails for weeks. Post hoc analysis shows email coverage far exceeded policy discussions. You are the one arguing against the evidence here.

      Why do you believe that her foundation despite the hard evidenve from the wiki leaks material of serious irregulatories, large donations from foreign powers like Saudi Arabia which put 2 billion into th fund. Or how about the outcomes of that foundation. I’t;’s product.

      It’s product was kids not dying from AIDS. She took money from Saudi princes to do so, so what? You have her taxes publicly available for the last 30 years, where is the unreported income? WHere is the self dealing. Now Trump on the other hand just turned in documents admitting self dealing!

      I’m not an exception self awareness, morality or integrity, or serious scholarly accomplishment about the nature of the things you purport expertize in.

      I don’t understand this sentence.

      You probably won’t publish this obviously but I’ll leave you with this. Tell me, was McCarthy a conspiracy theorist?

      Also given every generation has its own conspiracy theories, the vast majority of which have since been settled in tems of what was true. I’m talking specifically about historic instances of suspicions shared by some growing body of people, that were at the time discredited with terms like conspiracy theorist. How many of the biggest historic instances that have been settled turned out to be true? All of them. All the big ones.

      Usually the examples of conspiracies that were “true” are good evidence that conspiracy theories are actually quite bogus. Usually MK ultra is cited, or some other dustbinned CIA plan that was never implemented yet we still found out about. Truth is, conspiracies are nearly impossible to keep secret. The head of our CIA last year got busted for an affair. He couldn’t keep an affair secret, and he’s the country’s chief spy. Between whistleblowers, document dumps, and plain old investigative reporting, most nefarious deeds prove nearly impossible for our government to hide, unless they hide it in plain sight. And McCarthy wasn’t a conspiracy theorist, he was a demagogue. He took advantage of a real problem and exploded it with no evidence to attack political rivals and hollywood writers. So, a dirtbag, not a conspiracist.

  9. #11 Chris Mannering
    November 20, 2016

    P.S. I’m sorry about the typing mistakes. I accidently pressed ‘submit’ just as I was turning to the clean up. It might not be readable as it stands. However you might try reading it to the tune of the French National Anthem…it really works very well for my stuff, but don’t recklessly go around reading any asshole’s bullshit to that song. Use a pop song or a nursery rhyme. Don’t steal my choice, there’s plenty of choice out there. Try poetry. Or porn.

  10. #12 dean
    November 20, 2016

    “Why do you believe that her foundation despite the hard evidenve from the wiki leaks material of serious irregulatories”

    Because of the reviews by the legitimate agencies that found none if the issues the folks at wiki leaks made up and gullible people automatically believed. People like you.

  11. #13 dean
    November 20, 2016

    “tell me, was McCarthy a conspiracy theorist?”

    That, among other things (he was a drunk and a congenital liar as well).

  12. #14 Chris Mannering
    November 20, 2016

    dean sorry I will return ASAP and give a jolly good rogering. I think I probably mean beasting. But the reason popped was because I had a read of this gentleman’s efforts and mission and I’d have to say it’s very worthwhile stuff and very effectively done. I guess I just happened along at the same moment he knocks out an emotive gratuitously hostile and onesided missve defined by grossly over inflated assertions with no supporting argument or reasoning attached. But clearly even allowing me that judgement it’s a lot nearer a one-off than typical of what he does.

    dean…your counter points don’t stad scrutiny. You have to a conspiracy theorist to recognuze that corruption in the West is now following the same debilitating trajectory of the rest of the world, and within that not unlike that of, what used to be the perception of the way things panned out in some of the countries that were referred to ‘3rd World’. It hasn’t played out but it could now be past the point of recovery. Look at the denialist movernt. The structure and distribution of denialist in the landscape exemplifies the most sophisted level of corruption. It’s only been emerging and radically evolving (by human selection) since the 1950’s or later. That structure has for a while now been on sale to other interests and probably already long since, in other manifestations quite capable of shaping the worldsense of politicians media military you name it.
    Is that a conspiracy theory? Because I bet the blogger suspects similar along similar lines. So with all that mind just waving something as potentially serious given her path to the whitehouse, just waving it through the checkpoint because you think the ‘relevant’ agencies gave it pass….is not adequate. Not when there is a substantial body of almost primary document status (i.e. copies of primary records) dished out by very brave people that don’t earn out of it, and probably live in constant fear of what the future holds. I think it would reasonable for you take that body of linformatipon into your assessment.

    What you say about McCarthy. Look, the reason I asked specifically about him was because we now know he was right because that has been disclosed by the Russians since 1989. The British and American left leaning organizations were liced with soviet agents and American agents of influence working for communism. So he was right.

    • #15 MarkH
      November 24, 2016

      That there were agents that infiltrated the government is separate from the abuse of power, slander, and blacklisting that McCarthy performed. To say that McCarthy was “right” is to suggest that burning your house down is a measured response for seeing a cockroach.

  13. #16 dean
    November 20, 2016

    Wow, you are even more clueless than I thought. I often wonder what color the sky is in the universe inhabited by people who, like you, are unhinged from facts – but not enough to bother reading any more of their twaddle after a response like yours.

  14. #17 Wow
    November 21, 2016

    “McCain was a PoW in the Vietnam war, while Bush used his father’s contacts to ‘serve’ in the Texas Air Guard to avoid the Draft. ”

    Trump, too, avoided the draft by his powerful parents.

    But he’s never been captured by enemies of the USA!

  15. #18 Ken
    November 24, 2016

    [ed – Deleted for rank bigotry]

  16. […] from blogging about the presidential campaign, but the election of Trump alarmed him, and he wrote a blog post laying out what he knows about conspiracy theorists like Trump and how to anticipate their behavior. […]

  17. #20 bugga
    November 30, 2016

    science, physics, proves the official account of 9/11, impossible.

    ae911truth.org

    the biggest theory being promoted in regard to 9/11, is the official account.

  18. #21 bugga
    November 30, 2016

    I saw you use the term “antivax” MarkH. If you watch the film Vaxxed – youll see that some vaccines, can and do cause harm. lots of it. and that the CDC covers it all up, thats according to people from the CDC who did the covering up.

    That doesnt automatically mean all vaccines are bad, nor does it mean all vaccines are good, and people should blindly follow what bigpharma dictates.

  19. #22 Alaric
    December 7, 2016

    @bugga

    “If you watch the film Vaxxed – youll see that some vaccines, can and do cause harm.”

    You do realize that this film was directed by Andrew Wakefield. Yes, that same Andrew Wakefield who published the long discredited and debunked paper purporting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

    So, why we should take his entry into Hollywood any more seriously than the original study? A study, I should add, resulted in him being barred from practicing medicine in the UK due to how false it was in addition to involving many undisclosed conflicts of interest.

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