Why Conspiracy Theories Fail

Today’s Lesson: If there are actual conspiracies out there, they are lame at best. Instead of believing in them, accept responsibility for learning how to think sharply and act with specific intent.

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Many of my friends love, love, love to believe there are incredibly evil and corrupt powers in the world, secretly invading our culture for nefarious purposes.

In my social circle, there are people who believe extraterrestrials are among us but have been hidden by the government. There are people who believe GMO food is essentially grown, harvested, and marketed by the devil. There are those who believe in ghosts, hidden backwards messages in live speeches, chemtrails, demonic possession, global warming is a myth, and any number of other popular but utterly unjustifiable, unproven, and unbelievable beliefs.

There might be real conspiracies somewhere, but it is highly unlikely any of the ones perpetuated in the media or by the public have any validity. I see three problems with believing in conspiracies:

1. Conspiracies give too much credit to the conspirators. 

It is fanciful thinking to believe a government could pull off a conspiracy like Roswell. (If you are unfamiliar, an extraterrestrial ship allegedly crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in the 1950’s and has been kept from the public ever since.)

The U.S. government, under constant, relentless scrutiny from the public and media, is unable to even hide a President getting a BJ. The nation’s leaders can not agree on a single principle, direction, or moral value. How is it possible these bumbling, bungling politicians are pulling off an incredibly ornate and long-lasting conspiracy to hide something from the public? Is it more believable the government, through decades of changing leadership, advisers, and staff have kept an impenetrable wall of secrecy for over 60 years–not one single person breaking their silence, not one reporter finding a single irrefutable clue tying the plot together… or is it more likely aliens never visited?

We do not have to be logicians to figure this one out. We simply have to sit and think beyond our Twitter feeds for a minute. The harsh truth is most people, even those with a lot of unchecked power, are not smart enough to mastermind the kinds of plots we see in movies.

2. Conspiracies rely on someone being illogically evil.

Wouldn’t it be convenient if Monsanto was an evil, secret corporation trying to poison our food and destroy our planet for nothing more than bigger profit margins (because, at this point, they still really need the money)?

One of the many problems with the “GMO is evil” bandwagon is the people who work at Monsanto also have to eat the same food, grown on the same Earth, as everyone else. Edgar Monsanto Queeny (the current president of Monsanto and the founder’s son), I very much doubt, wants his children, or his family, or his family’s legacy, to be tied to the willful destruction of the world (why start a family if your goal is for them to have no future?). I also find it tough to believe a company that employs literally thousands of people has somehow convinced most, if not all, of them to contribute to the company’s nefariously evil plan to destroy the world’s food supply.

You have had jobs. You have probably worked for good people, and not-so-good people but not one of your bosses, I am willing to bet, is a Joker “watch the world burn” level of evil. They are just people with families doing their best, and maybe they have some anger issues. I bet you do not know a single person carrying out a world-wide master plot of evil. Further, neither does anyone you know or have ever met.

There are definitely bad organizations in the world, run by bad people, but they are not elaborate conspiracies. They are blatant about their intentions–Al Qaeda, Hitler, North Korea, Fox News… the distinction of these groups is, despite worldwide criticism and rejection, they believe they are the good guys.

In other words, there is no inherent benefit for them to create a conspiracy.

If you are trying to take over the world, you need to recruit and have a powerful message to market to enroll others. A conspiracy, by definition, denies bringing attention to the conspirator’s plan. This is obviously illogical. How can the conspirator take credit for their work if they succeed?

Ego is probably the first barrier to conspiracy, which is how and why hackers are often caught. They leave a signature, a tell-tale sign of their work because they want to show it off. Conspiracy theories fall apart when there is no tell-tale sign of who is conspiring and what they have to gain. This is easy to spot because the language of conspiracies requires a vague “them”, “they”, “the government”, “Monsanto”, “The Media”, “Fox News”, etc. because there is no one to actually pinpoint (yes, it was on purpose). The reason there is no one to pinpoint is because there is likely no one master-minding a conspiracy.

3. The conspiracy itself is unsustainable at the scale proposed.

This should be evident in the other two points but conspiracies are always massive and unbelievable because the obvious place to hide something so remarkable is in a morass of confusion.

Thousands of employees work for Monsanto. I challenge any person to find the employee that goes to work each day hoping to cause cancer, put farmers out of work, or kill his or her own family with secret, genetically-modified-by-the-devil, food. For what purpose, exactly, would a capitalist company want to end life as we know it or destroy natural food? It is hard to profit after you kill all your customers. Is it more likely Monsanto’s (or Cargill’s or whoever’s) intent is to leverage science to create a healthier, more sustainable planet or they are part of a secret cult trying to kill everyone including themselves?

By the same token, thousands of people over generations would be required to hide a secret alien ship buried in New Mexico. To what end?

By the way, if aliens possessed technology to warp space-time or exceed the speed of light to reach Earth, then there is absolutely no technology on Earth that could hide them and no reason for the aliens to care about human motives or political agendas. If they are advanced enough to get here, then once they arrived, we would be about as interesting and intelligent to them as amoeba are to us.

 

I get it, though. We all want to be healthy and wish to know what is true, reliable, and dependable in our lives. We want to stand on something and stand for something. We want to believe bad things happen for a reason–that evil, if evil exists, is not random and meaningless (because that makes the events of our lives random and meaningless). Sadly, those are the worst reasons to try to validate conspiracies. Conspiracies prey on your highest values. That is the shame of the conspiracies and of the so-called “theorists” who perpetuate such myths and poor thinking.

Before you believe without question the next study, story, or announcement from an organization, person, or group with a reputable sounding name, pause. Spend a moment to think about what they are purporting to be true. Play out the logical conclusions in your mind. Ask, “What is the motive here? Is this possibly biased? Is there an agenda? Where is the information coming from and what makes me think I can trust it? Is it because the source has a legitimate sounding name or because it was a massive double-blind experiment in controlled conditions with replicable proof by reputable non-biased scientists?”

Most (probably all) conspiracies do not exist but your brain does. Use it to do something more powerful than make people afraid of invisible men.

 

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Untried and True?

If it has been around a long time, then it must be good, right? (Of course, if you have ever read my blog, then you can guess my answer is, “probably not”…)

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I am not a fan of Daylight Savings Time and I share this post explaining why each year. It is an archaic, damaging tradition that has far outlived any usefulness it once provided to society or humanity, yet, curiously, we revel in it.

Even I will admit, despite my cognitive grasp of its non-utility, a little part of me becomes excited for longer summer days. Still, I would rather have stable hours (and moods) throughout the year–or even better–simply accurate timekeeping.

There are many things we believe or do simply because we have always believed or done them. I uncover my own assumptions or false beliefs all the time. It is astounding the things I have accepted as fact and internalized for large portions of my life without ever questioning the logic or origin of the tradition or belief.

Here are some off the cuff examples of things I believed simply because people told me they were true: Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are real, I need eight hours of sleep, drinking milk does a body good, keeping quiet and working hard will help me do well in life, only book publishers can publish books, marriage is sacrosanct, eating meat is natural, college will make me smarter, and having kids and settling down is what I am supposed to do in my twenties or thirties.

Some things are so deeply ingrained that we do not even consider questioning them or holding them up to the smallest test of logic. I think my dad still believes if you take a warm shower (let’s say the water is 90 degrees) and then walk outside on a cool day (say, 40 degrees) with wet hair and bare feet, you are certain to catch a cold. Of course, if that were true, every kid that goes swimming in a 50 degree pool on a 100 degree day would go home with the flu. The difference in temperature is the same 50 degrees, yet this myth persists in my family and others.

In my book, Daylight Savings Time falls under the same category as other myths, half-truths, un-truths, plain deceptions, or outright blatant ignorance of reality. For some of us, change is much scarier than the alternative: growth.

It feels safer to sit still and hide under the covers when we believe there is a monster in the closet. Of course, there is never a monster in the closet and sitting still, scared, waiting to die would only make the monster’s job easier. When we have information about where the monsters are, it is better to take our new knowledge and run with it.

 

Today’s Lesson: Just because we believe for a long time that something is justified, correct, or true does not mean it is any of those.

 

 

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Food Boobs

I’m thinking about changing my blog title from simply my name to “Sexy Celebrity Who Knows Everything You Can’t Figure Out For Yourself”. What do you think?

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If you are at all interested in the debate over healthy eating, then you have probably heard of the “Food Babe“.

She is the latest in a long line of conspiracy theorists and uninformed non-scientific critics trying to lambaste vaguely identified corporate entities.

(If you do not know where to point a finger when it comes to food, just say “Monsanto” in an accusing way and you will sound like an informed advocate on the side of would-be underdogs who believe they are defending food… because they saw some documentaries. As we know, that’s pretty much the same as becoming an actual scientist and Hollywood can always be trusted.)

The problem I have with people like Vani Hari (the “Food Babe”), Dave Asprey (“Bulletproof Coffee” and now also the “Bulletproof Diet”), and Loren Cordain (“Paleo Diet“) is they prey on fear. They exploit the ignorance of others and spread bad information to create panic for profit.

Here is the real deal. I have been vegan and studying the food debate for more than a decade and I can tell you, unequivocally, there are no good answers, no easy answers, and no shortcuts to health. Genetically Modified Food has never been proven unsafe or less nutritious in any rigorous scientific study, whether you choose to eat it or not (I choose not, usually, but not because I pretend to understand the intricacies of the science and agendas on either side of the debate). The base of corporate conspiracies falls apart at the doorstep of any company. Monsanto is comprised of normal working people, just like you and I, paid to do their jobs, just like you and I. No one I have ever met goes to work at any company with the intention of destroying the world. It is, on its face, ludicrous.

Just consider the base logic of nearly all of the anti-food / pro-fear arguments. They advocate eating like we did centuries ago. They say if we go back to eating the way we did more than a hundred years ago, then we will live longer and be healthier. The only problem is, just a hundred years ago our lifespans were shorter, our access to food was more limited, and our understanding of how food works was a hundred years behind today’s knowledge. Would you drive a hundred year old car and expect it to run better, faster, and with fewer emissions than one made today? Food has advanced and improved like nearly everything else. It is not a singular exception to society’s movement forward.

Farmers have always selected for the best food genes, cross-breeding and splicing plants to create better breeds, since the dawn of agriculture. Genetically Modified Food used to just be called “food”. We likely would find the corn our ancestors consumed virtually inedible. Through generations of selection, we now have sweet corn that can be eaten plain and is delicious!

The worst part with conspiracy celebrities like the Food Babe is, they are smart. Vani Hari understands marketing and social media. She has a degree in computer science. She may have good intentions, too, but well-meaning charlatans are still charlatans.

Again, the Food Babe has a computer science degree, not a food science degree, not a degree in nutrition, not even a Chemistry degree. She (and people like her) rely on gullible sycophants to support them, not on their earned credibility in the field they are advocating for or against. These predators are becoming increasingly easy to spot, too, and I encourage you to consider a simple fact before buying into their scare tactics… Associated with all their “miracle cures”, “breakthrough” diets, and generous sharing of information is always, inevitably, a product, service, or subscription they want you to buy.

Shockingly, the Food Babe has a book (and a second one on the way) that she wants you to buy, so she can keep working from home and paying for travel and the costs of maintaining fame and celebrity by finding an ever-increasing (and ever-profitable) audience to fund new panic-invoking articles, interviews, media events, and “research”. The Food Babe relies on two essential things to make a living: her boobs and your fear (she was not given the moniker “Food Babe” by her audience–she gave it to herself).

Actually learning the science of food, studying peer-reviewed literature, and talking to actual scientists who are actually informed does not help her pocketbook or her agenda. Talking to Good Morning America, staying in the news, and finding a way to reach Oprah’s audience does.

It saddens and frustrates me when people, trying to make good decisions, are held captive by sensational marketers, fear-mongering, and exploitation of their own ignorance. No one has the time to study every facet of food production, food science, or even to learn how to discern the hype from the known facts. Sadly, it is at our own peril if we do not start making the time to learn how to think and make decisions on more than a recommendation from a celebrity.

Today’s lesson: Marketers are too good at manipulation now and, for better or worse, your brain is the main tool you have to navigate ethics, morality, and Reality. Do not rely on blogs (not even mine), television, social media, or celebrities to do your thinking or live your life for you. Raise your sleeves and get to work finding out how to think skeptically, how to trace information to its sources, or just how to understand the basics of living a logical life. Be in the driver’s seat of your life. Don’t let these idiots get behind the wheel.

 

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Today’s Lesson: How Hard Is It To Be Vegan? [141016]

The question I am asked probably more than any other is, “Is it hard to be vegan?”

There are many reasons to choose a vegan lifestyle. Many people make the choice not to eat or wear other animals because it is a healthier way to live. Some people are animal rights advocates and choose to be vegan to show solidarity, of sorts, with our animal friends.

I am vegan because it is logical, and I value rational self-interest very highly.

I am ambivalent about the idea of eating animals out of necessity. If I were stuck on a deserted island with only a cow for sustenance, I would eat the cow.  However, I am not stuck on a deserted island, there is no scarcity of any food in my country, and I have no need to eat other animals to survive. I can be perfectly healthy without eating meat or dairy products with absolutely zero side effects and many bonuses (such as weight loss, mental acuity, needing less sleep, higher self-esteem, more energy, etc.). Even better, I can enjoy these benefits without bringing harm to anything that feels pain. It is a win-win.

In the 21st century, if you can be perfectly healthy without murdering or causing suffering, then why on earth wouldn’t you? It is an easy decision in my mind. I am glad that we no longer have to live like barbarians; I only wish more people would choose not to.

I like being vegan because I have found many new favorite foods and new ways of eating my old favorites. I can anticipate enjoying a better and longer life, and I sleep well knowing I have helped the environment and my body without causing pain to others. It makes me feel lighter both in body and spirit.

The way I see it… vegan is not the only choice, but it is the only logical choice.

 

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The Lesson I Learned Today… 140626

I think most of us really want to live in a better world and have better lives but we are very lazy and fear doing the work it takes to improve.

I was listening to an interview with Dr. Bruce Lipton, a (possibly well-meaning but nevertheless) charlatan who makes money pawning books and recordings based on tenuous pseudo-science at best. Think 1980’s-style books-on-tape that used to proclaim “learn while you sleep by programming your sub-conscious mind!”.

At first, I was mad at Dr. Lipton for preying on the hopes and aspirations of people who authentically want better lives and relationships. I was mad because people like him (and me if I wanted) have vocabularies large enough to dazzle good but innocently naive people. These types of con-artists use pompous (and practically meaningless) but science-y sounding phrases like, “neuro-modalities”, “Theta-waves”, “quantum… (anything)”, and “subliminal broadcast patterns” to make goofy spiritual quackery sound like actual science-based ideology.

After thinking about it, though, I became equally mad at his supporters/customers for being too lazy to think their way through the jargon and sensational claims. You do not have to be a big-worded brainiac to consider if subliminal “learning-while-you-sleep” tapes worked, then there would be no point in sending children to school. We could all just play “neuro-linguistic programming” audio tracks at bedtime each night and wake up fluent in another language or knowing martial arts after a good night’s rest. If it worked, there would be no other way anyone would want to learn! The whole world would embrace it, not just some select secret sub-culture that have access to a “magic sauce” no one else knows about.

Someof us want the easy, effortless answer so bad that we are literally willing to believe anything instead of putting in the hard, slow and steady work of becoming smarter, healthier, prettier, faster, better, etc.

There are no magic bullets. If someone tells you there is, better check the safety on his gun.

 

 

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Ruling Your Food

 

 

As a minimalist and vegan, I like to keep things simple, so here are my rules for eating right:

1. Do not eat anything that does not want to be eaten. You could rephrase this as “Don’t eat anything that feels pain” if you like, but the overall point is to avoid causing suffering. Most vegans make this distinction by not eating anything that has a central nervous system (the clearest indicator that something can feel and respond to pain). Put even more simply, “Don’t eat or wear animals”.

2. If it has more than five ingredients, do not eat it. It is an arbitrary number, but once you pass three to five ingredients, you almost certainly are eating junk mass-produced processed “foodstuff”. Bread requires nothing more than “(Whole Wheat) Flour, water, yeast, salt”. Think about that the next time you pick up a popular brand and scan the ingredient list.

3. Do not eat any ingredient you can not pronounce (or is not immediately obvious what it is by name alone). Monodiglyci-what? High Fructose Corn Syrup? Is that different than regular corn syrup? If you know what “high fructose” or other common lab ingredient names mean, it is probably because a scientist explained it to a reporter who wrote an article about it that you read once. There are so many (intentionally) obscure names for ingredients, either because they come from a lab or because marketers know you would never eat something if you knew what it actually was. “Cochineal”, for example, is that nice purple-red dye that colors many candies (like Nerds)… and is derived from the crushed shells of the insect by the same name, also sometimes called “Carmine”. Would you feed your kids a handful of crushed beetles? Would you eat them if you knew what they were?

4. If an ingredient has more than 3 syllables, don’t eat it. Pretty much the same rationale as rules #2 and 3. If it takes longer to read the list of ingredients than it does to eat the food, then this is probably a highly processed nightmare. In fact, you can really break down my rules 2, 3, and 4 into one easy rule: “Eat Simply.”

5. Leave something on the plate. This is the rule I admittedly struggle most with, but I overeat sometimes simply because I was taught to always “clean my plate”. However, if I cook when I am really hungry, or anytime I go to a restaurant, I always have more than I need on my plate. If you are eating at a restaurant, challenge yourself to always take something home. Most single restaurant meals are plenty for two people or two single meals.

 

One of my favorite food-books is Michael Pollan‘s “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual“, which offers up many easy rules to help us navigate the complex multitude of food and food-like products in the world. One of my favorite examples is “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”. Matt Frazier from No Meat Athlete shared his “Rules for Navigating Vegan Life in a Non-Vegan World” which reminded me I have several rules for eating, as well. Hope they help you eat right, feel right, and live right!

 

 

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