People are fascinated by conspiracy theories. Conspiracies are the basis of blockbuster movies like "Angels and Demons," the fuel that feeds the anti-global warming folks, and the force that prompts people to deny the Holocaust. Some conspiracy buffs even believe 9/11 was an inside job engineered by our own government.
According to the New York Times of July 14, 6 percent of Americans believe the Apollo 11 landing 40 years ago was a hoax and that man never walked on the moon. A member of my own family believes the CIA is concealing advanced energy technologies obtained from captured UFOs and other alien contacts. Check the www.disclosureproject.org.
I suppose anything is possible, and I don't want to offend those nearest and dearest to me. I simply want to know why people hold so many radical beliefs at a time when so much hard information is available. Surely in an age of reason, provable facts, and easy communication the world should be moving toward consensus.
Unfortunately, just the opposite is true. Why?
For the most part, people don't acquire their beliefs from direct information or personal knowledge but from what others around them think and believe. They respond rationally but to information that may or may not be true. Nevertheless, when people live in an open and diverse society, radical thinking and extremist behavior doesn't usually get much of a foothold.
Today, however, two factors are pushing people away from the mainstream and toward cults, conspiracies and other radical world views.
People tend to seek their own kind, others who share their beliefs and who think as they do. When the public is exposed to highly emotional issues, when they're urged to express their opinion, and (this is important) when they have many numbers of ways to do this — chat rooms, blogs, talk radio, political meetings — opinions become convictions. Polarization occurs and individuals become more, not less, attached to their positions.
Then there's the matter of trust. When, a little over a week ago, news anchorman Walter Cronkite died at age 92, the papers lauded him as "the most trusted man in America." His like does not exist these days.
I was 21 when Dwight D. Eisenhower became president. He was a war hero. When he addressed the American public, we believed him.
Only after the 1960 U-2 affair did we realize that even the best of leaders lie to their own people if it's in their interest to do so.
Today we expect lies. From an ad for breakfast cereal or patent medicine to politics at every level, we've lost all regard for the truth. We accept fabrication, exaggeration and out-and-out lies as the norm and don't hold their perpetrators accountable.
The effect on personal belief systems is predictable. Since we know that everyone lies - governments, the corporate world, politicians, ad men at every walk of life, even our own parents, (my parents told me not to play under a nearby but deserted railroad bridge because of "the wild dogs") - we usually chose the scenario that best fits our pre-existing convictions.
Today, the U.S. is faced with a number of pressing problems: health care, global warming and the economy, to name a few. Every one of them will involve a degree of government intrusion whether we like it or not.
The solution is not less government, but a more efficient, more effective, and more transparent government. In short, a government we can trust.
The same dynamics that fuel conspiracies fuel extremism. Extremists are not necessarily ignorant or stupid or even mentally ill. They do, however, operate with limited information and an emotionally biased worldview. That worldview can be changed, but only by proving it represents a flawed picture of life. This cannot be done with lies.
If the U.S. hopes to prevail against international extremists, it must be beyond reproach; in short, a government the world can trust.
Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com.