Dr. Brett Salkeld, Archdiocesan Theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina Saskatchewan and podcast host, discusses conspiracy theory thinking and how it can be harmful to our faith.
Dr. Salkeld explains what conspiracy theory looks like, and how it’s important to look into our own reasoning while exploring ideas. “Conspiracy theory thinking can be a certain brand of logical fallacy or collection of logical fallacies that people use to avoid facing evidence. If you throw a theory out there, someone will dismiss the evidence and still reject it … Chesterton has a great quote that captures the heart of a conspiracy theorist. He says, ‘If a man says that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators, which is exactly what conspirators would do.’ It’s built to be unfalsifiable. This is why they are so frustrating to engage.” He points out that we should not dismiss anyone who has a different theory because we want to encourage critical engagement with the media. Rather, we should ask the question, ‘is this theory consistent?’ And are we as consistent about applying critical engagement to theories that counter our own narrative?
“We need to learn to be as critical of information that seems to support our worldview as we are of things that run counter to our worldview,” Dr. Salkeld says. “Otherwise, we lose our credibility. We look like we’re crying wolf all the time. There’s a lot to be said for the fact that the mainstream media misrepresents Catholicism regularly. But that doesn’t mean that every time they say something bad, they’re automatically wrong. Right?” Brett points to the coverage of the Church’s sexual abuse scandals in the media. “It’s painful and horrifying to admit to ourselves that all of that happened, but it’s not a conspiracy of the liberal media to suppress the conservative or the ancient Church, even though that might be true in some other ways. So that’s an example of not everything that somebody comes out with against us or bad for us is merely a conspiracy theory.”
Dr. Salkeld discusses a principle proposed by Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Saint Ignatius says to do what you can to save your neighbor’s propositions. He explains, “If your neighbor said something, put the best possible interpretation on it and try it. One of the things about conspiracy theories is that there is a hyped-up sense of suspicion. We always presume the worst. Ignatius wasn’t just saying, ‘Be nice and be willing to countenance things that are false in order to make your neighbor look good.’ He’s actually a great doctor of the soul. He recognizes that when we presume the worst about other people, when we’re overly suspicious, it’s generally our own ego and our own sin that takes us away from the truth.” He points out that we are more in danger of getting away from the truth when we are overly suspicious of others, and what we should learn to do is to be a little suspicious of ourselves when things fit a little too neatly with our own narratives.
“If we say, ‘I’m going to trust that my neighbor, until it’s really clear, is at least trying to say something true. And I wonder if my own approach to this is maybe influenced by something in my sinful character. Something trying to protect my ego or my identity. So, I’m going to be a little self-critical here before I share something.’ Ignatius is saying that actually is more likely to get you close to the truth than the reverse. That’s one reason to be a critical interpreter of media, but there’s a tipping point at which being overly suspicious actually gets you lost down these rabbit holes where you can hold onto almost anything you want to believe because you can selectively be suspicious of anything that counters it. This is one of the things you see in conspiracy theories that is grabbing onto one or two key pieces of data and interpreting everything else in light of those. However improbable, you just kind of cling to it because it supports your idea.”
Dr. Salkeld gives a current example of a Catholic conspiracy theory that recently floated around when Pope Benedict traveled to Germany to visit his dying brother last month. Rumors circulated that Pope Benedict would not return to Rome as a rebuke to Pope Francis and the direction of the Church today. The reality is that Benedict did return to Rome, even earlier than he had planned. “This is one of the things that conspiracy theories do. They make an assertion like, ‘This is what Pope Benedict is going to do.’ And then if I can’t dispute what his motivations are for doing what he’s doing, I’ll cling to the theory as long as I can show that it’s probable. Theorists will just say, ‘But you haven’t shown me that it’s impossible. And until I see definitive evidence that it’s impossible, I’m going to maintain this.’” Dr. Salkeld gives one more example of this line of thinking when explaining that he received a phone call last week about Pope Francis’ lack of response to Turkey’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. He explains that a woman called him and asked “Why doesn’t Pope Francis say anything about this?” He explained, “The fact is he has said something. But, but watch what happens with this line of reasoning. If someone says, ‘Here’s 10 things I wish the bishops were doing more or saying more about’ and if you can show the bishops or the Pope has addressed nine of those 10, you haven’t refuted their basic point, which is that the bishops and Pope are not doing enough. So you can’t ever meet their standard.” Dr. Salkeld points out that if you are involved in that kind of argument, you are in an argument that’s not operating on fair premises, no matter which side you happen to be on. This is what can cause frustration at the inability to come to common understanding because of the way the argument is set up.