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How alien abduction explains Donald Trump.

When given a choice between truth and a lie, vast millions of people unerringly choose the lie. What on earth is going on – and what does it mean?

In 1992, an entirely respectable pollster published a survey that estimated around 3.7 million Americans thought they’d been abducted by aliens.

Quite a lot also said they’d had sex with the almond-eyed, three-fingered extraterrestrials but were then rejected and sent back. No wonder they’re annoyed.

In 2021 a Gallup poll found 41% believed alien spacecraft were visiting the earth. That was an increase of 8% in two years. Education didn’t seem to help: 37% of college graduates thought the same thing, up from 27%.

Even Joe Biden, who displays several of the characteristics of sanity, felt the need to issue a statement confirming that when he ordered some spy balloons to be shot down, no aliens were harmed in the process. “There is no – again, no – indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns,” said the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre.

Even if there was a life form somewhere intelligent enough to repeal the laws of physics, why would they spend their time and petrol money coming here? And if they were looking for someone to abduct, why on earth would they choose people from Idaho?

But the idea has spread anyway. It seeped across the northern border into Canada, where 56% believe in UFOs and one in ten claim to have seen one.

And 65% believe intelligent extraterrestrial life exists. Given that the universe is for all practical purposes infinite, that one is at least defensible on the basis that if you give enough typewriters to enough monkeys, one of them will eventually produce the Daily Telegraph.

Australians are just as anxious as other people to swallow lies, fantasies and conspiracy theories. A 2017 survey by Essential Research produced interesting, if alarming, figures about the eager willingness of millions of adult Australians to believe absolute tosh:

We do not live in a post-truth world. The truth still exists and it still matters. A lie is not an alternative fact. It’s still just a lie.

The future of our civilisation rests, as it always has, on the eventual victory of truth over lies and superstition. Go one way, and you have a chance of creating a decent society free of prejudice and pogroms. Go the other way and you end up burning witches.

Trump lost the election. Nobody has been abducted by aliens. Climate change is real. Covid was not caused by 5G wireless technology. Mobile phones don’t cause cancer. Vaccines don’t cause autism. The stars do not rule our lives. Harold Holt was not kidnapped by a Chinese submarine. The Voice would not have led to an invasion by the United Nations.

As you might expect, the question of why people embrace nonsense has been studied by academics all over the world. Those in America have been particularly exercised about the mechanisms involved in leading people to believe they had been abducted by aliens. Many complex papers have been published but they mostly boil down to this: they dreamt it.

Now, if I woke from a dream in which I’d been (say) the Czar of All the Russias, I would be unlikely to believe for more than a few moments that I actually was the Czar of All the Russias: an exciting concept, admittedly, but almost certainly untrue. I think I would say to myself: “Oh, I dreamt it”. Then I'd probably get out of bed, have breakfast and get on with my day. I trust you would do the same.

Not these people: SOME BASTARD STOLE MY THRONE!

Identifying what is real and what is not depends on the honest and clear-headed evaluation of evidence. But choosing to believe lies and fantasies rather than objective truth requires a mindset that facilitates magical thinking. It’s complicated but it can be unravelled.

A group of experts in conspiracy theories at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden have mapped the territory. Dr Andreas Önnerfors, professor of intellectual history (pictured), says the credulousness is built on a web of predictable components.

Broadly, these involve the assumptions that everything fits together, that those in power are keeping things from us and trying to do us all harm, that the conspiracies can be proved, that society is heading towards its end, and that the good side has seen through the conspiracy.

Conspiracy theories, Önnerfors says, can be used from the top down (Trump) and from the bottom up (social media trolls). They all have something to gain: power, money, notoriety. But they all depend on the willing gullibility of large numbers of people.

The Anne Frank Foundation, whose mission is to counter the kind of thinking that led to the holocaust, has put a lot of work into this.

“Polarisation,” it says, “means the increase in thinking in terms of ‘us versus them’. Two groups in deadlock, each badmouthing the opposite side, using one-liners and simplistic statements. When polarisation and extremism increase, so does thinking in opposites.

“A conspiracy theory explains the world in a way that suits our ideas about ‘us’ and ‘them’, about our own group and the other one. It is sometimes hard to digest that a disaster was just an accident, an unfortunate coincidence. Or that an attack was committed by a violent loner or a small group.

“Social psychology has taught us that facts make a poor weapon against prejudice. Prejudice – and conspiracy constructs – are emotionally charged points of view and opinions.

“A conspiracy construct is also used to rally one’s supporters in the rhetoric used to justify one’s actions. To flesh out the image of the enemy. Not just out of ideological conviction, but also because there is simply a lot of money to be made in the world of fake news.”

All of this is plainly visible in every society but most of all in the United States. Rupert Murdoch and Fox News have made billions out of it.

And despite all the evidence, a third of Americans still believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and that Joe Biden is president only because of voting fraud.

Apart from Trump himself, the most prominent conspiracy theorist has been Alex Jones (pictured), who has made millions out of his mad rants. He claimed first that the massacre in 2012 of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut was a false flag operation by the federal government and then that it was staged and nobody actually died. He has been sued by multiple people and ordered to pay almost $US 1.5 billion ($A2.4 billion). But he’s using bankruptcy proceedings to get out of paying, so the claimants may never see their money.

Jones has also claimed the government was using weather control to unleash floods (“We had floods in Texas like fifteen years ago, killed thirty-something people in one night. Turned out it was the Air Force,” he said.

But a frightening number of people believed him. They believed him too when he said the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre was actually conducted by the government.

And again when he said the Pentagon was developing a “gay bomb” to turn people gay so they wouldn’t have children.

And they believed him when he accused Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who, as a special counsel, investigated whether Russia had helped Trump win the 2016 election, was a demon and a paedophile.

And again when Jones said Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlour.

The Voice referendum in Australia was a benign request to provide a way for the government to receive better advice on aboriginal affairs, to give the country a chance of ending a 235-year run of failure in indigenous policy.

But it provided a rich ground for the purveyors of misinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories. First among them was Peter Dutton, leader of the opposition, whose sole purpose in politics is to see how much he can destroy and how many lives he can ruin.

Price ... denial of her own people's reality
Then there were the opportunistic grifters and Uncle Toms, like Warren Mundine and Jacinta Price. She announced to the National Press Club that European settlement had been a good thing for aboriginal people. “We have running water,” she said, to the delighted chortling of the right-wing politicians who had come to hear her.

Facts didn’t intrude. Facts like life expectancy for aboriginal people in remote areas being 14 years less than for white people in similar areas. Like the impact of the grog, domestic violence, unemployment, incarceration rates, deaths in custody. And so on.

Dig deeper and it gets worse. And one of the very worst is Nicola Charles, a former actor who got a part in Neighbours in the 1990s, and who runs a series of video craziness on Facebook under the name White Rabbit.

She promulgated the idea that if the Voice referendum succeeded, the United Nations “World Government” would invade Australia and confiscate all private land. An investigative team from the ABC calculated that video had been watched half a million times.

She’s been doing this stuff for years. Most recently, she’s posted this: “Who alters the DNA of Ancient Aboriginal Tribes at the same time as asking to amend the Countries Constitution to protect their ‘Heritage’?”

But he really is the Prime Minister
Charles said Anthony Albanese isn’t really the Prime Minister because he wanted to change the constitution to allow the Voice. So he refused to take the oath of office, which would require him to uphold the constitution. It is, of course, utter bullshit.

Biden, Albanese and other leaders, she says, represent not the people but a Corporation they all work for. “The Corporation is working to take our tax dollars and spend it on pharmaceuticals and climate change. They all get kick-backs.

“We’ve believed for the longest time that they are presidents and prime ministers working for us as per the constitution that they’re supposedly sworn into. But they’re not. They’re working for this Corporation. And that will never be exposed. That’s one of the things that will never be spoken about. And that’s what we have to bring down because that is the most large-scale fraud our species would ever have experienced and we know for a fact it’s going on.”

How do you answer this stuff? Facts, as the Anne Frank Foundation says, won’t work. This stuff is impervious to evidence. There’s no obvious way of dealing with it on a broad basis but there is some hope, mostly on a one-to-one basis, of pulling people back out of their rabbit holes.

One study came up with these suggestions:

  • Don’t appeal to emotion. The research suggests that emotional strategies don’t work to budge belief.
  • Don’t get sucked into factual arguments. Debates over the facts of a conspiracy theory or the consequences of believing in a particular conspiracy also fail to make much difference, the authors found.
  • Focus on prevention. The best strategies seem to involve helping people recognise unreliable information and untrustworthy sources before they’re exposed to a specific belief.
  • Support education and analysis. Putting people into an analytic mindset and explicitly teaching them how to evaluate information appears most protective against conspiracy rabbit holes.
  • It’s a poor defence against a massive global assault of mad, damaging untruth. Social media proprietors are making too much money to want to control it.

Those of us who are still in contact with reality, and still know how to tell truth from bullshit, must do our reading, search out and evaluate evidence, speak clearly about what we know, support those journalists who still pursue reality.

There’s something else that the professors didn’t mention: ridicule. The conspiracy theories are plainly, demonstrably, riotously silly. The people who promulgate them are ridiculous and those who fall for them make themselves ridiculous too.

They need to be called out, pointed out, laughed at. Ridicule is a tool. Use humour as a weapon.

The bright spot is that most people do not fall for these crazy, dangerous things.

Yet.


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