June 25, 2023

Conspiracy theories are security blankets for scared adults, and they’re suffocating us

Disasters force us to confront our own mortality, serving as reminders that any one of us could also succumb to the bad fortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Every calamity plucks at our core fears of losing our lives, our loved ones, our homes, and our memories to forces that are largely beyond our control. The very fact that these disasters are just that—beyond our control—is what makes them so horrifying.

Society can prepare for storms and mitigate the effects of most catastrophes, but in the end, we can’t stop a tornado in its tracks. No amount of human ingenuity can halt the earth from quaking.

We’re wired to develop coping mechanisms to get on with our lives in the face of those tiny odds of falling victim to misfortune.

Many folks find peace and salvation in their religious beliefs. Others seek out academic knowledge to assuage their concerns—there’s got to be someone out there genuinely comforted by plane crash statistics—or they lose themselves in distractions to hopefully forget the anxiety of everyday existence. (You should see my island in Animal Crossing.)

Comfort isn’t always healthy. But those indulgences can venture beyond alcohol or drugs or cookies and burrow deep into the darkest shadows of our minds, numbing those fears by crafting elaborate tales of intrigue, murder, and manipulation.

Conspiracy theories run rampant after every notable event, and the growing weight of these fabulous lies is smothering us like an avalanche that buries any trace of who we were before the collapse.

A person who thinks they have insider knowledge is a person high on a powerful rush. And what better inside track is there than to finally understand—before anybody else—the root cause of the scariest forces in the world?

Conspiracy theories are tales that attribute certain events to people secretly working to advance an agenda. Conspiracy theorists exist for just about every phenomenon you can imagine, ranging from those who insist the Moon landings were faked to folks who earnestly believe the Earth is flat.

Every conspiracy theory begins in its own weird little way. Sometimes it starts with a document, quote, or image taken out of context, while other theories seem rooted in pure imagination or even an ironic joke taking on a life of its own.

Weather control conspiracy theories flourished in the 1990s with the rise of talk radio and rapidly grew alongside the internet. Dial-up modems screeched the sound of freedom. Every conspiracy-minded person in the world suddenly gained access to each other’s thoughts on demand, and they took advantage of it better than just about anyone else.

Search out any major weather event and you’re sure to run across some official-looking page that touts HAARP, chemtrails, radar pulses, or whatever silly stuff they’ve come up with to ascribe direct human control to terrifying calamities.

I’ve written about the weather for more than a decade now, a career during which I’ve devoted plenty of energy to covering and debunking weather control conspiracy theories.

My inbox is filled with ancient hate mail covering the spectrum from attempts to show me the light to threats to show me the end of a gun.

Consider yourself lucky if you’ve never directly encountered these folks. They’re out there, and there are more of them than you’d ever feel comfortable knowing about. You’ve heard the stories they’ve concocted even if you don’t know their names or where they publish their bilge. 

The common thread is that they believe they possess unique knowledge about how the world really works, and everybody else is in the dark or actively lying about these stunning revelations.

“That tornado outbreak wasn’t the result of wind shear, it’s the weather radar itself,” they’ll insist at 150 decibels. “The government pointed beams of radar energy at the storms to make them strengthen and rotate, targeting particular neighborhoods for destruction.”

Yes, that’s a real conspiracy theory, and I’ve been harassed for refuting that obvious nonsense.

The latest one you’ve probably seen floating around—or heard in person, if you live in certain areas—is that the Canadian wildfires that poured historic amounts of smoke south of the border in early June were intentionally started with the direct purpose of ‘attacking’ the United States with that smoke.

You see, it all makes sense. Shadowy forces with a slick agenda looked at the weather models and saw winds blowing from northern Canada down the highly populated U.S. East Coast and used the opportunity to pounce.

This unknown cabal waited for the perfect conditions for explosive fire growth, then fanned out across the Quebec wilderness to set hundreds of concurrent blazes. Fires quickly grew until they shrouded the eastern U.S. in unprecedented levels of smoke that brought the region some of its worst air quality since the Clean Air Act scrubbed the smog out of our skies six decades ago. The smoke was then used for its intended purpose: to push partisan climate and health agendas on the American people.

Such an elaborate yarn is easier to believe, of course, than the actual cause: thunderstorms bubbled up across interior Quebec after a long spell of dry heat, with lightning sparking up hundreds of blazes that chugged copious amounts of smoke in whichever direction the wind happened to blow.

Things get even more ridiculous by the day.

The previous president’s eldest son questioned on Twitter the disappearance of a submersible that went missing on its way to tour the Titanic’s wreckage in June 2023, implying that foul play may have been involved.

Replies to the tweet were predictable, with hundreds of individuals coming up with conspiracy theories to explain its disappearance. The junior U.S. senator from Tennessee went even further, questioning if the whole ordeal may have been a coordinated distraction to deflect from other news stories. (The senator’s ‘just asking questions’ approach is a common method folks use to spread false information while maintaining deniability that they’re spreading false information.)

Nobody involved in the exchanges seemed to pay any mind to the fact the submersible had known flaws and lax safety systems, both of which made it prone to imploding on the sea floor under pressure more than 370 times greater than it felt on the ocean’s surface.

But that’s where we are now. 

Before the skies can clear and the rubble has a chance to settle, a convoluted novel pops up to rationalize the deeper, hidden meanings behind every disaster. Tornadoes spawned by the military. Planes full of chemicals spraying our skies to make us sick and seed a natural catastrophe. Shootings and attacks staged by politicians and actors in order to clamp down on your rights and keep you distracted.

Anyone who raises an eyebrow to this bizarre nonsense is instantly branded as an ignoramus for buying the ‘official line’ or, better yet, a paid shill who’s secretly working with the groups controlling the world. Because if there’s one thing that millions of people are really good at, it’s keeping state secrets, scalding gossip, and huge paydays to themselves.

It’s no coincidence that this all sounds a bit like a bargain bin thriller novel. These conspiracy theories flourish because the truth is too scary for many folks to accept.

It strikes at our psychological core to know that a tornado could blow away our homes while we sleep.

That a man with a gun can slip into a crowd and murder dozens of people simply because he had a grievance to air and easy access to a weapon of mass destruction. 

That a hurricane can push 30 feet of water into a town, pinning moms and dads and neighbors and friends to the ceilings of their once-safe homes.

That the same forces that make Earth a vibrant oasis in the cold vacuum of space can snuff out our lives without skipping a beat. 

 California wildfire smoke at midday in September 2020, photo by Cody Robertson

It’s almost unacceptable to entertain the idea that random and tragic events occur with some frequency, and sometimes there’s nothing we can do to stop it or mitigate the damage. It’s natural to want to look for an evil force that can be stopped instead of coming to grips with that simple fact of existence.

This truth is so hard to bear that a large and growing number of folks are more willing to believe that reality more closely resembles a cinematic universe than it does reality.

It gives personal significance to the choking orange pall of a smoke-filled sky to choose to accept a stranger’s rambling claim that a group of political extremists set the forests of Quebec on fire hoping it would spite us red-blooded Carbon-Americans.

Panicked leaders like to preach about the terrible influence video games and music lyrics may have on children. The real reckoning we need as a society is that too many full-grown adults are unable to separate the real world from the fiction they watch in movies, scroll through on social media, and read in novels.

We’re collectively losing touch with reality. Our critical thinking skills have atrophied to the point that vast swaths of the country just can't tell what’s real and what’s not, and it’s a crisis that’s only getting worse.

How did we get here?

It’s impossible to point to a single string that connects past events to our current problems. Talk radio and early internet forums played a formative role in helping these conspiracy theorists find one another. They’ve always been out there, though—just look back to the folks who believe the moon landings were faked.

The rise of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit fused our lives together faster than any message board could’ve hoped to achieve. The daily barrage of political anger and puppy videos flashing across our screens fundamentally changed how we receive and perceive information.

But it’s not just how we get information that’s changed—we’ve experienced a shift that made it socially acceptable to say whatever popped into your head, facts or consequences be damned.

The novelization of reality seeped into mainstream politics, taking these conspiracies off the fringes of society and putting them in charge of the country.

Source: Twitter/@WhiteHouse

Voters in northern Georgia chose as their representative a person who openly wondered if a group of Jewish men used space lasers to spark wildfires in California.

Half of her colleagues have spent the entire pandemic pushing conspiracies about COVID-19’s very existence, its origin, its vaccines, its treatments, and even its death toll—a group effort that led to a measurable partisan impact on a national death toll that’s climbed to more than 1.1 million souls in the past three years.

And, of course, there’s the previous president, a man who’s so deeply steeped in conspiracy theories that his seething lies incited more than 800 of his supporters to attempt to hunt down and assassinate his own vice president and try halting the constitutional transfer of power by committing the first violent breach of the U.S. Capitol by an armed mob since British troops stormed the place in 1814. He’s continued pursuing this hobby since leaving office, apparently planning to lean on his conspiracies as a defense at his looming criminal trials.

It wasn’t gradual, either, the shift from a generally agreed upon reality to a world where anything goes if you believe hard enough.

Just twenty years ago, the 9/11 truther movement—folks who believe the U.S. government either committed the terrorist attacks, or intentionally allowed them to happen—was a noisy sideshow instead of the main act.

The fringes started to close in and things seemed to irretrievably flip once Barack Obama ran for president in 2008. Decades of widening political divisions suddenly veered into deeply weird, deeply racist territory.

Conspiracy theories about Obama took off during the campaign and exploded after his election. Mainstream opponents began openly embracing and espousing easily disprovable lies about the junior senator from Illinois who ascended to the nation’s highest office. He was secretly a Muslim extremist, they said, and he was really born in Kenya instead of Hawaii.

Many of the folks who pushed those baseless conspiracies swept into Congress during a wave election in 2010.

A celebrity who rode that conspiratorial anger onto the modern political stage in 2011 by demanding to see Obama’s birth certificate secured his party’s nomination and won the presidency five years later.

Some of these political conspiracists are true believers, of course, but many of them are playing a part to follow their base. The same goes for the people who run social media pages or blather on podcasts about whatever thought nuggets popped into their heads.

A large portion of these disinformation peddlers know better but choose to spread malicious lies for profit, votes, and clout. That says nothing of folks who are so determined to arrive at a conclusion that they’ll create and spread conspiracy theories to manifest their wishful thinking into existence. (It’s the cable news model, after all.)

Those who spread lies on purpose and those who spread lies out of ignorance are spreading lies just the same, and those lies are compounding every day to cause real damage.

The proliferation of a fictionalized view of reality isn’t entirely the fault of the political realm, but it sure pushed this ‘anything goes’ mentality into the mainstream.

No longer confined to the weird parts of YouTube or the FW:FW:FW:FW: folder in your inbox, millions of Americans suddenly found the freedom to believe that the president took revenge on counties that didn’t vote for him by sending a hailstorm their way, that mass shootings were staged and childrens’ deaths faked to confiscate your guns, and that fires were intentionally set in another country in order to relieve you of your gas-guzzler and make you ride the bus.

Whatever you hope is true is now true. Live large and dream big to build a custom reality constrained only by the size of your imagination.

We’re living in a post-reality world where a horrifying number of grown adults seem unable to tell the difference between a made-up story designed to pluck at their fears and the universe in which the rest of us live. A significant and widespread disconnection from reality is a dangerous pit for a society to find itself plunged into without hitting rock bottom.

The only way to get over it is to trudge through it. We have to directly combat disinformation when we see it on our social media feeds, when a family member prattles on about it at the dinner table, or when someone casually brings up some sort of nonsense in vapid small talk.

Conspiracy theories represent a fundamental disconnect from reality. Over the past decade, we’ve seen people act violently based on conspiracy theories they read or heard about. We’re fooling ourselves if we believe we’re not in danger because of the inventive lies spun by bad actors. 

This stuff festers when we try to sweep it under the rug. “Just ignore it” isn’t an option anymore. Folks who truly believe in the conspiracies they spread may very well keep on living in the work of fiction someone convinced them was real. But we need to call out and disprove disinformation when it bubbles up.

It may feel futile now, but shoveling conspiracy theories back to the fringes of society is our only hope of not suffocating under the weight of the collapse they’ve triggered. 

[Satellite Image: NOAA/NASA]

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.