The Result of University Cost-Cutting Measures . . .

the Plausible Deniability Blog takes up where the PostModernVillage blog left off. While you'll see many of the same names here, PDB allows its writers and editors a space away from financial strum und drang that torpedoed the PMV blog.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

On Work and the Iniquities of Being Lazy


by Lael Ewy

Like most Americans, I have internalized the Puritanical notion that work equals virtue. I actually feel bad when my job serves up a few hours of unburdened time. This is odd for an academic: I should be dreaming of times like these, chances to explore and read the articles and books that have been backing up on my list, sometimes for decades. Reading these things, I know, makes me a better academic, not a worse one, one who is not only more knowledgeable but less stressed, one better able to respond to my students’ needs and to the massive expansion of my field of study.

Yet, the thought nags on me that these hours are ill-spent because they’re not what I wouldn’t otherwise be doing and therefore not “work” as such. Instead of embracing the old maxim that “if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,” I feel guilty for being lucky enough to live it.

What’s at work here (all puns intended) is more than just the absorption of Puritanical culture. The Puritans came by their ideas about the value of work honestly; in turn the same sickness had been visited upon Muslims and Jews. The source is the Fall of Man, expulsion from Eden, the story that resolves in humans being fated to till the soil for our sustenance instead of just plucking it from the trees. The latter state is to be without sin; to toil is to suffer in a manner fit for the human condition. Because of this, not suffering through labor seems like cheating. Beyond the binary of good and evil, not working is flouting the very word of God, the decree that makes us all who we know ourselves to be: united in the misery of work.

I grew up within Christianity, and so I believe this, but I also don’t believe this. The guilt I feel is as much a sense that if my bosses knew what I was up to, or worse yet, if the fiscal conservatives who run the state that pays my salary knew, I’d be fired. I have just as, or more, deeply internalized the expectation that work equals misery placed on the conditions of my employment by my employer as I have the cosmological fear that my laziness is a sin. In doing so, I have posited the recapitulation of the Great Chain of Being that puts in their respective places those who mete out misery and those who must suffer it.

Our sense of virtue in working hard and for long hours, then, also contains a certain pride in having borne a burden. It gives us the right to say “Your blues ain’t like mine,” bragging rights for having put up with more pain than the next guy.

We see extreme forms of this in cultures of overwork that have arisen in the financial industry, high-caliber law firms, in Korea and Japan. It isn’t healthy, of course: we’re trading our long-term physical health and mental/emotional wellbeing for short-term monetary gains and the twisted satisfaction of having beaten the competition. Heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, depression, anxiety, and even various forms of cancer have all been linked to overwork, but that doesn’t stop us: the need to show that we are “achievers” is too compelling, the need to not be seen as lazy and no-account too acute.

As I write this, I’m down on sleep, and I’m feeling a little guilty, as I’m letting my students have a “work day,” where they work on their projects and I let myself be available for questions. They have a big assignment coming up, and they really do need time to work on it, but it also means I am not in front of the room, pontificating, managing discussions, showing off my brilliance as an experienced interpreter of text. I also know full well that I’ll still have to grade whatever they produce, so I’m really just deferring work, not eliminating it.

I also know that better work is quicker and easier to grade, so in some ways, I’m saving myself work while giving my over-extended students more of a chance to show me what they can do.

In business, this is what used to be called win-win, and there’s no reason I can’t laud it here. It’s been my experience that what’s good for me as a teacher is often good for students as well, that when I give them more of the work I used to do for them, they learn more about the process of writing and gain a deeper understanding of the subject.

But it feels weird. It feels too easy. It feels like I’ve become the “lazy” teacher we are all warned about becoming in pedagogy classes, the ones the educational professors warn us are ruining the field.

Looking back, though, it’s the teachers who never change their approach or the ones who fail to account for the latest trends who are seen as lazy. The former I am not; I get bored easily with what I have been doing and sometimes shake up my curricula for the sake of experimentation or fun. The latter bugs the hell out of me, as if spending precious time and energy on whatever hot new data-driven or purportedly evidence-based trend comes down the line will necessarily help students learn instead of just making me even more tired. Shouldn’t we be honing the skills we’re developing, focusing in on the materials we claim to be learning? Shouldn’t we be reading and writing and discussing instead of data-gathering an incessantly assessing?

Reading and writing and discussing, letting the ideas flow and take us where they want us to go, though, doesn’t seem too much like work. When it’s going well, we’re tired at the end—the good kind of tired, my dad would say, the kind of tired that says we’ve accomplished something. But we’re not exhausted and soul sick in the same way that work tends to make us, proud to have endured but also inwardly worried that we’ve wasted a bunch of our time.

So maybe it’s not about being lazy or not being lazy.

Maybe we should be trying to create the kinds of situations in which activity—for the sake of argument, I won’t call it work—has meaning and can be pursued for its own sake. Marx may have called this returning the person to her species-being, reversing the alienation that he pinned on capitalism. Capitalism’s retort to this is that we solve the problem with “freedom” and financial reward. They are both somewhat wrong: this alienation is exacerbated by capitalized industrialization, but it was already present under feudalism. Marx was right in that human activity alongside others and for larger purposes is rewarding, but we need to see ourselves as part of a community—real or imagined, temporal or eternal—for it to be meaningful. And, yes, some type of compensation is necessary: in primary cultures, that reward is food and shelter, comfort and security, but I suspect we’re all so used to market economies that we would need to involve money now.

If we can create such situations, though, we may move more toward resolving the conditions of our original sin, even if it does not, in fact, save us from its eternal clutches.

Friday, October 15, 2021

On Meaning (1)

What does it mean to have meaning, for something to bear meaning?

It feels safe to say that meaning is not inherent in the thing, but rather that it’s (with)in the meaning-maker. But then, what arises within that gives meaning, what inside ascribes to something meaning? What or whom is doing the meaning-making?

My keys are cold, metal objects unless I or another know them to be keys.

(If this doesn’t drive you nuts, nothing will.)

Yet it is at this level that we must wonder/wander if we are to solve the “hard” problem of consciousness. Awareness is one thing, but how will we know if, say, an artificial intelligence understands (? Is understands even the right word?), has the capacity for meaning? Would the claims of an AI to have understood something or ascribed meaning to something be any different than those of a person? How could we tell? Is there a shared, felt sense that accompanies meaning, indicates it to the being doing the meaning, that makes meaning something more than stimulus? Hardcore behaviorists would argue that there is no such thing as meaning beyond stimulus, but there they run into a problem—several, really.

One of those problems is where the chain of stimulus begins. Is it inherent in evolution, or is it a product or byproduct of it? That is to say, we know animals can create stimuli as well as react to them, and that means animals have an effect on the overall environment in which stimuli occur.

And so, also, of instinct, which we know can both be slavishly followed and, also, through a force we used to call will not followed. We also know, problematically, that many of these things human animals ascribe to instinct are actually cultural—they vary by culture and include concepts of attractiveness, gender presentation, and insanity. So the context of contact with other, similar beings helps create what we experience as spontaneous and, further complicating things, can be influenced and changed by beings exerting what they experience as willful action. (Noting for the time being that hardcore behaviorists and hardcore materialists would deny such a thing as will to begin with.)

But most of these things are experienced/felt as meaningful, significant, both in action and in attribution. Hardcore materialists might say “Fine. These things you experience as meaningful are mere epiphenomena of the physical processes of your body. They are the meat that is you doing the things you experience to you.”

But this “merely” sidesteps the issue. It only explains things in one direction and not the other, which is to say it fails to address how meaning changes our experiences and guides our actions, thus changing the meat doing the experiencing. The hardcore materialists can’t make their argument without the epiphenomena, and in making it they fail to acknowledge that the epiphenomena have to turn into phenomena for the being they’re trying to convince.

And in arguing, we acknowledge that meaning can be encoded: in its most commonplace sense (and maybe this is the difference between meaning and significance), an object or event (keys, a can of cat food opening) can have meaning, but a piece of writing about a set of keys or a can of cat food being opened can have meaning when the objects or events referenced aren’t present. My cat, for sure, understands the meaning of the cat food can being opened, but I do not know if he would be able to communicate that meaning. He certainly can communicate that he wants me to open a can of cat food, even when I am upstairs and the cat food is downstairs. Keys, of course, have meaning not only beyond themselves as objects but within the larger contexts of a physical culture in which there are locks, metallurgy, complex engineering and production processes, and in a culture in which there is theft and therefore a need for locks.

Furry greay can on a couch
My cat, contemplating cat food.

Further, I can read about a lock in a piece written centuries ago and understand what that means, even when the author of the words is long dead, the locks long stuck, the keys long lost.

Meaning, then, surpasses meat, even though the meat may need to be there to decode the meaning.

Is the meaning, then, carried in the code or in the beings doing the encoding and decoding—or in the relationship(s) between?

Our AI from above may both be able to claim meaning and to create a situation in which its actions impact its environment; it may respond to decoded instructions. But we don’t know if it decides how to act based on those instructions, if it deliberates and chooses among options, if its sense of meaning can lead to different interpretations of the same stimulus, interpretations it could (or maybe couldn’t) defend. All of those things, in turn, require not only a sense of meaning, but an awareness of meaning, which can lead us to, perhaps, another aspect of this whole thing: meaning is meta, which allows this very essay to exist.

We have not gotten to the essence (even with all its baggage, I’m using the word anyway) of meaning. The limitations, though, of different approaches maybe we have outlined: how those who deny meaning as anything other than reactions to stimuli or meat doing meat-stuff or able to be easily created through artificial means are missing pieces of what we know meaning to be, sidestepping the origins of meaning, or failing to fully explain how meaning could arise. Linear or materialist approaches have a hard time accounting for in-betweenness; spiritual or non-materialist approaches have a hard time accounting for how things end up being.

If we cannot immediately solve the problem of meaning, maybe we can use it to glue together some of the pieces.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Organizing Principles

One way of thinking about the poor, the homeless, that nation’s welfare recipients, is as refugees, internally displaced people.

These are people displaced from their proper places in the workforce, in communities, in families.

Considered this way, the poor are not losers in life’s lottery, nor are they those declared meritless in a meritocracy. Rather, they are collateral damage in the in the violence inherent to consumer capitalism. They are those who happen to stand between the wealthy and their profits, and so, by this logic, poor people must be removed. Consequently, they wash up at social service agencies, on the rolls of the few benefits programs that still exist, on the street, surfing the couches of relatives and friends.

The anger and disdain heaped upon the poor by the Powers that Be is not because the powerful despise them for who they are; the powerful despise the poor because the poor are reminders of the fact that the system that keeps the rich powerful does not, in fact, provide endless opportunities and blessings for all.

In order for the rich to feel OK with themselves, the poor must be removed from sight, from state budgets, from both our minds and our hearts as well.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

DSM-5 Disorders I May Have Been Diagnosed with at Some Point In My Life


The following are mental disorders, as listed in the DSM-5, that may have been given to me at some point in my life (at least one of which was), given my actions (or lack thereof), feelings, thoughts, or states of mind, had they been observed or known.

Language Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

Other Specified Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

Unspecified Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

Specific Learning Disorder

Developmental Coordination Disorder

Stereotypic Movement Disorder

Tic Disorder (motor, simple)

Tic Disorder (other, specified)

Tic Disorder (other, unspecified)

Neurodevelopmental Disorder (other, specified)

Neurodevelopmental Disorder (other, unspecified)

Brief Psychotic Disorder (with marked stressors, with catatonia)

Delusional Disorder, (erotomanic type)

Delusional Disorder (grandiose type)

Delusional Disorder (unspecified type)

Substance/Medication-Induced Psychotic Disorder

Catatonia (unspecified)

Other Psychotic Disorder (specified)

Other Psychotic Disorder (unspecified)

Bipolar I Disorder (with anxious distress)

Bipolar I Disorder (with mixed features)

Bipolar I Disorder (with rapid cycling)

Bipolar I Disorder (with melancholic features)

Bipolar I Disorder (with atypical features)

Bipolar I Disorder (with mood-congruent psychotic features)

Bipolar I Disorder (with catatonia)

Bipolar II Disorder (with anxious distress)

Bipolar II Disorder (with mixed features)

Bipolar II Disorder (with rapid cycling)

Bipolar II Disorder (with mood-congruent psychotic features)

Bipolar II Disorder (with catatonia)

Cyclothymic Disorder (with anxious distress)

Other Specified Bipolar and Related Disorder

Other Unspecified Bipolar and Related Disorder (with anxious distress)

Other Unspecified Bipolar and Related Disorder (with mixed features)

Other Unspecified Bipolar and Related Disorder (with rapid cycling)

Other Unspecified Bipolar and Related Disorder (with melancholic features)

Other Unspecified Bipolar and Related Disorder (with atypical features)

Other Unspecified Bipolar and Related Disorder (with mood-congruent psychotic features)

Other Unspecified Bipolar and Related Disorder (with catatonia)

Major Depressive Disorder (with anxious distress)

Major Depressive Disorder (with mixed features)

Major Depressive Disorder (with atypical features)

Major Depressive Disorder (with mood-congruent psychotic features)

Major Depressive Disorder (with catatonia)

Persistent Depressive Disorder (Dysthymia, with anxious distress)

Persistent Depressive Disorder (Dysthymia, with mixed features)

Persistent Depressive Disorder (Dysthymia, with melancholic features)

Persistent Depressive Disorder (Dysthymia, with atypical features)

Persistent Depressive Disorder (Dysthymia, with mood-congruent psychotic features)

Other Specified Depressive Disorder (recurrent, brief)

Other Specified Depressive Disorder (short-duration episode)

Other Specified Depressive Disorder (episode with insufficient symptoms)

Unspecified Depressive Disorder (with anxious distress)

Unspecified Depressive Disorder (with mixed features)

Unspecified Depressive Disorder (with melancholic features)

Unspecified Depressive Disorder (with atypical features)

Unspecified Depressive Disorder (with mood-congruent psychotic features)

Unspecified Depressive Disorder (with catatonia)

Specific Phobia (blood-injection-injury)

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Other Specified Anxiety Disorder

Unspecified Anxiety Disorder

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (with good or fair insight)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (with poor insight)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (with absent insight/delusional beliefs)

Excoriation (Skin-Picking) Disorder

Other Specified Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorder

Unspecified Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorder

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (with dissociative symptoms, depersonalization)

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (with dissociative symptoms, derealization)

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder for Children 6 Years and Younger (with dissociative symptoms, depersonalization)

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder for Children 6 Years and Younger (with dissociative symptoms, derealization)

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder for Children 6 Years and Younger (with delayed expression)

Acute Stress Disorder

Adjustment Disorder (with depressed mood)

Adjustment Disorder (with anxiety)

Adjustment Disorder (with mixed anxiety and depressed mood)

Adjustment Disorder (with disturbance of conduct)

Adjustment Disorder (with mixed disturbance of emotions and conduct)

Adjustment Disorder (unspecified)

Other Specified Trauma-and-Stressor-Related Disorder

Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder

Other Specified Dissociative Disorder

Unspecified Dissociative Disorder

Somatic Symptom Disorder

Illness Anxiety Disorder (care-seeking type)

Other Specified Somatic Symptom Disorder

Unspecified Somatic Symptom Disorder

Avoidant/Reductive Food Intake Disorder

Anorexia Nervosa (restricting type)

Bulimia Nervosa

Insomnia Disorder (persistent)

Insomnia Disorder (recurrent)

Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorder (advanced sleep-phase type, familial)

Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorder (unspecified type, episodic)

Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorder (persistent)

Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorder (recurrent)

Nightmare Disorder (persistent, moderate)

General Personality Disorder

Borderline Personality Disorder

Avoidant Personality Disorder

Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder

Personality Change Due to Another Medical Condition (labile type)

Personality Change Due to Another Medical Condition (apathetic type)

Personality Change Due to Another Medical Condition (other type)

Personality Change Due to Another Medical Condition (combined type)

Personality Change Due to Another Medical Condition (unspecified type)

Other Specified Personality Disorder

Unspecified Personality Disorder

Other Specified Mental Disorder

Unspecified Mental Disorder

Sunday, February 14, 2021

On the Saviors of Western Civilization


Why is it that those who so often claim to be interested in “saving” Western civilization know so little about it? In the US, this phenomenon’s most current iteration goes back to Newt Gingrich, who has made it a common theme. As he is a former history professor, we may have expected him to back up his claims of what was in danger with a few specifics, but very few, indeed, have been forthcoming. This may be because Gingrich has become a politician, and he has realized the dangers of positing specifics; it’s best to let the bigots he means to bring along fill in the gaps themselves.

But there’s something deeper here.

The self-declared saviors of Western civilization don’t seem too well versed in Beethoven and Bach. They seem not to mean civilization literally—in terms of cities—since they are more interested in maintaining outmoded rural and extractive/industrial lifeways than they are about preserving the buildings of, say, Mies van der Rohe or Christopher Wren. They may name-check a Scholastic philosopher but not an author of Modernist fiction. If they do give an example of what they would like to save, they often laud the US Constitution or the Christian bible. Of the former, they rarely recite much beyond one half of the 2nd Amendment, and of the latter little at all, save some vague attestations to its opposition to abortion or its promotion of male “headship.” They’re just as likely to cite John 3:16, perhaps because they saw it referenced on a sign held up at a football game.

This assertion of ignorance indicates another intent: rather than championing the cause of the spur, the screw, or the canvases of Cubism, these saviors of Western civilization are really just trying to express their opposition to all they claim that they are not, to excoriate the Other or anyone else they view as a threat.

And anyway, to mention specifics would be to weaken the case: the US Constitution rides on an ancient Hellenistic culture that owed more to pan-Mediterranean trade routes than to the cultures of Gallic or Teutonic tribes, and the Christian bible is a product of an ancient Hellenistic cultural pastiche from a part of the world that Europeans have been (with apologies to Edward Said) “orientalizing” since at least the Crusades. And it’s hard to say when Western civilization even begins. The best evidence shows that Europe has been overrun by “invaders from the east” multiple times throughout its history, assuring a motley set of genes and a variety of different sources of cultural practices and beliefs—none of them specifically European.

And now, especially, it’s hard to say what Western civilization even is. Is it a musical composition written by an Austrian composer and based on a Hungarian folk dance? Is it a musical style created in the US by the descendants of slaves from Africa and performed on instruments from European orchestras? And what do we do with the stories, languages, arts, and lifeways of the indigenous peoples of the Americas? They are distinctly west—moreso, in a geographical sense, than anything of European origin. But are they part of “Western civilization”? What about a Japanese orchestra conductor of European classics or a Korean boy band with a style patterned after American hip-hop? Are these people part of Western civilization or appropriators of it? Are the saviors of Western civilization really saying that Seiji Ozawa shouldn’t conduct or that BTS shouldn’t record?

We have now reached the point at which the material culture of Western civilization could not exist without the cheap labor of the global East and South. In order to become things, the ideas and designs of ostensibly Western companies must be outsourced to non-Western people. So is that phenomenon, and the interdependencies it creates, an example of Western civilization or not? Is your iPhone a product of Western civilization if it cannot be without a Chinese worker at Foxconn to make it?

Not only is it hard to say what Western civilization is, it’s hard to determine exactly what it was. If we want to restore it to a place of pure European origin, we will have to jettison coffee, certainly tea, and perhaps chocolate, French fries, and tomato-sauce, too. Our current reality is that we cannot eat, clothe ourselves, compute, communicate, or even leave the house without relying on a global supply chain, on concepts, products, and processes deeply embedded in the rest of the world.

Much more than ever, humans are cultural hybrids, drawing into our identities products, both physical and conceptual, that have their origins across the globe. Genes have never determined cultural identity, of course, no matter what our traditions or our commercial decoding companies want to believe. But especially now, the notion is difficult to defend. It is perhaps this reality of hybridity that makes the desire to forge an identity, to feel part of something to which we feel personally connected, of which we feel personally proud, all the more acute—and all the more dangerous.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Thing About Conspiracy Theories


The thing about conspiracy theories is that so many of them are plausible, or begin so. The anti-Vaxx movement, for example, began with the revelation that some vaccines contained thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative. Since signs of mercury-poisoning can resemble the behavior issues parents were seeing in their children who had been diagnosed with autism, worried parents concluded that the thimerosal may have been involved with their children’s autism.

And parents had very real reasons to be worried: pharmaceutical companies have not exactly comported themselves well over the past few decades: from ghost-writing research papers to create an evidence base for their products to misleading direct-to-consumer marketing practices to their role in the opiate-epidemic, which was emerging at the time. Then there is the case of Risperdal, a so-called “atypical antipsychotic,” which was being prescribed to young boys, causing them to grow breasts. Had Johnson & Johnson admitted to the problem to begin with, confidence may have been restored, but their decision to deny was just one of many confidence-sapping actions Big Pharma has taken over recent years. Add in the denial that Paxil can cause suicidal behavior in children in Study 329, and it’s no surprise parents would not believe the pharmaceutical companies’ denials that vaccines cause autism.

Quickly, fueled by social media, the concern turned into panic, which turned into a movement, which turned against vaccines on the whole, somehow forgetting the original, narrow, and understandable, if inaccurate, worry.

There was no clear link between thimerosal and autism, and, in order to address the concern, pharmaceutical companies stopped using it or reduced its use. But the anti-Vaxx movement has other problems: vaccines have been around for centuries, and there has not been a proportionate uptick in autism diagnoses until fairly recently. The way vaccines work is now well understood, consistent, and widely, if not universally, replicable for a host of viruses. Further, drug companies tend not to make much on vaccines: the process of developing them and manufacturing them is time consuming, complex, and costly. This isn’t an example, then, of following the money since there is precious little of it to follow, in this case.

And then there’s the far more likely reason autism seems to be on the rise: it is more likely to be diagnosed. Doctors, parents, and school psychologists have become more attuned to autism as a diagnosis as activist groups such as Autism Speaks have sought publicity for their cause. The IDEA act and the Olmstead case have increased focus on special education programs in schools. And the DSM-5, psychiatry’s “bible,’ has steadily broadened the autism diagnosis into a “spectrum.” Briefly, there are many more ways to be autistic now than there were in the past, and there is more awareness that you might be.

The ability of anti-Vaxxers to organize and internally radicalize, though, the way it morphed from a somewhat plausible theory into a movement, has made it all but impossible to debunk.

Understanding conspiracy theories becomes even more complicated when we take into account conspiracies that seem entirely implausible but that turn out to have been true. A prime example is a secret US government program that became known as MK-Ultra. It is, on the surface, almost impossible to believe that the federal government could secretly fund a program involving LSD, sensory deprivation, and electroshock in order to attempt to create mind-control techniques. Still crazier is the idea that the money behind it would be funneled to well-regarded universities and psychiatrists, that those subject to it would leak LSD out, helping to form and flavor an entire counterculture.

Yet this is actually what happened. Less surprising, perhaps, is that the techniques developed in ML-Ultra went on to become “enhanced interrogation” in the War on Terror and as torture techniques in CIA-trained militaries the world over, as Naomi Klein recounts in her groundbreaking book The Shock Doctrine.

But what distinguished MK-Ultra as different is that the truth, when it came out, helped defuse the conspiracy’s mystique: we may not have wanted to believe it, but the same government that held it secret was now admitting to it. It may also be that MK-Ultra just seems so weird that it could only be believed or disbelieved, and when it was revealed, we had no option but to believe it. At any rate, it was revealed before the Web allowed communities devoted to it to develop. Additionally, as a society, we did something different with what it wrought: we created a counterculture, the vestiges of which are still with us, often aligned with the forces of progressive and positive change.

This brings us to conspiracy theories that are entirely implausible but that are self-perpetuating. The QAnon theory (or set of theories—it continues to morph and develop), which contends that there is a vast, international, left-wing network or child pornography, child-murder, and child blood-harvest (!). Those implicated run the gamut from Tom Hanks to Hillary Clinton to George Soros, but those engaged with the theory will throw in anyone they deem not sufficiently devoted to the cause, including Mike Pence. Even more astonishing, they posit that Donald Trump’s mission as president was to rid the US of these pedophiles, who are, conveniently, part of a so-called “deep state” shadow government that really controls the levers of power.

Unlike the anti-Vaxx conspiracy theory, there is no indication that QAnon arises from even a kernel of truth, unless we include Jeffery Epstein, who, it should be noted, buddied up to monied elites across the political spectrum, including one Donald J. Trump.

Even weirder is that it’s unclear what the conspirators QAnon accuses would have to gain: even if it’s not the case with vaccines, pharmaceutical companies do have a profit motive overall, and the US had a Cold War it aimed to win using psy-ops, among other means. What would Hillary Clinton or George Soros possibly have to gain from pedophilia and child trafficking? They are already financially successful, secure, and well-connected. To engage in such risky behavior they would have to be pathological, evil, insane.

And that is, perhaps, exactly why this conspiracy theory has proliferated: these figures are widely reviled by the radical right; therefore there is a population primed to believe anything negative about prominent liberals. Even more compelling for those who believe it, QAnon is fueled by a mysterious person (or people) who goes by the handle “Q” and who posts on anonymized internet chat platforms. This keeps the mystique of the conspiracy going, with adherents eagerly awaiting the next “Q-drop,” and then feverishly working to decipher its meaning. For those who like a good mystery, it would be possible to be a Q fan without actually buying the conspiracy itself, but even one’s status as “Q-adjacent” would help expand the conspiracy’s popularity.

That many do believe it indicates that conspiracy theories meet some need: that people who believe them need to belong or are desperate to have their worldview validated. Conspiracy theories that, like QAnon and anti-Vaxx, form into distinct social movements and self-reinforcing communities, perpetuate themselves and end up doing real damage, as the resurgence of measles and the events of January 6th, 2021 demonstrate.

The Web, while it has enabled and expanded these communities, is not the whole reason for their existence: the “blood libel” conspiracy theory, that all Jews are implicated in the murder of Jesus, has existed for millennia, and helped touch off pogroms and eventually the Holocaust.

We may not be able to prevent conspiracy theories, and they may always be with us in one form or another, but we would do well to listen to why they develop so that we can create societies less prone to believe them.