Critical thinking is more important now than ever

I just read this masterful summary of “#pizzagate”. It’s appalling. There are people all over the country who think that, because 4chan said so, a slice of pizza is a symbol of pedophilia, and they’ve been harrassing a pizzeria for harboring a child sex ring, in the complete absence of any credible evidence, and in spite of all evidence and reason to the contrary.

What was finally real was Edgar Welch, driving from North Carolina to Washington to rescue sexually abused children he believed were hidden in mysterious tunnels beneath a neighborhood pizza joint.

What was real was Welch — a father, former firefighter and sometime movie actor who was drawn to dark mysteries he found on the Internet — terrifying customers and workers with his assault rifle as he searched Comet Ping Pong, police said. He found no hidden children, no secret chambers, no evidence of a child sex ring run by the failed Democratic candidate for president of the United States, or by her campaign chief, or by the owner of the pizza place.

What was false were the rumors he had read, stories that crisscrossed the globe about a charming little pizza place that features ping-pong tables in its back room.

The story of Pizzagate is about what is fake and what is real. It’s a tale of a scandal that never was, and of a fear that has spread through channels that did not even exist until recently.

Pizzagate — the belief that code words and satanic symbols point to a sordid underground along an ordinary retail strip in the nation’s capital — is possible only because science has produced the most powerful tools ever invented to find and disseminate information.

It reminds me of the McMartin ritual abuse case: it was another set of outrageous stories that people willingly believed. Small children were induced to claim that they’d been sexually molested while at their day care; and then they also told investigators there were secret tunnels under the school, that they’d been taken on round-trips on hot air balloons, that they witnessed animals being sacrificed, that babies were killed and burned, that they saw witches flying on broomsticks. It was absurd. Under the banner of “protect the children!”, though, people accepted these ever-escalating and increasingly outrageous claims, and never considered the possibility that children are extremely suggestible and eager to please.

And now we get the same thing. In this case, though, it is intentionally fueled by malicious trolls on the chans, by conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, and by masturbatory social media like reddit. We should appreciate that those are not trustworthy sources. They have a history of bad faith argument and ulterior motives. When an accusation is made by a victim, of course you should believe it and investigate it, open to the possibility that it will be found wrong but also that it may be a window into a serious problem…but when the accusation is made by ethically bankrupt professional instigators like 4/8chan, InfoWars, or a random reddit subforum, you should first consider the source, which should lead you to dismiss it as vicious noise.

If users of those media are distressed by the blanket rejection of their pronouncements, the responsibility is theirs to enforce the integrity of their forum and build up some credibility. That won’t happen. A haphazard collection of obsessed users united only by their antipathy to some arbitrary entity and willing to say anything to do harm aren’t going to suddenly find some scruples.


  1. Nullifidian says

    It’s like Animal Farm, 1984, & Brave New World are all coming about at once. And Napoleon is taking over, next month.

  2. says

    Unfortunately there is no magic bullet for preventing people from believing this stuff, because there isn’t one path that leads to people accepting it.

  3. strangerinastrangeland says

    But isn´t the absence of any kind of proof proof that it is a conspiracy? And also it can´t be a nutcase with a gun who went to the pizzeria, it must have been a false flag operation to discredit “citizen investigators” who wanted to find out the “truth” (I am running out of ” soon).

  4. blf says

    But isn´t the absence of any kind of proof proof that it is a conspiracy?

    That is what They want you to think. Now They’ll have to disappear you.

  5. =8)-DX says

    @Nullifidian #2
    I wouldn’t diss Brave New World that much. I mean universally available contraceptives, side-effect-free drugs and rejection of social taboos on sex as well as permanent youth? Yeah, the class system they had was terrible, alongside the lack of good theatre, or freedom of enquiry in general, but it’s definitely one of my favourite dystopias.

    Also you could feel every hair on the bear-skin rug.

  6. davidnangle says

    blf, they’ve ALREADY disappeared you… and replaced you with a clone that’s much less likely to investigate sensitive things.

    All this shit happened with the day care hysteria in the ’80s. Wear an important-looking uniform, ask little kids questions with a stern face until you get answers that sound like crimes, whereupon you put on a happy face for the kids. Repeat until you’ve got enough “evidence.” Someone I’ve met went to prison in part because of testimony from a little kid that claimed he was raped with a large knife… yet never got examined by a doctor or had any kind of health problem at all.

  7. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    saw the author hawking his book on Colbert the other night. Sounds worthy of checking out:
    The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis
    about how there was a study (not satire, real scientific study, including experiments) of how people are somewhat insistent at trying to fabricate explanations for tragic events or situations. Explanations commonly starting with “If only …”
    I bring it up since I seem to be doing the same with trying to explain Drumph’s ascendance to our national figurehead, given his lack of qualifications and aggressive refusals to even try…
    [warning: siderail] An example he gave was “If only, Trump was born a woman, Hillary would’ve won *smirk*”
    where was I
    oh yeah *sips coffee* BRB

  8. prae says

    I’ve seen some video about the whole “pizzagate” thing. I think there was Hillary, mentioning pizza or something, and then there were subtitles, exploding into an incoherent ramble about how “pizza” really actually means “sex with children and also actual serious devil-worshipping” or something like that. I thought: “oh well, I guess they posted this video to ridicule some tinfoil hat morons”, but then I read the comments. It’s moments like these when I’m starting to think that the “sapiens” part in the human species name is a misnomer.

  9. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    I just had a leftover piece of pizza for lunch.

    Uh oh.


    It’s moments like these when I’m starting to think that the “sapiens” part in the human species name is a misnomer.

    Humans have been defined as “the rational animal”, but I’ve always felt that what distinguishes us from other animals is our tendency to be irrational.

  10. raven says

    I really hope they put this guy away for a long time.

    He lives in a fantasy world detached from reality.
    He is violent.
    He has a powerful rifle that can kill a dozen people in a few minutes.

  11. davidnangle says

    I’ve always felt the “rational” part of “rational animal” only applies to certain people and only certain parts of their lives. We’re well-trained monkeys living with the creations of centuries of our sparsely separated better selves.

  12. blf says

    blf, they’ve ALREADY disappeared you… and replaced you with a clone that’s much less likely to investigate sensitive things.

    (laughs) Must have, because, believe it or not, until today I had no idea what this “pizzagate” was. I now have a vague understanding, but — moar “evidence” for the abovequoted facthypothesis — am not too interesting into reading much more about it. (I do recall the repressed memory horseshite of years ago, including being appalled at the time it could be used as evidence in an alleged court of law.)

  13. blf says

    He lives in a fantasy world detached from reality.
    He is violent.
    He has a powerful rifle that can kill a dozen people in a few minutes.

    The trum-prat will appoint him Attorney General, or head of the FBI or US Marshals, or some such similar post. He’s obviously at least as qualified as the rest of trum-prat’s announced appointments.

  14. freemage says

    While the comparison to the Satanic Abuse Crisis of the 80s is appropriate, it’s worth noting that this is ~less~ valid than that was. At least in that case, once the bogus evidence was manufactured, you had an understandable reluctance to decide it was all bushwa. Here, they aren’t even bothering to get dubious testimony from impressionable and manipulable children–they’ve jumped straight to the absurdist conclusion.

  15. says

    #16: One other significant difference: the McMartin case arose from gullible people mostly unintentionally inspiring bad stories from children.

    Pizzagate is the product of malicious intent by conscious assholes fabricating stories.

  16. brucegee1962 says

    I’m thinking of adding “How to avoid conspiracy thinking” to my basic composition classes. What really marks this and all conspiracy thinking is the unfalsifiability of the theory. That is, theoretically, any of these theories (JFK assassination conspiracy, Vince Foster, Obama Birth Certificate, 9-11/Sandy Hook “truthers”, etc.) COULD be proven true (by, say, a conspirator making a deathbed confession and producing a cache of evidence), they can NEVER be proved false. That’s why I feel so sorry for Alefantis the pizza store manager — he’s done nothing wrong, but he and his family may be stuck with this cloud for the remainder of their lives.

    I’ve already seen comments and posts from pizzagaters like “Well, why won’t Podesta and/or pizza store guy and/or a bunch of the other suspects just take lie-detector tests, because that would clear up the whole question right away?” This shows several distinct layers of ignorance — not just the ignorance of believing that lie detectors work, but also deeper layers of self-ignorance. No, we already know that, since this is conspiracy thinking, it is by definition unfalsifiable — even if all the people you suspect went ahead and took every step you told them to take to clear themselves, you would still come up with reasons why your belief was true (like the graceful pirouette from “Obama just needs to produce his birth certificate” to “That certificate is forged!”). If the Sandy Hook parents can’t even get their tormentors to acknowledge that their dead children existed, what hope does Alefantis have?

    The McMartin day care parallel is a really good point. If that case, with actual (supposed) witnesses and evidence, took so long to disprove, then surely this one, without any evidence at all, cannot ever be dented.

  17. ikanreed says

    To people trying to ad-hoc diagnose someone with a mental illness through a news story, you’re missing something important.

    Human nature is to learn from each other. We’re a social species way before we’re an intellectual rational species. Religions and superstitions persist, not because of peoples’ insufficient mental faculties, but because we learn it from our parents and social groups.

    When the internet brought us social groups who would specifically tell us what we want to believe and provide us all the “evidence” we could ever need to substantiate it, it makes perfectly normal people go a little crazier.

  18. pacal says

    Regarding the McMartin fiasco. There is a recent book called The Witch-Hunt Narrative by Ross Cheit that argues that although the various cases lie McMartin were riddled with idiotic stories etc., that the Prosecutors meant well and underneath all the nonsense was real abuse and Mr. Cheit then goes over some of the cases and decides that the accused were guilty of actual abuse. Mr. Cheit does this by down playing the absurd aspects of the case, downplaying the idiotic narratives promoted by Prosecutors, downplaying the prosecutorial abuse and downplaying the evidence that indicates innocence and of course he goes into a believe the children rant at various places in the book.

    In other words regarding McMartin and related cases Mr. Cheit goes into full revisionist mode complete with fudging.

  19. Sastra says

    Given how many people apparently believed Pizzagate was true, the remarkable thing is that there weren’t more conspiracy theorists going to the pizza parlor with guns. If I felt absolutely certain that a local Pizza Hut was sex trafficking children, I wouldn’t be sitting around complaining about it on the internet to people who sit around on the internet.

    It’s as if they both believe it — and don’t believe it. That second aspect might be promising. What holds them back — and can it be brought into their general awareness?

  20. says

    You literally cannot come up with a conspiracy theory someone won’t believe in. The videos on YouTube claiming that stage magicians like David Blaine and Criss Angel have the help of demons for some of their tricks are a good example. Lots of mocking comments, but also lots of supporting comments as well.

  21. blf says

    Given how many people apparently believed Pizzagate was true…

    Ok, I’ll bite: How many unique individuals did believe it was true? …or even plausible?

  22. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    The problems of conspiracy theories are getting real.
    A woman was charged for making death threats against Sandy Hook parents.

    A Florida woman has been charged with making death threats against the parent of a child who died in the Sandy Hook school shooting massacre because she thought the attack was a hoax, federal authorities announced Wednesday.
    Lucy Richards, 57, of Tampa was arrested Monday after a grand jury indictment on four felony counts of transmitting threats, the U.S. Justice Department said in a statement.
    The threats were made in January 2016 — according to authorities — and included messages that said, “you gonna die, death is coming to you real soon,” and “LOOK BEHIND YOU IT IS DEATH.” Court documents added that another threat said, “there’s nothing you can do about it.”
    The unidentified parent now lives in South Florida and the indictment said the threats were made in Palm Beach County.

  23. says

    I linked the other day to a tweet from Jake Tapper trying to impress upon Michael Flynn, Jr., the danger of his promotion of the “pizzagate” lunacy. One of the tweets in response suggested that John Podesta was responsible for the abduction of Madeleine McCann. I searched for it and quickly found site after site claiming, from at least November 7th, that he and his brother were involved in her kidnapping.

  24. blf says

    I assume SC@25 is a parody, but do note, in reality, people have died, apparently as the result of abusive Twitter use, in the Madeleine McCann mystery: “[In 2014] a Twitter user was found dead from a helium asphyxiation after Sky News confronted her about her McCann tweets” (BBC, March 2015).

  25. Jonah Glou says

    Obviously there is something very wrong when a guy is terrorizing people with a gun, and something needs to be done about it.

    I saw someone getting outraged that Edgar Welch was described as “victim” in a news headline, as in he was a victim of a conspiracy theory. But wasn’t he? This guy apparently really believed children were being tortured, it really upset him, and he went to some effort to try to save these children.

    To put it another way, if children really were being tortured as he described, and the police in that area wouldn’t help them, and he marched in a with a gun, saved them, and exposed what was going on, he would be viewed rather differently. This is apparently what he expected to happen.

    Obviously he needs to go to jail for menacing people with a gun, but I’m inclined to lay even more blame at the feet of the people who convinced him children were being tortured. Especially since I suspect a lot of them don’t even believe this stuff and are just trolling.

    Welch may have been very gullible or mentally unstable, but some of these trolls are so good at what they do that they are able to convince a significant number of otherwise normal people of some really crazy stuff. This whole fake-news thing is really out of hand.

  26. Rey Fox says

    Just another reason to never run for office of any kind. Lord knows what kind of weird shit that conspiracy wackos would read into all my in-jokes and Simpsons references.

  27. ck, the Irate Lump says

    I fear those in the mainstream news outlets will simply use the fake news epidemic as an excuse to not change their own behaviour, and continue to report nonsense stories without bothering with even rudimentary fact checking. Well, we’re not the ones creating the fake news, so why should we change anything. If we waste time fact checking, the other guys will report it before us! BREAKING NEWS: Sources report that Trump produces clown porn in the White House!

  28. tbp1 says

    As I have commented elsewhere, one of the hallmarks of the internet age is that it has become impossible to ignore how stupid and gullible many, maybe most, people are. We get our noses rubbed in it every day and in ways that simply didn’t exist before. I almost literally tear my hair out at the things some people are all too ready to believe.

  29. dornierpfeil says

    Calling these people conspiracy theorists lends them a dignity they don’t deserve. Call them conspiracy peddlers or mongers instead.