The epistemology of conspiracy theories

Peter McIndoe didn’t finish college, but he’s brilliant. With his “Birds Aren’t Real” “movement,” meant to be absurdist, he is demonstrating an impressive insight into conspiracy theorizing. I don’t know what we do with this insight; he doesn’t seem to know either.[1] But this has to be an important step. Here’s a piece I’ll be thinking about:

[Peter McIndoe] also draws a tentative line between faith and conspiracy theory: “The Christian worldview is really just about how you’re determining truth. Where are you getting truth from? What is your relationship with truth? For the Christian, your foundational relationship with the truth is determined by faith, its definition is that you can’t argue with it or interrogate it.”

That mindset, plus the religious yearning for one single theory that explains everything, really softens up the brain – these are my words, not his – for conspiracy theories, which meet the same need. I think there is an actual concrete example of this journey, from fundamentalist Christianity to QAnon (again, this is definitely me not him, he is much less strident than I am). The paedophile element of QAnon, where Hillary Clinton and a huge global web of powerful liberals, are abusing children and keeping them in tunnels, sounds completely unhinged. But if you’ve been vehemently anti-abortion on faith grounds for years, then to your mind, feminists and other liberals are already in favour of murdering children.[2]

The author, Zoe Williams, takes some liberties, injecting her own interpretations, which she identifies, but I’ll leave that alone for now. What’s important here is the epistemology, the question of how you know what you claim to know. McIndoe’s theory makes a lot of sense. And yes, he’s got faith down.

The part that’s missing is how and why that “faith,” if we’re going to call it that, attaches itself to Donald Trump’s toilet paper. One clue lies in a distrust of elites. Another in distrust of mainstream media. If you distrust all traditionally reliably authoritative sources of information, what do you trust? Random shit? But how do you get there?

There’s a difference between conspiracy theories and faith, the latter of which usually—not always—attaches to ancient, but sometimes contemporary, claims of divine insight: Buddhists call it “enlightenment.” Born again Christians call it “seeing the light.” In all cases it is a mystical but unverifiable insight into the unknowable. I was tempted to suggest a common element is unverifiability, but no, conspiracy theories are often demonstrably wrong. You could, for example, dissect a bird and find it to have been a living creature—no cameras, no radio relaying images to Central Intelligence Agency servers. Similarly, experiments with the various forms of snake oil in the pandemic have sometimes found them potentially harmful.[3]

You cannot similarly disprove the existence of a god. You cannot similarly disprove the existence of life after death; these are unknowable. The “faith” of conspiracy theories attaches to what may be knowably wrong, but where the knowers are distrusted.

But this fails to answer the question: What do you do with this?

The response of real-life conspiracists to Birds Aren’t Real has shifted now: “They think Birds Aren’t Real is a CIA psy-op. They think that we are the CIA, we’re put out there as a weapon against conspiracy theorists.”

McIndoe has a long game with Birds Aren’t Real: “I think it has the potential to be a creative collective for a long time. I would love Birds Aren’t Real to continue to be a space to process the badness. I don’t think the madness is going to necessarily end. I think the lunacy is going to become more intense.”[4]

What I think McIndoe is getting to here can be visualized as a spiraling downwards into a deep, dark chasm, or perhaps, to return to my earlier metaphor, following Trump’s shit as he flushes the toilet. I’m not seeing a way out here.

  1. [1]Zoe Williams, “‘The lunacy is getting more intense’: how Birds Aren’t Real took on the conspiracy theorists,” Guardian, April 14, 2022,
  2. [2]Zoe Williams, “‘The lunacy is getting more intense’: how Birds Aren’t Real took on the conspiracy theorists,” Guardian, April 14, 2022,
  3. [3]Ariana Eunjung Cha and Laurie McGinley, “Antimalarial drug touted by President Trump is linked to increased risk of death in coronavirus patients, study says,” Washington Post, May 22, 2020,; Hannah Knowles and Timothy Bella, “A hospital refused to give ivermectin to a covid patient. Then a judge ordered doctors to administer it,” Washington Post, September 2, 2021,; Rong-Gong Lin, II, “Anti-vaccine forces pushing ivermectin. It can be toxic, dangerous, officials say,” Los Angeles Times, August 31, 2021,; Laurie McGinley and Josh Dawsey, “Touting criticized study, White House presses FDA to authorize hydroxychloroquine — again,” Washington Post, July 10, 2020,; Aaron Rupar, “Trump and Fox News want to send their hydroxychloroquine hype down the memory hole,” Vox, April 22, 2020,; Andrea Salcedo, “Ohio judge reverses colleague’s decision on covid patient’s ivermectin treatment: ‘Judges are not doctors,’” Washington Post, September 7, 2021,; Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman, “Health Dept. Official Says Doubts on Hydroxychloroquine Led to His Ouster,” New York Times, April 22, 2020,; Paul Waldman, “The real reason Trump is obsessed with hydroxychloroquine,” Washington Post, April 7, 2020,
  4. [4]Zoe Williams, “‘The lunacy is getting more intense’: how Birds Aren’t Real took on the conspiracy theorists,” Guardian, April 14, 2022,

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