Constantly Wrong: Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson Makes the Case Against Conspiracy Theories

Dis­cor­dian writer and prankster Robert Anton Wil­son cel­e­brat­ed con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries as decen­tral­ized pow­er incar­nate. “Con­spir­a­cy is just anoth­er name for coali­tion,” he has a char­ac­ter say in The His­tor­i­cal Illu­mi­na­tus Chron­i­cles. Accord­ing to Wil­son, any suf­fi­cient­ly imag­i­na­tive group of peo­ple can make a fic­tion real. Anoth­er state­ment of his sounds more omi­nous, read in the light of how we usu­al­ly think about con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry: “Real­i­ty is what you can get away with.”

When his­to­ri­an Richard Hof­s­tadter diag­nosed what he called “the para­noid style in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics,” he was quick to point out that it pre­dat­ed the “extreme right-wingers” of his time by sev­er­al hun­dred years. Where Wil­son thinks of con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry as a shin­ing exam­ple of ratio­nal thought against a con­spir­a­cy of Kings and Popes, Hof­s­tadter saw it as anti-Enlight­en­ment, an extreme reac­tion in the U.S. to Illu­min­ism, “a some­what naive and utopi­an move­ment,” Hof­s­tadter writes dis­mis­sive­ly.

Per­haps the utopi­an and the para­noid style are not so eas­i­ly dis­tin­guish­able, in that they both “promise to deliv­er pow­er­ful insights, promise to trans­form how you see for the bet­ter,” says Kir­by Fer­gu­son, cre­ator of the Every­thing is a Remix Series episode below. But no mat­ter how dark or illu­mi­nat­ed they may be, he sug­gests, all con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries share the com­mon fea­ture of being “con­stant­ly wrong.” Ferguson’s new film series, This is Not a Con­spir­a­cy The­o­ry digs deep­er into the “role of con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries in Amer­i­can cul­ture,” he writes on his site.

Despite its osten­si­ble sub­ject, the project’s “ulti­mate pur­pose is to intro­duce peo­ple to the realms of sys­tems sci­ence, which is where we can bet­ter under­stand the hid­den forces that shape our lives.” Pro­duced over eight years in an enter­tain­ing “con­spir­a­cy-like style,” the film cham­pi­ons skep­ti­cism and com­plex­i­ty over the cer­tain­ty and pat, closed-cir­cle nar­ra­tives offered by con­spir­acists. Con­spir­a­cy theories—like the innu­mer­able per­mu­ta­tions of the JFK assas­si­na­tion, Chem­trails, or Roswell—are “too much like movies,” he says, to con­tain very much real­i­ty.

Ferguson’s vision of the world resem­bles Wilson’s, who wrote most of his work before the inter­net. Real­i­ty, he says, is a “mas­sive, decen­tral­ized hive of activ­i­ty.” Pow­er and con­trol exist, of course, but there is no man behind the cur­tain, no secret hier­ar­chies. Just bil­lions of peo­ple pulling their own levers to make things hap­pen, cre­at­ing a real­i­ty that is a sum, at any giv­en moment, of all those lever-pulls. Are there no such thing as con­spir­a­cies? “To be sure,” as Michael Par­en­ti argues, “con­spir­a­cy is a legit­i­mate con­cept in law,” and actu­al con­spir­a­cies, like Water­gate or Iran-Con­tra, “are a mat­ter of pub­lic record.”

What dif­fer­en­ti­ates sus­pi­cion about events like these from what Par­en­ti calls “wacko con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries”? Maybe a sec­tion Fer­gu­son left out of his “Con­stant­ly Wrong” episode at the top will illu­mi­nate. A con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry, he writes, “is a claim of secret crimes by a hid­den group, and this claim is dri­ven by a com­mu­ni­ty of ama­teurs” who are more eager to believe than to apply crit­i­cal think­ing. Learn more about Ferguson’s new film here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Every­thing is a Remix: The Full Series, Explor­ing the Sources of Cre­ativ­i­ty, Released in One Pol­ished HD Video on Its 5th Anniver­sary

Neil Arm­strong Sets Straight an Inter­net Truther Who Accused Him of Fak­ing the Moon Land­ing (2000)

Stan­ley Kubrick’s Daugh­ter Vivian Debunks the Age-Old Moon Land­ing Con­spir­a­cy The­o­ry

The Paul McCart­ney is Dead Con­spir­a­cy The­o­ry, Explained

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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