Conspiracy theories are on the rise, but rationality is a good place to hide

Friday March 12 2021

Rationality is a perfectly good place to hide; a talisman if you will against the implications of irrationality. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


Something is up. There are so many of them around: do they meet and reproduce somewhere in secret? Like maybe in an obscure website or a superstitious aunt’s phone memory? In a hut? Who is behind it? I am talking about conspiracy theories. I don’t think I was paying attention to how common they are becoming until very recently. And I have a personal beef with them. They used to be funny, now not so much.

The ones that make the news seem so removed from reality, so extreme that it becomes very easy to dismiss them. Take the flat earth theory people, for example. Or folks who belong to a cult that is too distinctive and far out. Or what about things like flying saucers? Easily dismissed as not for you, quirky behaviour or just plain wrong and — unlike an opinion — something you can ignore without being mean.

Because they are so irrational, aren’t they? And when you think you are rational, of course they can’t be harmful to you, can they?

Rationality is nice. Also, maybe it is a belief system, a reaction to human frailty, our bagful of emotions and our creative minds which must make up a story to make the world make sense. Look at how we love to talk to each other, stories are the stuff of life! We tell stories to our young ones from the moment they start talking and ask the infernal question: “Why?” And then we put said beloved young ones in school to hope that some other adult can deal with it all. Very rational.

Look, it makes sense. I understand the attraction to many conspiracies because they can really be compelling. Especially when there is blame to be apportioned, when bad things happen. Could there be anything more comforting, more satisfying than being guaranteed answers? Is there anything as attractive as strong and firm leadership? Especially when life is hard and arbitrary. But then there is also something a bit scary about the absolutes that belief demands. They can lead to extremes.

Case in point: it used to be favourite pastime to wonder at Donald Trump’s supporters. The extreme ones have a capacity for sustained illogic and suspension of reality that is breathtaking, with very real outcomes. But looking back I wish I had paid more attention and consideration to the humanness of it all. Instead I enjoyed all the “this is how they got there” stories and shook my head about how tragic it must be for Americans. Thereby completely missing out on the broader social education: we’re not so different when push comes to shove.


Shaking my head at conspiracy theorists made me feel safe. The irrational choices and the conspiracy theories were just news.

After all I could put down the article at hand, shake my head, and assure myself that this isn’t going to be a problem here. Until I started looking up and realised the increasing anti-science rhetoric floating around amongst other things. And the way people can be very serious about not distinguishing between a fact and an opinion. All that I associated with the rejection of rationalism was here, always has been.

Tanzania is one of the most superstitious societies in the world, and the ends all too often justify the means. We don’t really don’t talk about it except to make jokes and to whisper the very quietest of gossip, but we know that dark beliefs exist.

On the more extreme side we have the reputation of killing albinos for body parts for rituals. In the day-to-day, we hang up business signs inviting people to buy love potions, or magic rings to help them get the money and status that you crave. And it is just part of life, a given.

Maybe that’s why conspiracy theories proliferating now have me so shook up. It doesn’t feel like there is a safe distance anymore between a few odd folks and some of the horrors in my society. It is the way that they can be attractive, that they can offer your heart’s desire, if you are willing.

That isn’t hard to do. You might start by believing in supporting someone who says everything you want to hear, then find yourself questioning whether modern science can be trusted because it doesn’t always offer clear-cut answers when you want them. Why not step a little bit further into alternatives? And then take it too far from there. How hard is it to go too far once you start?

For me, this means that it is time to give up hoping that alien sightings — so common since the advent of the cell phone — are real. It is the responsible thing to do. The rational thing to do. At the end of the day, what is the difference between that and insisting the world is flat? Slippery slope.

Besides, something is clearly up. Conspiracies are on the rise, and I am sure I don’t want to know why or who is behind it all. And I bet I can find evidence as to why rationality is a perfectly good place to hide, a talisman if you will against the implications of irrationality. Shame about ET, though.

Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]