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Friday, Dec 04, 2020

Why it’s not surprising Hong Kong is overrun by conspiracy theories

Why it’s not surprising Hong Kong is overrun by conspiracy theories

Believing ideas that are far from reality has been a hallmark of human cognition since time immemorial, as evidenced by the widespread faith in organised religion, feng shui and Chinese medicine.
I refer to Alex Lo’s column (November 16) on how Hong Kong is at present particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories (“Why there are ‘conspiracies’ everywhere in Hong Kong”). He claimed that the extreme polarisation in Hong Kong society today has been a key contributor to the ostensible increase in what appears to be belief in ideas that are simply untrue. Further, he claims that once a conspiracy takes hold, counter-evidence based on fact has little traction among the believers with misinformed beliefs.

Lo goes on to quote an expert who says those who believe conspiracy theories “need to understand the world; to feel safe; and to belong and feel good about oneself and one’s social groups”.

I have no argument with Lo over these points, and I commend him for bringing the views of experts on conspiracy theories to our attention, which certainly are compelling and no doubt accurate.

What is notable about Lo’s explanation, however, is that it should come as a surprise and even need explaining because belief in ideas that are far from reality has been a hallmark of human cognition since time immemorial. In fact, conspiracy theories are no different from the beliefs many of us hold as unyielding truths and which govern the lives of a majority of the population.

I do not speak of the fringe beliefs held by some, such as horoscopes and fortune telling, that many of us treat as a kind of entertainment. Rather, I am referring to the belief systems that have become institutionalised and taken deadly seriously – established religions, feng shui and Chinese medicine, whose dogma is largely based on magical thinking.

Naming these three together and putting them in the same category as conspiracy theories is bound to upset some people. However, the phenomena espoused by all three, such as the virgin birth and energy flows, are not at all based on anything associated with science or how the world really works.

And yet, all three are firmly entrenched in our societies, and many of our schoolseven have established religions as their sponsors.

So as much as Lo’s explanation for the recent growth and spread of conspiracy theories is helpful, we should also understand that some of these theories have been hiding in plain sight for millennia.

We should not be surprised.
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