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The Satanic Baby-Killers of London

From Slacktivist:

Are there secret kitchens beneath a London McDonald’s in which babies sacrificed to Satan are cooked before being eaten by Satanic cult members? Do these Satanic baby-killers wear special shoes made from the skins of dead babies? Do they drink blood and dance wearing the skulls of the babies they’ve slain for their Dark Lord?

As it turns out, no. None of that is really happening.

After quoting a Guardian article about a judge who had looked into “lurid allegations of the most serious kind” and found them baseless, Slacktivist concludes,

That’s good news! It is an enormous relief to learn that we do not live in a world that includes Satanic cobblers making shoes out of dead babies, or secret cannibal-kitchens beneath McDonald’s, or a death cult that rapes infants before slitting their throats and dancing in their blood. It is always good news to learn that there isn’t a scary monster lurking under the bed (or under the McDonald’s).

And yet, he notes, some people have trained themselves to see this as bad news.

All that requires is a simple tweaking of that headline: “Judge refuses to prosecute Satanic cult and child sacrifices in London.”

That’s still technically true, albeit a bit misleading. Follow that misleading — run with it as far as you can. “Judge dismisses concerns about international baby-killing conspiracy.” “Judge won’t bring charges against accused cannibals.” Work that into a nice lather.

And now it’s all about you. You become the only thing that matters in this story. It’s no longer a story about the results of a London judge’s fact-finding investigation, but instead becomes a story about how you are smarter, more virtuous, and in every way superior to these Satanic baby-killers and these stupid judges and reporters who coddle them.

Voila! A story that tells us the world is better than we feared is transformed into a story that tells us we are better than the rest of the world.

And once you get started down that road, it's hard to find your way back. Like the "hedgehogs" of Philip Tetlock's study, conspiracy theorists interpret all events in terms of a single overarching narrative. The absence of evidence for the conspiracy merely confirms the conspiracy in their minds. In fact, it is taken as evidence that the conspiracy is even larger than they previously thought.

But why would people subject themselves to the apparent misery of believing they live in a world where the local fast-food restaurant might be hiding a death cult in the basement? Because the worse the outside world looks, the better they themselves look by contrast.

The story they tell themselves may be baseless, Slacktivist concludes, but, "It makes them happy." Being judged by self-righteous conspiracy theorists may not sound as scary as the baby killers in the McDonald's basement, but when you account for the fact that the conspiracy theorists actually exist, they are by far the greater threat to our world.

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