On ‘The X-Files’ And How Conspiracy Theories Make Us Dangerously Stupid

The truth is out there. It’s just loads more mundane than you might hope.

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Spoilers to the first episode of The X-Files tenth season.

A few weeks ago PLOS One published a study looking at the possible life span of any conspiracy; the bigger the plot, it theorised, the more impossible it is to keep secret. Maintaining a conspiracy is a lot like organising a surprise party: the more people that are involved, the exponentially more likely it becomes that someone’s going to blow it.

“For a conspiracy of even only a few thousand [believers], intrinsic failure would arise within decades,” the writer concluded, after building a mathematical model based on the theory. “For hundreds of thousands, such failure would be assured within less than half a decade.”

In a rational world, this would be obvious. “I am a person that exists,” a reader would reason. “I know that there’s a direct correlation between the awesomeness of a story, no matter how secret, and the speed with which I open my big mouth to tell it. Since other people are also people that exist, I assume that’s pretty much universal.”

However, we do not live in a rational world.

The Mythology Of “Truth”

The world we live in has no shortage of theories about What’s Really Going On, however ridiculous they are, all buoyed by ‘evidence’ — sometimes real, sometimes cherry-picked and out of context, and sometimes completely made up by people determined to push a particular agenda. This isn’t new.

From the moon landing to the assassination of JFK, conspiracy theories have been around for some time, but as the internet emerged in the ‘90s they gained the perfect platform to spread. The idea that the public was being systematically lied to by those supposedly responsible for our safety and wellbeing accumulated ‘evidence’ gained believers, then The X-Files took it to the next level. With two attractive, charming, savvy leads fighting a different monster or cover-up every week, it developed a comprehensive mythology underpinned by a simple idea: being smart required one to be paranoid.

In a way, this is good: critical thinking is a vital skill which should be taught to everyone the second they’re old enough to be lied to. But The X-Files didn’t encourage us to do boring, difficult stuff like level-headedly assess the plausibility of premises and be astute about logical fallacies. It told us to do something far more simple, and way more dangerous: trust no one.

23 years on since The X-Files first went to air, and conspiracy theories are now taken as read. Hell, demonstrably incorrect claims are regularly spouted by political candidates and high-profile figures, whether declaring that wind farms cause ill health (they don’t, although people can get sick by expecting wind farms to harm them) or climate change is a hoax (it isn’t) or vaccinations cause autism (they don’t). To many, telling the public this kind of garbage isn’t irresponsible or downright fraudulent; it’s a brave act of free speech in the face of The Man/Big Pharma-Oil-Banks/the Loony Left/Political Correctness/the Illuminati.

That’s presumably why the newly-rebooted X-Files felt the need to up its conspiracy mongering so severely. Within the first episode of the recently wrapped event series, it presented the previous seasons’ ultimate conspiracy as possibly being a meta-conspiracy created to cover the even more chilling actual conspiracy.

The sheer glorious absurdity of the idea was then enhanced by the fact that the Alex Jones-style radio host working with (or against?) Mulder and Scully was played by Joel “Jeff Winger” McHale: a man so dripping in self-aware irony that every line he delivered sounded as though it was in scare quotes. Which may be the point, of course.

The Continual Harm And Appeal Of Conspiracy

Though we can all chuckle at the hilarious B.o.B defence of flat earth theory, ideas like this gets less funny when applied to real world events. In the early 20th century, for instance, a conspiracy theory based around a fake document that purported to be the secret minutes of a sinister Jewish cabal provided much of the intellectual justification for the rise of Nazism and the subsequent deaths of 60 million people in World War II. That’s not hugely funny, and neither is the disconcerting fact that present-day groups like Hamas and the Saudi Arabian government still claim the document is real. Yet still, there are plenty of reasons why these theories persist.

Take 9/11. The idea that it was all an inside job by the US government makes for an alarming and chilling story; a narrative we naturally find intriguing. But the rather more likely scenario — that it was a long-planned terrorist attack that succeeded due to a tragic combination of factors including information collected but not adequately assessed by authorities, a newly-installed Republican government whose inexperienced and politically-appointed departmental heads were ideologically ill-disposed to take counsel from experts that worked under the previous Democrat regime, and pure dumb horrible luck — is far less satisfying. Not least because it gives proof to the disheartening suggestion that the world has billions of randomly moving parts, many of which are only made apparent when something goes terribly wrong.

The reality, incidentally, is that governments are crap at conspiracies by nature. They have large, cumbersome bureaucracies that have to scrutinise and justify all expenditure. They’re also investigated by journalists, and watched by political rivals (even within the same party) who are less motivated to collude in lifelong secret pacts than throw each other under the bus at the slightest hint of political advantage. Even our intelligence community is burdened by the sheer amount of paperwork that a public department requires. Indeed, spy-turned-comedian Dave Callan once quipped that ASIO had a saying: “The truth isn’t out there, it’s in here on a piece of paper, and we can’t remember where we filed it.”

Or as British writer Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) elegantly put it, “Conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting”. “The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the 12-foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is more frightening: nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.”

So where does that leave The X-Files?

By encouraging a mindset that insists the real story is something far bigger and sinister than you can possibly grasp, Mulder and Scully endorse this comforting illusion. It’s a wonderful excuse for believers to avoid any responsibility for action on genuine problems created by perfectly common factors like carelessness, stupidity and greed. They also get to be marvellously smug about all those idiot sheeple who don’t know what’s really going on.

Ironically, that plays into the interests of those that would rather you didn’t pay attention to what they’re doing. After all, it would definitely suit the federal government if you saw Immigration Minister Peter Dutton as part of a vast, labyrinthine cabal with unlimited power, rather than a barely-competent liar woefully out of his depth and terrified of being caught out.

The truth is indeed out there. It’s just a lot more mundane than you might hope.

Andrew P Street is an Adelaide-built, Sydney-based journalist, editor, critic and columnist. He tweets from @AndrewPStreet.