Reading, writing and conspiracy theories

Everyone uses words – and, therefore, considers themselves an expert on language and word usage…

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

As I may have mentioned on these pages, I’m a former college-level English and writing instructor.

I’ve also been a newspaper columnist, an English-as-a-second language teacher and blog writer.

In other words, I’ve always worked with words.

One of the odd things about working with words is that virtually everyone uses words constantly – and therefore, almost everyone considers themselves an expert on language, word usage and linguistics.

It’s akin to if everyone who uses plumbing, washed their hands, used a bathroom or ran a water faucet designated themselves as expert plumbers.

Or if everyone who drove a car declared themselves expert mechanics since they know how to start and operate a motor vehicle.

But our auto drivers and water users know from experience, that when something does go wrong, they would be wise to call an expert rather than rely on their own (limited) expertise.

English and writing do not have tangible barriers or reference points like these less abstract sciences.

Mistakes in writing and grammar – and logical arguments – are common, and no matter how egregious or obvious, often become the new “standard” or at least become so widely used that few of us care to even wax nostalgic about a time when words held meaning and arguments were compelling and convincing – as opposed to just loud if not menacing.

As I mentioned, I taught at the college level for many years – mostly freshman or sophomore level English. I had many “returning” students, those who had worked or had been in the military. I also had many students just out of (or even still in) high school.

Those “returning” students brought work and life experience to the classroom. For the most part, they were focused and had a clear vision of what college could do for them.

The high school students were there largely because their parents wanted them to be there. College was just another year or two extension of what they had been doing for most of their lives. The strategies and habits – good or bad – would be brought to the (slightly) more adult setting.

And I could see, year by year, how, for whatever set of reasons, fewer and fewer of my students could make a clear and consistent argument – or even recognize one when they saw it.

More and more students, for example, could not make the distinction between fact and opinion.

To review; a fact is an actual event or situation. An opinion is the position one takes on the actual event or situation.

For example, assume it is raining and 43 degrees outside. Those would be the facts.

Is that weather “good” or “bad”?

An opinion would be your appraisal of the weather – or perhaps even more, your preparation for such weather.

There’s an old Norwegian proverb – there’s no such thing as bad weather – only bad clothing.

If you are prepared for it, any weather is good.

If you have a flat tire in it, and aren’t dressed for it, the slightest bit of wind and drizzle is miserable.

As I mentioned, as each year went by, fewer and fewer students seemed prepared for the demands of college life.

And as I’ve been out of the academic world, it seems to me that fewer and fewer young people are prepared for professional life.

By professional life, I don’t mean the basic rules of attire and attendance (though they too are often a shock for younger workers), I mean those same systems of thought, organization and presentation they should have learned in school long ago.

In the business (or government) landscape, you better be able to recognize a lazy or bogus argument. Your career or even entire industry relies on your ability to scan the horizon and dodge the multiplicity of deceptions, challenges and potential hazards out there.

And even better, you need to recognize opportunities that might be cleverly disguised as challenges.

Or, of course, the opposite – the hazards cleverly disguised as an opportunity.

And then 2020 arrives.

In 2020 we have the convergence of the all-too-familiar disruptors to every aspect of every level of our lives from supply chains to record-breaking fires, floods and hurricanes, recession, unemployment and of course, our dreaded virus.

And the conspiracy theories that (seem to) explain everything.

But first, a definition; Conspiracy theory, an attempt to explain harmful or tragic events as the result of the actions of a small, powerful group. Such explanations reject the accepted narrative surrounding those events; indeed, the official version may be seen as further proof of the conspiracy.

This is a quote from Encyclopedia Britannica. Those over a certain age may remember when a printed book held objective, immovable facts. Truth could be found there. It could be believed. And it would be there tomorrow and next week. And next year.

Encyclopedia Britannica goes on to explore the dynamics of belief in conspiracy theories.

Yes, conspiracy theories can be fun to pursue, but they make us lazy, unable to discern truth from fiction and “vulnerable to charismatic rather than practical and rational leadership. This would undermine democracy and lead to totalitarian rule”. (

In other words, when we find ourselves at the mercy of crazy and complicated schemes, we find our livelihoods, our relationships and even our way of life threatened.

And when do conspiracy theories emerge? We see them when unexpected things happen and we want someone to blame; Conspiracy theories increase in prevalence in periods of widespread anxiety, uncertainty, or hardship, as during wars and economic depressions and in the aftermath of natural disasters like tsunamis, earthquakes, and pandemics.

For a slightly different approach to the history and inherent deceptiveness of conspiracy theories, I recommend Kirby Ferguson’s series (


Consider the ultimate reality in business; the bottom line. The bottom line is the final word, the summary, the ultimate statement of truth and reality. If we cannot trust that or if it is somehow drawn into question, every other aspect of the business becomes even more questionable.

Conspiracy theories are exercises in fiction, usually seeped in our own assumption and worst tendencies.

Some conspiracy theories are so absurd that I sometimes think their creators just enjoy making us all look foolish – and too many of us seem eager to prove that no theory is too crazy for us – at least in 2020.

If you think anti-vaxxers are crazy, how about the flat earthers – or even those who seem to be convinced that birds are not real (they have all been replaced by CIA-produced drones to keep an eye on us (

Whatever your business or line of work, keep your eye on reality and leave the science fiction to the experts. No matter what industry you are in, your credibility is your greatest asset. Don’t be dazzled by Qanonsense.