The Overton window of conspiracy theories has shifted toward the extreme – we need to drag it back,Dave Hahn,The Skeptic

Take a second to think of a fringe belief.

Do you have one in your head? Good. Now, without knowing what that belief is, I want to make two points about it. The first is that it should have taken you much longer to come up with one. You probably only needed a second, then another when you thought—no, he must mean this kind of fringe belief. Then again, you are reading The Skeptic, so you are probably pretty used to reading about fringe beliefs. Let’s set that aside for my second point: you are likely not thinking of a belief that is still a fringe belief.

Unless you thought “the world is flat,” “shape-lizard monsters from the constellation Draco (but not the one in the sky the one in the 4th dimension (but not time, the other fourth dimension)),” or something about eggs made of jade, there is probably a public figure that endorses this view. Actually, even these views would not count, as the lizard man himself, David Icke, is a six-time guest on failed mayoral candidate Brian Rose’s streaming platform.

Was your fringe belief that vaccines do not work? I live in the US and that is basically the official position of our conservatives. Did the belief concern some strange legalese sovereign citizen position about national sovereignty being ceded in the name of international cooperation? 52% of the UK voted for Brexit and the US has only signed three of the nine UN Human Rights Declarations because of this. The fear of sovereignty loss is the underlying principle of Japan’s Nippon Daitto party. It would be easy to find national political figures in all three countries that not only believe this but publicly advocate these positions. In the contemporary political climate we are at the point where a person can openly claim conspiratorial beliefs that are so there that even noted credulous martyr Fox Mulder would want them to dial it back a bit.

This phenomenon is the result of the shifting of a window of acceptably discourse. You might be thinking, “well obviously, everything is polarised now.” While that is the case within certain countries, both radicalisation and polarisation are symptoms rather than causes. Radicalisation does not explain why Uncle William thought that the shape of a banana was a good reason to leave the EU. It does not shed any light on the fear of wave after wave of Slavic immigration—which was not happening—which was one of many factors that led to the election of Theresa May’s party. Polarisation is the symptom of why an entire American political party lived in fear of an over-hyped and nearly entirely fabricated immigrant caravan that was winding it’s way North through all of those “Mexican countries,” or that a formless entity named “Antifa” secretly pretended they were Trump supporters and attempted a coup in the US last January.

Consider this modern absurdity: being “pro-vaccine” is a position. It doesn’t matter if you are from Brazil, India, the United Kingdom, or the United States – if you willingly received your Covid vaccination shots, it is now a political position, because refusing them places you with a group of people that share some very specific beliefs about immigration, economics, and climate change. This is absurd, because until very recently, “pro-vaccination” was not a position that anyone took. Sure, there were the extremist conspiracy crowd following Jenny McCarthy, disgraced medical doctor Andrew Wakefield, or Mike Adams, the population’s comfort with vaccinations was only measured against their individual fear of needles.

The current situation is the result of a shifting of the Overton window of conspiratorial belief. The Overton window was originally developed by the Mackinac Center’s Joseph Overton as a method of measuring the acceptability of political ideas in public discourse. The official website uses public education discussing in US policy as an interactive example to see how the window shifts up and down. As it shifts you can see how the fringe beliefs such as “no public funding for education” become closer to the mainstream.

For our purposes let’s use vaccination as our subject. At one extreme the position would be forced vaccination regardless of status, at the other would be no vaccination at all. In the US mandatory vaccination has been the status quo for aspects of public life: such as public education, healthcare, military, and governmental service. All three of my children have had to get a series of shots that they would need a special reason to avoid. In the UK the list is largely similar, and has been routinely uncontroversial. Our scale would likely look like this:

Mandatory forced vaccination for allMandatory forced vaccination for all those without a medical exemptionUnvaccinated must publicly identify their statusVaccinations required for the use of public facilitiesVaccination required for the use of public facilities except in cases of medical exemptionVaccination required for the use of public facilities except in cases of medical and/or ideological exemptionVaccinations entirely optionalVaccinated people must publicly indicate their statusVaccines banned

The Overton window for this scale should likely be around 4, 5, 6. The public discourse in this window would be surrounding what is required for the use of certain public facilities and what kind of excuse can be granted. Nothing within this window should be considered controversial, as we have generally accepted the requirement as a necessary step to engage with large groups of people. This has been the case for decades – with the exception of the extremist conspiracy theory crowd.

Notice what is happening on the anti-vaccination side right now. Whether this person is an American Q-Anon believer or a member of the White Rose, they are claiming that the window of acceptable discourse now includes number 3 on that scale. They adhere to this so strongly that followers of these beliefs have appallingly taken to wearing yellow stars to indicate how oppressed they perceive themselves to be. They do this so that the more rational of us become defensive, which allows them to push the window back so that 4 is no longer something we are discussing. This has shifted the window downward so that 7 becomes a more reasonable position.

We have seen this before with the last anti-vaccination crusade. They had the advantage of the now-retracted Lancet study to seem legitimate, but they were able to drive the conversation so much that the optional vaccination schedule for children was a topic of debate. The debate lasted until the paper was exposed as a fraud, Wakefield was stripped of his title and license, and there were outbreaks of the diseases the immunisations were preventing. It took official medical establishments to aggressively reach out and slowly grind that window back to 6, 5, 4; where it belongs, making the extreme position an ideological objection to vaccination.

As we climb out of the pandemic, we should recognise that this did not have to last as long as it has. The speed by which we generated vaccines and were able to adjust them to account for variants seems like some science fiction act three plot resolution, but it has persisted onward. Yet my country has a congress person that blamed a wildfire on a Jewish space laser (though she’ll adamantly state that she didn’t use those specific words), and still she remains part of the law-making process. Every time an official makes a conspiracy theory claim or a claim that is adjacent to conspiracy theories, it pulls the window in a specific direction if they suffer no consequences for their claims.

Fringe beliefs have always existed, and are very likely to always exist. Eliminating these beliefs is impossible. What we can do to prevent them from taking hold, however, is offer educational resources, perhaps at the primary school level. That addresses the future; for the present we need to begin holding people in leadership position accountable for these claims. Let us start yanking that window back toward reasonable positions, whether it offends those with conspiracy beliefs or not. We get accused of “cancel culture” all the time anyway – we might as well put it to some use.

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When politicians and leaders flirt with conspiracy theories for political gain without suffering political consequences, it shifts the window of acceptable ideas to more extreme positions.
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