The Interesting Character of Conspiracy Theories
Those who believe and promulgate conspiracy theories usually believe that they are bringing to light some deep secret hiding in the darkness, shrouded in mystery by those who intentionally wish to conceal some dangerous truth. Truth, however, is the key word. Facts and evidence comprise the truth, and those two things are often scorned by the conspiracist. At any rate, your truth – ill-gotten to be sure – is incorrect, and the real facts and evidence buttress their position. Here is the thing about truth: it is what it is. It doesn’t change. That doesn’t mean we cannot be wrong about it, or that we marshal the wrong evidence, compute the numbers inaccurately, or even ask irrelevant questions. But seeking truth for its own sake, and allowing our opinions and presuppositions to collapse in the face of the evidence, is the only game in town for obtaining the right answers. Many concede this is the case in principle. Why, then, do so many people not only subscribe to bad ideas, but also to faulty ways of thinking? Why do some exhibit the absence of reason or disinterest in evidence and skepticism? Why do conspiracy theories stick to our culture?
I take some space to explore the answers to these questions. I also take stock of the contradictory nature of conspiracy theory. Finally, I address how to move forward and minimize the danger that these problems pose.
Who believes in conspiracy theories? Who falls into these traps? That might be confusing to ask since there is usually no agent setting these traps. Rather, certain social and psychological predispositions make it more or less likely for individuals or groups to fall prey to conspiratorial ideas. Much research has been done in this area, and I am not reinventing the wheel. I am synthesizing some of it (various bits, and so I won’t add footnotes) only to make some important observations later. There is obviously the need to feel security in an insecure world, stability in an unstable time, power in powerlessness, confidence amidst anxiety, and cynicism or disenchantment in a world of broken promises. Conspiracists are often less educated and less wealthy than those who do not believe. If our world looks bleak – if social mobility and justice and economic possibility seem but a lie, ideals no longer promised – we tend to turn our sadness and embarrassment and anger toward a realizable enemy. We focus our feelings on some common opposition. It turns out, though, that the enemy – this boogeyman - is a nebulous villain, and this malefactor never truly assumes tangible form against which to prosecute a case. Never solidifying a credible case against this villain is not a problem. Indeed, the perpetual and uninterrupted pursuit of justice – bringing the darkness to light – is what keeps the worry fresh. An open and shut case would leave the conspiracists in the same powerless and anxious position from which they recoiled in the first place. One of the hallmarks of conspiracy theories is the unending essence in which they circulate. In other words, it is almost impossible to really get to the bottom of the conspiracy – an issue which is usually the result of an elaborate cover-up. After all, nebulous problems offer meager and anemic answers by nature. They like to keep the fires hot, stoking them whenever necessary.
So, does this mean that conspiracists are conscious players in the drama, playing on the whims of current affairs and on the credulity of certain other segments of society? Not so fast. Although this probably describes some fraction of people, most conspiracists are true believers. The real conspiracists – and not just cynical manipulators – really believe. The socioeconomic or political conditions, along with the absence of rational skepticism, have shoveled a hole that has been filled with mysterious boogeymen and fantastical nefarious plots. However, there is an evolutionary antecedent to all of this.
Evolution in the Wind
Our ancestors, roaming the savannah, survived only because of a hyperawareness that prevented them from becoming prey. If they assumed the rustle in the grass was a lion, and escaped to safety, then they continued to live and enjoyed an opportunity to pass on this trait of hyperawareness in their genes (natural selection in practice). And if the rustle merely turned out to be the wind, then nothing was lost in worrying. Being neurotic today stems initially from worrying about wind too much in the past. But when the predator was present, our worry accounted for our lives – and it only takes once. Not being concerned, however, and assuming the rustle was always wind eventually caught up with those persons (a quick pour for our fallen comrades).
This evolutionary history explains why we often see agency where there is none, sketch together patterns where there aren’t any. We see faces in clouds, hear thieves by our garbage cans outside, ghosts in our hallways, perceive animals in inkblot tests, and gods in the skies (presumably it is the sky). Is it any wonder we can conceive plots that do not exist, operated and controlled by evil overlords or alien beings who are not real?
Of course, today there is a fascinating mixture of supernatural or metaphysical thinking anchored down by real scaffolding, often politics or certain events that actually occurred. It is more difficult to dismiss a political or “event” conspiracy than ghost-in-the-hallway agency. Perhaps even more fascinating, modern conspiracies are moored by two inverted concepts. The first is gleaning simplicity from complexity, an idea that makes perfect psychological, historical, and evolutionary sense. More confusing, the other idea is creating complexity from simplicity. As my friend and podcast co-host, Matt Crocker, notes, the reason for the latter is due to the need of rejecting painful ideas. If the idea of one man killing JFK is too painful for you, you may need to create a complex web of chicanery and subterfuge and devious plotters to get through it – or, to never let it go. This type of example can be applied to many conspiracy theories. In this way, creating complexity out of something simple serves a similar purpose as creating a simple narrative out of complex circumstances. In the latter, the goal is to explain away a problem and typically create a scapegoat in the process; in the former, the object is to have the problems and mysteries intensify and never recede.
Types of Conspiracies
It is helpful in understanding conspiracy theories to categorize them. I offer my own categories here, and hopefully this is beneficial in breaking down and understanding the nature of conspiracies. There is considerable overlap in some instances (and that is not really a surprise given the “connected” nature of them). In no specific order the groups are as follows.
Political Pushback: Examples of this would be 9/11, Kennedy assassination, the so-called war against Islam or Islamophobia, and McCarthyism. Much conspiracy centers on the extremes of political orientation. We are a political animal, and it is no surprise that much of our fear or worry – combined with our inherent tribalism – leads us to formulate conspiracies in this area.
Ancient is the next one. These conspiracies have to do with our distance from the time period and the suspicion of explaining what took place. An example is aliens building the pyramids, or aliens-themed storytelling in general. Maybe Earth was colonized by aliens long ago. Who knows? These conspiracies are less insidious and more imaginative.
Another is scientific incredulity. Here we see the reappearance of aliens and pyramids, along with the moon landing and the danger of vaccines. How can we wrap our brains around an actual moon landing? It must have been staged. This, along with being ignorant of how vaccines work, stems from a simple misunderstanding of the science. Personal incredulity, however, does not mean that science does not work or cannot be explained. The onus is on the individual to get up to speed.
Cults represent another avenue to conspiracy. Examples are the cosmic or religio-cosmic cults, death cults, social or social-utopian cults, and of course UFO’s. Insulating one’s way of life in pursuit of truth -as conceived by the cult – leads to conspiratorial thinking. Who is out to get you, or who is out to cover up what you know to be real?
The salacious category offers typical fodder for the ignorant and willing. These center around traffickers or pedophiles or some other underground sexual perversion (what could be more evil?) – “pizzagate,” and to some extent Qanon, are examples. The fringe right seems to be fascinated with these ideas the most, and it is typically it that occupies this territory.
The New World Order is one of the largest and most encompassing categories of conspiracy theory. This usually involves some sort of Orwellian control, world government puppeteering. Very little is off limits to the imagination: Deep State, the EU, George Soros, the Illuminati, Zionism/Jewish conspiracy, and others. This is one of the most entrenched problems due to the size and “complexity” of the plots and the power of the overlords. It can take national, international, or supranational forms. Presumably we will never get the bottom of these sorts of conspiracies. (“They” won’t let us.)
Business/economic control is a familiar model. This often has another element tied to it, that of some mercenary or murderous plotting behind the scenes. The Iraq War, profiteering, imperialism, and Zionism are prime examples. These focus on the underlying economic control that the conspiracy ostensibly creates and maintains.
The next on my list (nearing the end) is the environmental/medical category. This group is pretty large and inclusive as well. Examples include: Global warming, vaccines, chemtrails, hiding the cures for illnesses, and covering up the benefits of “alternative medicine.” One wonders if the stuff works why it isn’t just called medicine. Here, medical power structures – or wicked scientists in sterile lab coats – are using control to impose their will.
“Rigged outcome” is a category that we all know well. This can be more innocuous, and even the best of us can be led down this rabbit hole now and again, but there are more pernicious versions of it. A political election was rigged, a sporting event, some award show – it isn’t far-fetched in some cases. But we have to be careful not to fall into this trap. Our country is built on the peaceful transition of power and not contesting outcomes, especially not with violence. And the result of men (often white men) winning some awards as directors or actors or whatever is not the result of a white patriarchal conspiracy.
Rounding out our groups of conspiracies is the social/ethnic/nationalist variety. Here we see people drum up conspiracies about others being anti-black, anti-minority, anti-Muslim, anti-tribe, anti-Jew, pro-Jew, and so on. There is also a group of them that cannot be categorized. At the moment I can only conceive of two conspiracies that fit that mold, and they are the flat Earth idea and Holocaust revisionism. The latter fits somewhat into the anti-Jew mold, but to reject the Holocaust in toto requires an extensive and deep (and deeply delusional) set of assertions. Flat Earth defies argument and scandalizes the rational mind. Who comprises the cabal on this one? Is there a Big Copernicus or Big Galileo constituency out there somewhere? Am I missing something? It is just third grade science.
The modern conspiracist
One had to be devoted back in the day. Modern information technology was not around then. If you believed in alien abduction or even just the truth of the Area 51 story you had to seek out others and put in some ground work. Not so today. It is unclear whether or not we are more informed with today’s technology or less. What does seem to be clear is that it is much easier now to come across and spread information about conspiracies. The number of conspiracies has skyrocketed. Connectivity has allowed in one sense for a lazy adherence to a conspiracy theory. Hardly any leg work has to be done, and one can sort of fall in and out belief anonymously. On the other hand, many more voices and pieces of information can be assembled to make the case for joining a cause and remaining a steadfast believer (comfort in numbers does not discriminate).
At any rate, some similarities remain. Conspiracy theorists of yesterday and today run into the same problems. They are not playing a game with facts and evidence. Although some try to play by those rules, many opt out and instead make a faith of their belief. (Even the ones who collate facts and evidence opt out of the rules-based paradigm whenever it is convenient.) The problem is one of falsifiability. Is there anything that could prove their theory wrong? If not, then there is no winning by following the rules that govern the scientific and rational world. They also run into the same obnoxious contradiction in how they view the world. Having not seen outer space and aliens ourselves, having not actually been on the ground when Kennedy was killed, and having not been in the secret chambers of those in charge of the New World Order, there is no way for us to know these things are not secret conspiracies. If only they simply redirected that line of inquiry back to themselves: they also haven’t a clue about these things. So, who is correct? You always start with the most parsimonious answer. If a simple explanation will do – and the real evidence supports it – then why concoct any other stories? Why fabricate additional characters and plots? Why add to the mixture when it is not necessary? The need for control and security is powerful. Tribalism is powerful. But we have to exercise our skepticism in order to keep it strong. That includes being skeptical of our own skepticism. As Richard Dawkins says, “Be open minded, but no so open that your brain falls out.”
When discussing the topic on our podcast, Matt offered the advice that the rational-minded folks pick battles wisely and not needlessly provoke conspiracists. Threatening to yank someone’s cherished worldview away typically does not result in a placid transfer of ideas. The smarter choice is to find common ground, maneuver your way inside the walls, and attempt to genuinely break down the structure from the inside. Ask fair but trenchant questions, one at a time, and in a manner that requires a good-faith response. An even-tempered conversation, if it works at all, would be the best way to broach a crazy subject with someone holding crazy views. My own contribution here is simply to offer mental training to younger children. Kids should be taught the value of skeptical thinking, how to research properly, and how to navigate a world inundated with information. We also have to ditch this groundless distrust of experts. Better education would assuredly help with this.
What we won’t do is move back to a utopian time with no information worries, a time with less social, political, scientific, or resource problems. We don’t roam the savannah anymore, and we do not all occupy the agricultural hinterlands any longer. We live in urban spaces, participate in civil society, are wrapped irreversibly in political systems, and occupy a digital world that admits of as many problems as it solves. There is danger in propagating some of these conspiracies. At the very least reputations can be ruined. And psychologically, as well as socially and politically, the value of a good life can take a downward turn. There are political solutions, economic ones, there are social and psychological ones, and there are scientific and educational remedies for the corrupted mind. This offering was a but a mere sketch, and it is important for us all to do more to explore these avenues to the healthy mind.
 The identitarian left is a cultural group that seems to be sliding into conspiratorial territory: racial essentialism, gender amorphism, the delusion of oppression and aggression, and the authoritarian urge to exert stringent control and provide for a “safe” environment (while ironically making environments unsafe).