Post No.: 0312
Conspiracy theories always involve the rejection of an official account – it’s the presumption of some nefarious intent or a cover-up behind official positions.
Conspiracy theories tend to be linked to one’s political biases. Most people hold at least one conspiracy theory – not least because most people have a political bias, but people likely won’t call their own conspiracy theories ‘conspiracy theories’ but just ‘officially denied truths’ as they see them. We tend to interpret patterns even when events are random or unrelated, and then we believe major things happen because someone or something must’ve made them happen for an intentional reason (this links to religious beliefs and over-attributing agency everywhere e.g. that some sentient agent must be controlling the weather).
These coincidences are then wrapped up in overly-coherent stories, with ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, where whom the ‘bad guys’ are depend on our own political biases, and they’re responsible for all the things we don’t like or agree with. Governments are classic targets to blame for everything that goes wrong, even though some events happen that are beyond their control. (They’re therefore also often credited for things that are beyond their control too.) Governments or elusive organisations are also classic targets for concealing such big secrets. A good story can trump the truth. One might be able to conjure up a coherent story how they masterminded an event but coherency doesn’t necessarily mean truth (e.g. in stories, ‘evil’ people are typically written to be physically ‘ugly’, and ‘good’ people are typically written to be physically ‘attractive’ – this stereotype seems coherent and has been perpetuated by the likes of Disney movies for years but it’s too crude and is oftentimes erroneous in reality). Meow.
Specific conspiracy theories may come and go but they’ll always be a part of the political discourse. And since more people get their information from social media and echo chambers nowadays – rather than the more information people get then the more they’ll think critically and objectively, it’s the more information people get then the more entrenched they’ll likely be with their existing beliefs. (You can frequently tell which echo chambers people follow and blindly trust by what arguments/claims they parrot without critical thinking.) Confirming that one has picked the correct political beliefs, by thinking that one knows something that others generally don’t, that one has outwitted official sources and escaped suggestibility (when really one has trusted Loki instead of Rumpelstiltskin), makes people feel self-superior and good about themselves. Our partisan political leanings mean that we interpret the same events differently, and the motivation to feel good about ourselves can trump the concern for being correct.
Social media tends to light up with various conspiracy theories right after an event that threatens a side’s strongly held worldviews (e.g. pro-gun supporters looking for ways to deflect the blame from firearms after a mass shooting). This sort of propaganda doesn’t just reject an established story – it offers an alternative narrative. If you claim that a view is wrong then you must fill it in with an alternative view to believe in – in this case a conspiracy theory – in order to convince the audience.
So conspiracy theories are used to try to explain away any truth that one doesn’t want to accept (e.g. the Holocaust or global warming). One way to reject a fact that potentially attacks a currently held belief in any way is to concoct a conspiracy surrounding it. For example, if someone doesn’t want to be punished for or give up their current lifestyle or faith in laissez-faire economic philosophy, then they can continue to hang onto them by claiming that scientific bodies are out to deny us pleasure or governments are just trying to control us by making up this notion of anthropogenic climate change. Some will just never trust particular sources, but this is essentially an ad hominem fallacy – either against an individual or an organisation – because it’s essentially saying that one cannot trust the source simply because of whom they are, not because of the merit of their arguments/claims or evidence. And regarding climate change, it’s hard to accept that something is bad yet not reason that something must be done about it, such as government regulations. Thus to relieve this cognitive dissonance, this internal dilemma, it’s far easier and selfish to just deny there’s a problem at all. To simply believe in the total opposite of what official sources say is a fallacious heuristic too (e.g. the accusers must’ve caused it).
Conspiracy theories are often accompanied with highly ambiguous or ‘coded’ information because (like Nostradamus’s ‘prophecies’) this means that they can be interpreted or reinterpreted in multiple different ways and still be deemed as ‘correct’ by those who zealously believe in them. People wish to preserve their personal worldviews, especially if they’ve invested much emotion, time, money, faith and/or other resources, hopes, stakes and allegiances into them, or they find them comfortable, and conspiracy theories are a way to relieve cognitive dissonance when something threatens our worldview or way of life – our deeply held beliefs about how the world should be structured and how society should function.
Self-interestedly, the truth is not as important as a person or group’s reputation, interests or faith. Rightness doesn’t trump protecting one’s public image. A person’s public reputation is at stake if they’ve strongly and publicly supported a certain worldview, hence they’ll (subconsciously) want to protect that worldview as if their reputation depends on it, otherwise they’ll be admitting that they’ve been wrong all along and their credibility will take a hit for it; and this is where a conspiracy theory can come to their rescue. Really, their credibility should take an even greater hit if they continue to support outmoded beliefs (such as believing that the US Moon landings were faked), but as long as they have enough like-minded people who also believe in, and therefore reinforce, the same things then their credibility is maintained within this ingroup and echo chamber at least.
The preservation of the entrenched conviction can trump looking at any given evidence critically. It also invariably involves the use of cherry-picking information that confirms one’s biases and rejecting out-of-hand anything that disconfirms them. Conspiracies that turn out to be true will have reams and reams of corroborating evidence to prove they’re real – not just a few scattered and ambiguous pieces of information as if clutching at straws and merely nibbling at the edges to cast doubt on official accounts. It’s also a crude generalisation for the reason that, although there have been scandals in the past, it doesn’t mean that everything governments or large companies do is some kind of Watergate, tobacco or thalidomide scandal, no matter how these examples play into the availability heuristic. Everything must be critically assessed on a case-by-case basis, looking at all of the evidence and not just a selected few scraps.
It’s also easy to criticise what one doesn’t really have a clue about (e.g. how many different people and steps are required before a bill gets to pass into law, and to assume that they all must’ve been in on something), or to think that there must be a conspiracy if one’s opinion is not the opinion everyone else (apart from within one’s echo chamber) is generally taking. It’s also easy to criticise someone who does something if you don’t do and have never done it yourself (e.g. trying to run a country, which is an incredibly difficult task once you learn what’s involved i.e. it’s very easy being an armchair critic). So maybe ‘try cooking dinner yourself if you don’t like what you’re being served?’ (Apart from a few exceptions, you are free to stand for election yourself in a country like the UK or USA if you want.) It’s easy to criticise anyone in a position one has never ever been in before, but you’d likely do some of the same fuzzy things if you were in exactly the same fuzzy situations.
Conspiracy theorists have an over-active pattern detection system (e.g. seeing visual patterns in random noise, conjuring up tenuous arbitrary connections in numbers, superstitious thoughts). Feelings of uncertainty (e.g. in times of war, gambling) can also increase superstitious and supernatural beliefs and religiosity. Conspiracy theorists also often have a self-interested bias to self-harness or reinterpret events in ways that support their own agendas, so that whatever happens in reality, they’ll say it’s evidence that supports their personal beliefs (e.g. if governments do something apparently good then it’s only because ‘they’re buttering us up for something bad they’re about to do’, or if there’s a mass shooting at a school then private firearm ownership supporters might claim that ‘the incident is a perfect reason why they need guns to protect themselves from other people with guns’). So literally any event can be rationalised, twisted or interpreted as evidence to avidly support one’s own personal side. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that it does overall, and it also doesn’t necessarily mean that if someone doesn’t act against something then they made it happen or wanted it to happen (e.g. not going forth to fight a war in a foreign land against ‘potential future terrorists’ doesn’t necessarily mean that one supports terrorism).
People who tend to believe in conspiracy theories tend to be paranoid, think they’re special enough to warrant being particularly watched or targeted by the authorities, think they have special intellect and insight into the truth that most others cannot see, and that those who disagree with them are the ignorant ones. Fear will trump reason. (Paranoia, and not being able to read facial/emotional expressions properly, can also be elicited by cannabis (THC component) usage.) If confronted with any counter-evidence, they’ll claim that it’s false or there’s a cover-up – meaning again that they can virtually never be convinced that their beliefs are wrong. No matter the counter-evidence or collapse of supporting evidence, the belief always sticks but the supposed support for it and goalposts for debunking it keep shifting. Those who distrust authorities tend to also distrust proper independent scientific sources and would rather trust in conspiracy theories instead (whether they’re aware that they’re being persuaded by one or not).
Genuine and major conspiracies are very difficult to keep – big secrets are very hard to keep for needing just one person from the inside to find irrefutable evidence for it and reveal all (e.g. when whistleblowers like Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning revealed what they found from the inside). Thus if a claimed conspiracy has lasted for many decades, and across multiple generations of people, the higher the chances are that there was no conspiracy at all from a rational, statistical-odds perspective.
Because of the many ways we can rationalise things, a person doesn’t need to believe that they’re intentionally lying to others to believe and spread a conspiracy theory – indeed, they might not call it a ‘conspiracy theory’ but simply the ‘truth’ or a ‘fact’ from their perspective.
Some conspiracy theories may appear harmless (e.g. believing in a flat Earth) but they can result in people distrusting authority and institutions wholesale because they’ll generalise that they’re the ones who are always trying to mislead them. Some conspiracies will turn out to be true so we should always keep an eye on governments and large corporations – but to determine which ones are or aren’t requires critical thinking skills, preferably from a neutral position. It’s however highly unlikely that anyone is going to act truly neutrally on any heated issue, hence we must periodically actively question and challenge our own current worldviews.
Meow. I subtly included the word ‘trump’ a few times in this post on purpose as a test to see how many people will read into its significance and relation to a certain (as of posting) US President. If you read into such a thing then it demonstrates how easily conspiracy theories can form!