It feels like we’ve reached peak conspiracy, at least online. It appears that people will believe anything. Birthers. Chemtrails. The Illuminati. The flat earth theory is somehow back in vogue for chrissake. Some of this is just the internet: it gives public voices to previously private beliefs and acts as an echo chamber of those beliefs. But it feels as though, in spite of most of us having more access to more information than at any other time in history, people are more credulous than ever. Everywhere there are people claiming they believe in something demonstrably false. And not just a few people. They believe with every ounce in their body. They believe so strongly they denigrate those who do not believe the same things. And they don’t just believe, they evangelize. What the hell?
What is a Conspiracy Theory?
A conspiracy is any time two or more people get together to perform an act, usually a malicious one. In legal terms, that act must be criminal. So a criminal conspiracy is when two or more people get together to plan and commit a crime. In this sense, conspiracies – both criminal and not criminal – happen all the time.
But a conspiracy theory is different. Conspiracy theories were once sometimes known as “hidden hand” theories because they often imply much more than just a small criminal conspiracy. Every conspiracy theory implies that a secret force is driving history. Though conspiracy theories claim different historical actors and different goals, they all have at least this in common: a group of people conspiring together to deceive the vast majority of other people as to their true aims. The way this is framed changes, of course. Some conspiracy theories allege that there is a group of all-powerful people controlling the history of the world. Other, less audacious theories allege that some fundamental truth is being covered up. But the basic pattern is the same: somebody more powerful than you or I doesn’t want us to know something and they are hiding this information for mendacious reasons (often some form of world domination).
There are an absolute ton of conspiracy theories; Wikipedia lists only the most famous and yet it lists tons of them. There are so many, Wikipedia breaks them up into 13 different categories.
What makes a Conspiracy Theory different from any other kind of theory?
Over time, human beings have come up with ways of assembling and presenting knowledge in the form of theories about how the world works. The methods for theorizing have been critiqued and debated since humans started to theorize. Though the methods are much stronger in the physical sciences, all academic disciplines have rigorous standards about evidence, styles of argument, logic and the like. These methods have been critiqued, debunked, replaced amended and improved more times over the last few centuries than you or I can imagine. Unfortunately, the discussion of method is one of the most boring subjects imaginable for most people, which is likely one of the main reasons why most people are not aware that these methods have been adapted and improved over centuries. And why some people are not even aware that these methods exist. (Or, if aware of their existence, they are not aware that the methods are debated and critiqued rather than set in stone.)
All this is to say that, even though it may seem like the theories of academic disciplines are not better constructed than the man on the street’s pet theories, they are levels of magnitude greater in their rigour in nearly every case. (There are exceptions of a course; such as theology.) 1
Conspiracy theories, in addition to alleging constant persistent plots throughout history, ignore most or all of the research and analytic methods common to the study of the world that have been established over centuries. Depending on the conspiracy, conspiracy theorists reject actual evidence, the methods of assembling evidence, motivations for studying phenomena and/or, most broadly, the way human beings have typically behaved throughout recorded history. That is why conspiracy theories receive little to know credence in academia, they do not meet the standard. (Though the conspiracist would say there’s an elitist academic conspiracy…) 2 And that is why conspiracy theories are either demonstrably false or, at best, impossible to substantiate without faith.
For example, in Vincent Bugliosi’s masterful Reclaiming History, the former prosecutor constructs the case for why Oswald did indeed shoot and kill John F. Kennedy. There is a ton of evidence; as Bugliosi notes, there is more evidence for Oswald killing Kennedy than there is for most capital murder cases in the United States. But that hasn’t convinced the vast majority of people that Oswald killed Kennedy.
[T]he majority of [the authors claiming there was a conspiracy] knowingly mislead their readers by lies, omissions and deliberately distorting the official record… In any other field, such as scientific or literary disciplines, even a fraction of these lies, distortions and omissions by a member would cause the author to be ostracized professionally by his colleagues and peers. But in the conspiracy community of the Kennedy assassination… not only is this type of deception routinely accepted by most members of the community, but the perpetrators are treated as celebrities who lecture for handsome fees and sign autographs. (Source)
In the introduction, Bugliosi relates the following incident during the Q and A section of his presentation at a 1992 trial lawyers’ convention, when he was confronted with a question about the Kennedy assassination.
I asked for a show of hands as to how many [lawyers present] did not accept the findings of the Warren Commission. A forest of hands went up, easily 85 to 90 percent of the audience. So I said to them, “What if I could prove to you…that although you are all intelligent people you are not thinking intelligently about the Kennedy case.” I could sense an immediate stirring in the audience. My challenge sounded ridiculous. How could I prove…that close to six hundred lawyers were not thinking intelligently? A voice from my right shouted out, “We don’t think you can do it.”…I asked for another show of hands as to those who had seen the recent movie JFK or at any time in the past had ever read any book or magazine article propounding the conspiracy theory or otherwise rejecting the findings of the Warren Commission. Again, a great number of hands went up – about the same…as the previous hand count…”I’m sure you will all agree,” I said, “that before you form an intelligent opinion on a matter in a dispute you should hear both sides of the issue…With that in mind, how many of you have read the Warren report?” Only a few people raised their hands…The overwhelming majority in the audience had formed an opinion rejecting the findings of the Warren Commission without bothering to read the Commission’s report. (Source)
Why do People Believe?
Why do people believe utterly absurd versions about the way the world works? An easy explanation is that most people are ignorant of academic methods and cannot differentiate between compelling, well-researched and well-argued explanations and stories full of logical fallacies. I know people like this. They think and they are critical but they have not had the academic training to recognize the differences between something that panders to their beliefs and something that is relatively objective and coherent.
But over 20% of us supposedly get this training and plenty of overly educated people – who are aware of academic methods – believe nonsense. Some even spout it. So a lack of education doesn’t really explain it. Also, this view is elitist. Certainly it is possible to spot bullshit when you see it without a university education. And it’s possible to eat up bullshit with one.
Driving back from camping the other day, the girlfriend told me about a group of Ontarians who are protesting windmills for wind power generation. One of their claims is that windmills actually use up more energy than they produce. Parsing that claim produces the following: industry and government are in cahoots to force the most inefficient energy production in modern history upon the populace to… I can’t make it to the end, actually, as I can’t even imagine the answer to the question “To what end?” I also struggle equally with the idea that someone could believe that real people (business owners, workers, regulators, bureaucrats, etc.) are actually all motivated to not only force upon landowners windmills that use more energy that they produce and, not only that, that they all will keep silent about this vast conspiracy to ruin landowners’ property values… The only word for this is ‘absurd’ and yet people actually believe (or at least publicly profess) that there is indeed a conspiracy between the Ontario Government and the energy industry to force landowners to take on the world’s worst power plants.
This is the Law of Infinite Cornocopia: when provided with evidence that disproves our beliefs – literally every fact about wind power itself, the industry’s motivations to have wind power and the government’s – landowners still believe the opposite, more strongly than they did before. But why?
Conspiracy theories – whether small, like the Ontario Government’s plot to punish landowners with ugly windmills, or massive, like every theory involving the Illuminati – are a way of coping with the world when it no longer makes sense. Belief in a given conspiracy theory provides an explanation as to why something is happening that we don’t like.
The late Umberto Eco called the belief in conspiracy theories – and the search for evidence to back them up – the search for synarchy. The Synarchy, in this case, is the group that really runs things. Human beings always want to know the “why” of things, that’s one of the things that makes us different from all other animals. A belief in an omnipotent, omniscient god satisfied the search for synarchy for many people for centuries. However, as belief in monotheism wanes, other beliefs rise to take its place.
Only conspiracy theories have existed longer than the crisis of faith in monotheism. Moreover, sometimes belief in monotheism and conspiracy complement each other – such as within radical Islam – and sometimes they do not – such as with the “atheists” who believe in a 911 conspiracy, for example. I believe it’s something more fundamental than a desire to know “what’s behind it all?”
Really, conspiracy theories help us make sense of the world. In the modern world, there is a lot more to make sense of than ever before – our lives our, in most ways, more complex than they’ve ever been – so conspiracy theories are better suited to answering our questions than actual, researched and thought-through explanations. Why is that? Because reality doesn’t satisfy us the way conspiracy theories can.
The most plausible end of the universe at this moment is heat death: all the molecules in the universe will be too far apart from each other for there to be anything else. This will happen so far in the distant future that it’s not worth talking about. But whether it happens in the future or just after we die, the effect is the same: the universe is meaningless. An invented alternate version of what will happen (and has happened) to us (Aliens!) is much more appealing than the reality of a cold, indifferent vacuum.
Here are how some major conspiracy theories help us comprehend the world:
- Aliens!: They exist and they are either manipulated history early on in humanity’s development, or they have contacted us but Government is keeping the information from us. The form appeals to us because it’s actually very hard to wrap our minds around evolution as a concept (unfolding, as it does, over millions of years). The latter is appealing because we want to believe the world should be better.
- Catholics and the Vatican are hiding secrets from us that would otherwise reveal the truth of Christ, or his descendants, or any number of other things. This theory appeals because the world seems more complicated and chaotic than the past and we want to blame someone, in this case the church.
- Pretty much every False Flag “operation” ever. Again, the world seems chaotic. We don’t want to believe human beings behave in these awful ways so, for some reason, it is comforting to believe that a minority act even worse.
- Financial conspiracies, the most common of which is the idea that the invention of paper money somehow sent us on a downward spiral toward doom (that we never quite reach). Again, this theory is about preferring a supposedly simpler past to a more complicated, supposedly worse present.
- Global Warming. We don’t want to believe in heat death and we don’t want to believe that the world will only be habitable for so long, or that we could have something to do with making it uninhabitable. Believing it is a fantasy dreamed up by Global Socialism allows us to both remove our own complicity from the problem and pretend that this problem wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the evil perpetuated by a few bad apples.
- The Illuminati. Just like with the Catholic Church above, or the Jews below, this group has been manipulating history, making the world worse than it should be.
- Jews run the world (or, every policy decision of the United States is to preserve Israel). The world would be a better place were it not for the worldwide Jewish Conspiracy.
- Media brainwashing. The Mainstream Media (aka MSM aka Lamestream Media) are trying to keep the truth from us, in order to enable any one of the other conspiracies on this list.
- New or misunderstood technology and medicine. Nearly every time a new technology or medicine is introduced, someone somewhere believes it is killing us. It is easier to believe that new technology or medicine (i.e. “playing god”) is the source of a particular problem (more cancer, for example) than the more mundane explanations available (such as: people live longer, more people get cancer).
- New World Order. As with the Church, the Illuminati, and the Jews, this theory suggests the world would be better if only there wasn’t this group trying to make the world awful or chaotic, only this group is a new one, not an old one.
- [Insert your US President here – always a Democrat, by the way] didn’t deserve to become president because of X. This is perhaps the most pure example of the revisionist history conspiracists indulge in: the world would be a better place if the election had gone the way I wanted it to.
- Tragedies. Nearly every time there is a tragedy, someone somewhere blames a secret society, a global conspiracy or what have you. This one is plain: Tragedies are awful and incomprehensible so there must be an explanation that is more appealing than “humans make mistakes and sometimes these mistakes have terrible consequences” and/or “accidents happen.”
This is just a short list. There are numerous other conspiracy theories – many of them quite specific – that perform this same function.
The purpose of this site is to discuss a phenomenon called the Just World Fallacy, the belief that the world is fair when it is clearly not. It may seem odd to bring up conspiracy theories as evidence of this belief, but I think there is a strong connection, at least in the West, between belief in a fair world and belief in a conspiracy theory. The connection is this: the world was fair, but is fair no longer, because of conspiracy X; it would be fair (things would be as they should be, as they used to be) if only it were not for [insert your favourite villains here].
Yes, conspiracy theories help many of us make sense of the world, but why do they do that? They do that because we wish the world was a fair place and yet we have daily – perhaps hourly – illustrations that the world is absolutely not fair in any conception of the world. We need an explanation for that. Enter the conspiracy theory that says that greedy Jewish bankers are responsible for all the world’s calamities. It’s much easier to believe that caricatures of people (whether they be racist stereotypes or super villains from comic books and movies) are responsible for most or all of what’s wrong in the world than our collective humanity. Because if our collective humanity is responsible…well, that’s pretty depressing.
- Footnote: The best way to tell the difference between theories that have followed this process and those that haven’t is whether or not the article(s) or book proposing the theory was ever peer reviewed. ↩
- Footnote: Debates about method are outside the purview of this post, but they are extremely healthy and worthwhile. ↩