Conspiracy theories are fascinating. To me, they indicate a variety of things.
The first is essentially insecurity, there are monsters under the bed. The other is a feeling of helplessness, the monsters are everywhere. Yet another is actually a belief in basic human goodness, this can’t be the work of one man, it must be a conspiracy.
The JFK theories persist because we’re uncomfortable believing that one person, acting alone, could kill the President of the United States. It was easier for Hillary Clinton to put forward the idea of a “vast right wing conspiracy” than to acknowledge that her husband had a history of marital infidelity. Conspiracy theorists create a conspiracy of their own, a denial of rational thought, and anyone who disagrees with them is simply a member of the antagonistic conspiracy. Global Warming, a theory allegedly based in science, uses as its argument that people who don’t “believe” are “deniers”. There is no discussion of actual facts, just an argument of faith. Despite claims of a consensus being proven fraudulent, believers still invoke the claims. Doesn’t sound too scientific.
Studies of people who believe in conspiracies show that the leading indicator of whether a person will believe in a conspiracy theory is if they believe in other conspiracy theories. That is not to say they’re gullible, there are just no other commonalities. We used to consider these people “foil hat wearing lunatics”, but as more and more people feel life is beyond their control, they are more likely to believe they are being controlled by evil cartels and a bad turn of fortune. We can call an uneducated Arab a fanatic terrorist and then justify torturing him without acknowledging our own fanaticism. People can praise the “Affordable Care Act”, embracing the name “Obamacare” and attacking the “evil conservatives” for fighting against it, but once it has taken effect the same people claim that the entire program was developed by the conservatives and pushed through congress by Republicans.
Subscribing to conspiracy theories requires a suspension of rational thought. Attempting to have a rational discussion on a topic with someone who has abandoned rational thought only results in frustration for both parties. It is not a question of logic, it is a question of faith. Global Warming has caused increased ice packs. The NSA has developed energy beams which they control you with through your computer. Vaccinations cause autism. The Illuminati are poisoning us with with chemicals sprayed by aircraft. There is an invisible planet that is streaking towards the Earth. Anything can be evidence, it doesn’t have to make sense.
There is no common background in people who believe in conspiracies. They come from the Left, Right, and Middle. Well educated people are as susceptible as the illiterate, because it has nothing to do with intelligence, although the “believers” almost uniformly accuse the “deniers” of inferior intelligence. Because it’s obvious to them. It isn’t a conspiracy theory to the people who believe it, it’s the truth. To them, the truth is the propaganda.
There is a lot of money to be made by manipulating who believe in conspiracies. “Secret documents” available only through the mail, “research” funding, and millions of website hits. Heroes of the cause, brave crusader’s who need your five dollar donation to continue spreading the “truth”. The twisted logic of the believer supports the crusader, who has been shunned by his colleagues due to his “refusal to bow to the establishment”. And that’s only the “wacky” conspiracies. The really big conspiracies thrive on the wealth of entire nations. Choose a conflict in the Middle East and one side is blaming the other of taking part in a multinational conspiracy.
Why do I mention all this? Because it hampers free thought. It masquerades as critical thinking while it is anything but. It can happen to anyone, and it can also be avoided by anyone.
It is healthy to question everything, including yourself. That’s what science is all about. Being able to accept and evaluate new data is how growth takes place. Being able to say “Well, that’s what I used to think, but I was wrong” is evidence of growth.