Conspiracy Theories: Simple Answers to Complex Problems

When I was doing my student teaching practicum (i.e. teaching, but not getting paid for it since I was still in training), students would occasionally try to peddle some conspiracy theory in a class discussion. These were usually the same few students who loved to chime in with alternative theories on whatever historical topic we happened to be studying at the time. Consequently, I think I’ve heard these students cite most of the major conspiracy theories about world events from 1400 onward. Here’s a list of some of them:

  • Ancient alien astronauts
  • Flat Earth
  • UFOs, Aliens, & Area 51
  • 9/11 was an inside job
  • Moon landings were a hoax
  • The various JFK assassination theories
  • Chemtrails
  • FDR allowed the Pearl Harbor attack to occur

The list goes on, so take your pick. The only thing missing (thank God) was a Holocaust denier. My mentor teacher would tell these students that “conspiracy theories are just simple answers to complex problems.” For the record, I do not believe in conspiracy theories. To be blunt, I find most of them to be ridiculously outlandish and based on poor evidence, logic, and/or methodology. Subsequently, I don’t bother to give them the time of day. Prattle on about them all you want if that’s what makes you feel better.

It should be noted that I distinguish conspiracy theories from counterfactual history AKA alternate/virtual history which asks the “what if?” questions. I’d like to write a post on that topic later on because I think alternate history is a good thought exercise, but not on the same level as mainstream historiography. Furthermore, I’m not discrediting religious or spiritual beliefs and this post isn’t about metaphysics or spiritual belief systems as sociological institutions. (For those who remember the TV show Mythbusters, they refused to do supernatural or paranormal myths because there was no way to scientifically test them. The only exception was in episode 32 where they tested pyramid power, but Adam Savage said there would be “no more oogie boogie myths” after that.) The debate here is not about the existence of aliens, ghosts, or God(s), but rather about fallacious interpretations which assume that historical events and/or scientific facts are the result of some secret plot concocted behind closed doors. David H. Fischer, in Historians’ Fallacies, refers to this as the “Furtive Fallacy.”

Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories

While I don’t take conspiracy theories seriously, I am curious as to why people so firmly believe in them. Despite poor research and evidence, people still believe that aliens are in Bermuda Triangle or that the Illuminati are secretly controlling the world’s governments.

No matter the question, the answer is obviously ALIENS!

Mark Lorch (2017) opines that conspiracy theories regularly occur because of our ability to discern patterns and our mental tendency to want to impose structure on the world. This may be an evolutionary trait that allowed our ancestors to spot predators, but in our current world, it means that we overreact and see cause and effect where there are actually random occurrences (paras. 12-17). According to a 2017 paper published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, this is known as illusory pattern perception (as cited in Sloat, 2017, para. 2). Mark Lorch (2017) further points to social pressures which influence our thinking. Our friends convince us that XYZ theory is true, so we start believing it. Moreover, thousands of followers on social media believe it, so it must have some validity, right? Actually, that’s a fallacy, specifically an argumentum ad populum, or an appeal to the people. Other influences could be biases like confirmation bias where we readily accept evidence that supports our ideas, but dismiss that which doesn’t. (paras. 18-22). Similarly, we might throw in the ad nauseam argument where something is repeated so much that people start to believe it, and the appeal to authority where “9 out of 10 (insert expert here) recommend product _____.” These are used all the time in advertising. We could go on and on about all the fallacies involved, but we’d be here for a long time.

Quassim Cassam (2015) has a broader explanation and contends that people believe in conspiracy theories due to their “intellectual vices.” He gives the fictional example of “Oliver” who believes that 9/11 was an inside job. The root of problem lies in Oliver’s way of thinking. Ultimately, Oliver believes in the conspiracy theories because he is gullible. “He has what social psychologists call a ‘conspiracy mentality’.” Naturally, Oliver will never admit that he’s gullible or close-minded to factual evidence because he doesn’t really have that level of self-awareness (paras. 4-9). So, the difference here is that Lorch takes a more evolutionary and sociological approach, whereas Cassam argues that people believe in conspiracies due to their psychological makeup.

Let’s look a little deeper into what Cassam means by intellectual vices.

Intellectual Virtues and Vices

Aside from Oliver being gullible, what is the real issue with Oliver’s thinking? Philosopher Linda Zagzebski argues that people have traits which make up their intellectual character. She calls these intellectual virtues and vices. On one hand, virtues aid in effective and responsible inquiry. They include kindness, generosity, humility, caution, carefulness, open-mindedness, curiosity, and rigor. On the other hand, vices impede effective and responsible inquiry. They include gullibility, carelessness, closed-mindedness, negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail. These intellectual virtues and vices are habits of thinking. Oliver is lacking in some of the virtues which is impeding his ability to understand why his belief in the 9/11 conspiracy theory is flawed (as cited in Cassam, 2015, para. 10).

Some argue that character traits don’t fully explain things and context needs to be given. These so-called “situationists” argue that our behaviors are heavily influenced by our surroundings and the situations we find ourselves in. Indeed, factors such as our current appetite or mood can effect our performance. For example, if we’re hungry or sleep-deprived, many of us will do poorly when we take tests. However, proponents of the intellectual character theory note that people don’t believe in conspiracies simply due to the situation they find themselves in or because of how they feel at the time. In terms of situationism, maybe Oliver lives in an area where conspiracies are the prevalent view and he’s been influenced by the local thinking, but that doesn’t explain why some people in that area believe in the theories (like Oliver) and others don’t (Cassam, 2015, para. 16-19).

Cassam (2015) further opines that:

In order to think that intellectual character traits are relevant to a person’s intellectual conduct, you don’t have to think that other factors, including situational factors, are irrelevant. Intellectual character explains intellectual conduct only in conjunction with a lot of other things, including your situation and the way your brain processes information. Situationism certainly would be a problem for the view that character traits explain our conduct regardless of situational factors, but that is not a view of character anyone has ever wanted to defend.

(para. 20)

In the end, if we take the middle ground between the intellectual character traits and situationism explanations, then this may explain why people believe in conspiracy theories. It’s a combination, not only of their intellectual character traits, but also of how they’re influenced by situations and their environment. Similarly, Lorch’s explanations of personal biases and mental pattern-making lend credence to the argument for intellectual character traits, while the social pressures we face lean towards the situationist perspective. In a way, the argument is similar to the nature vs. nurture debate. Do people believe in conspiracies because it’s inherent in their mental thinking, or is it because of the environment/situation they were brought up in or influenced by?

Countering is Counterproductive

Now that we’ve seen some perspectives on why people believe so wholeheartedly in conspiracy theories, that leaves the question of how to interact with them. As anyone who’s tried to fact check or offer counterarguments to conspiracy theorists can attest to, simply stating that they’re “WRONG” is unlikely to make them suddenly perform a 180 degree shift in their mental thinking. In fact, it may actually increase their resistance to hearing you out.

Due to our aforementioned tendency to see patterns and create structure, arguing against conspiracy theorists using evidence and logic is unlikely to make them change course (Lorch, 2017, para. 12). Apart from the previously noted appeal to the people and confirmation bias, Lorch also cites the “boomerang effect” where correcting someone’s falsely held beliefs actually makes them stronger because “new evidence creates inconsistencies in our beliefs and an associated emotional discomfort. But instead of modifying our belief we tend to invoke self-justification and even stronger dislike of opposing theories, which can make us more entrenched in our views” (2017, para. 30). Perhaps it’s ironic that our brains are hard-wired to adhere to patterns and rationality, but we disregard rational thinking that refutes our preconceived notions.

Are Conspiracy Theories Dangerous?

There is always the possibility of a conspiracy theory turning dangerous. If a conspiracy gains enough traction by a large enough group, and is espoused by enough influential people, then the amount of people the theory could further influence could theoretically increase. The prevalence of mass media and social media means that misinformation can spread more quickly and easily now than it ever could before. The potential for the misinformation to turn dangerous is certainly there. Arguably, the level of danger in a conspiracy theory really depends on the ability of people to act upon it. Compare the actions of reading about a conspiracy theory on pyramid-building aliens in a book versus drinking the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid passed around by the local cult leader. It’s probably not a healthy choice to do the latter. Therefore, if people can easily act on the conspiracy, then they can be dangerous.

For the most part, my usual encounter with conspiracy theories is at dinner parties, and with students who try to write history essays on them. In those instances, I regard them as harmless. In general, the most common danger is the perpetuation of false information, but that brings us back to the reasons why people believe in conspiracies to begin with, and how to deal with them.

Dealing with the True Believers (The Long Run)

One of the most common tactics of believers in conspiracy theories is to try and turn the tables on you. You claim that Oliver is gullible for believing in the “9/11 was an inside job” conspiracy theory, and then immediately Oliver retorts that you’re just as gullible for believing in the “official version” because it was all a cover up, of course, and you’re therefore being fed propaganda (or being brainwashed).

Our memories and thoughts have all been implanted, of course.

Cassam (2015) notes that nobody is immune to self-ignorance, but that doesn’t excuse Oliver. The difference is that the official version is backed up by solid evidence which gives you good reason to be skeptical about the conspiracy theories. It doesn’t make you close-minded as Oliver contends. On the other hand, Oliver is close-minded for dismissing that for which there is valid evidence (paras. 21-22).

It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that what counts as good evidence is a subjective matter. To say that Oliver lacks good evidence is to draw attention to the absence of eye-witness or forensic support for his theory about 9/11, and to the fact that his theory has been refuted by experts. Oliver might not accept any of this but that is, again, a reflection of his intellectual character.

(Cassam, 2015, para. 22).

Cassam is essentially making an argument here for the need to supply good evidence to support your hypothesis. Indeed, and as I’ve mentioned before, history is a narrative that is based on verifiable evidence and facts. Science works in a similar fashion by using the scientific method which includes posing a hypothesis, running a rigorous and repeatable experiment, and using the evidence/data gathered to support or debunk a theory. Now, I’m not a scientist of any sort, and comparing historical research to the scientific method is not necessarily a one-for-one analogy. We can’t realistically recreate 9/11 time and again in order to test Oliver’s claim that it was all an inside job. However, the focus here is on the analysis and evaluation of the available evidence. Ideally, evidence can be corroborated from multiple, independent, and reliable sources. We’re aiming to be as objective as possible and solid evidence will support your statement. This is why it’s important to cite your sources since, without evidence, all you have is your word.

So, it’s one thing to point out that Oliver lacks evidence to adequately support his “9/11 was an inside job” conspiracy theory and that he’s close-minded. Then comes the problem of convincing him that his very thinking is close-minded. This is not an easy thing to accomplish. Oliver is likely in denial and convinced that he’s right. So how do we convince him otherwise?

Let’s say that Oliver has the self-awareness to admit that he’s close-minded. Well, now he has to take action and do something about that. A good place to start is through education. If we help people to balance out their intellectual vices with virtues, teach them to think critically and challenge unacceptable views, then we’re on the right track. On the other hand, if Oliver is simply too entrenched in his beliefs to change, then the only thing that can be done is to try and mitigate the damage he can do (Cassam, 2015, paras. 26-27).

Cassam has made a strong argument for education and the ability of good research skills to change falsely held beliefs. Similarly, Lorch (2017) notes that developing scientific literacy (i.e. analytical thinking skills) will help dispel conspiracy theories in the long run. Even though many of us will never become scientists, having competency in using basic critical thinking skills are valuable in assessing claims (para. 33). Indeed, you don’t need to have a Ph.D. in ____ field, you just need to learn how to come up with a decent hypothesis, connect the dots, and support it with good evidence. Overall, I’d agree with both Cassam and Lorch. Education is one of the strongest ways to avert ignorance and, in this case, conspiracy theory hoopla in the long run. In my profession, I see these people when they’re teenagers, so I know that they’re still developing their skills, and I try to make it a teachable moment whenever one of them tries to advertise a “new theory” of history to the class. Thankfully, the damage they can do at their age is minimal and they’re mostly harmless.

Those Awkward Dinner Conversations (The Short Run)

This is all well and good, but what techniques can we use if we find ourselves in a conversation with Joe Blo or that annoying relative peddling their newest pet theory on water fluoridation and mind-control?

Lorch (2017) advises the following:

  • Find common ground (i.e. be part of their tribe)
  • (to avoid the backfire effect) Ignore their asinine blabbering, don’t point out the misconceptions because they’re more easily remembered, and just state the bare facts.
  • Don’t challenge their worldview. Instead, offer explanations that acknowledges their beliefs. People are more likely to change their views if the explanation aligns with their personal/political opinions. (Essentially, finding evidence that both reinforces their confirmation bias and shifts the argument with evidence in your favor.)
  • Use stories to make your point. People gravitate towards narratives far more easily than arguments or pure descriptions. Stories create cause and effect logic that you can tie your facts into.

(paras. 34-37)

In a way, it does seem like Lorch is asking us to placate conspiracy theories for a time in order to gradually change their thinking through rhetorical manipulation.

“Oh, the Earth is flat? That’s interesting! Tell me more!” (Code for: I’m about to ignore every dumb thing you say for the next 10 minutes.)

“Wow! That flat Earth theory is really fascinating! Speaking of which, that reminds me of this time I was on a cruise with this Spanish guy named Juan Elcano. He’s a great guy! I think you’ll like him! So there we are on our boat…”

Another tactic I like to use is to simply play dumb. TVtropes refers to this trope as obfuscating stupidity. I like to let people talk if they’re the type that loves dominating conversations because it makes it easier for me to find out if they really know their stuff, or if they’re just speaking in simple generalizations and endorsing bland principles. In the case of conspiracy theorists, it becomes rather amusing if they think I’m totally clueless. I’m perfectly content to sit there, nod my head, and stare at the wall.

I find the color of the paint is far more interesting than your theory on the Loch Ness monster.

Me: “Woah, dude! So, aliens come from outer space, right? They’re like…extraterrestrials? As in, not of this world? And the government has been hiding them?”

When it comes to banal dinner party conversations, I find most conspiracy theorists, to be harmless. They’ll blabber on, and at the end of the night, go home. I think most of us know that conspiracy theories are just that…theories, specifically poorly supported theories. In other words, they don’t represent the norm and aren’t taken by the general public as mainstream. So, they’re largely relegated to the fringe.

Well, I suppose you do what you gotta do to get them to shut up.

In the end, Lorch (2017) concludes that:

It is vital that we challenge dogma, but instead of linking unconnected dots and coming up with a conspiracy theory we need to demand the evidence from decision makers. Ask for the data that might support a belief and hunt for the information that tests it. Part of that process means recognizing our own biased instincts, limitations and logical fallacies.

(para. 39)

Sarah Sloat (2017) sums up the solution succinctly by noting that critical thinking serves to stop the illusory pattern perception that leads people to see conspiracies where there are none (para. 9). In other words, think about what you’re learning! Perhaps it’s only natural that conspiracy theories crop up concerning all manner of topics. Our brains practically want us to see patterns and intentions where random chance is at play. Some people will come up with kooky explanations for everything and try to deduce it down to the work of aliens, magic, supernatural spirits, government agendas, secret societies, and mythical overlords. Again, as my mentor teacher would say:

Conspiracy theories are just simple answers to complex problems.

Whether or not conspiracy theories are worth taking seriously is up to the individual. Personally, I find most of them to be more useful as comedy. In the end, some theories are interesting as far as myths, legends, or fantasies go, and they certainly make great source material for Hollywood’s interpretation of the world. Sadly, most of them are not historically or scientifically compelling (unless you are the type that disregards all evidence that goes against your personal biases). The bigger issue is one of methodology. What matters to historians is the evidence and data that we can verify. True, we can never fully eliminate bias or logical errors from our interpretations, but education and striving for objectivity is far better than taking the intellectually lazy route of accepting some odd theory just because it happens to be the most convenient and aligns with our personal politics or convictions.

References

Cassam, Q. (2015, March 13). Bad Thinkers. Pocket. https://getpocket.com/explore/item/bad-thinkers?utm_source=pocket-newtab.

Fischer, D.H. (1970). Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. Harper & Row Publishers.

Lorch, M. (2017, August 17). Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories – and How to Change Their Minds. Pocket. https://getpocket.com/explore/item/why-people-believe-in-conspiracy-theories-and-how-to-change-their-minds?utm_source=pocket-newtab.

Sloat, S. (2017, October 16). Conspiracy Theorists Have a Fundamental Cognitive Problem, Say Scientists. Pocket. https://getpocket.com/explore/item/conspiracy-theorists-have-a-fundamental-cognitive-problem-say-scientists?utm_source=pocket-newtab.

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