I’ve long been fascinated by conspiracy theories and with Trump’s proleptic declaration that the presidential election is already a rigged affair and with staged events where quack doctors share stories of alien sex it seems like a good moment for me to out myself as a skeptic with skin in the game.
I was eight when John F. Kennedy was murdered. I came home from school and told my mother he was dead. My mother hit me and said: “Don’t you ever say something like that again!” My mother was a drunk and in that instant I understood the world could be ugly and adults were not always reliable.
My mother did me a favor. My nascent discovery was and remains my principle antidote to conspiratorial belief systems. The poet Wallace Stevens wrote: “the world is ugly and the people are sad” and knowing this is central. Add “the adults aren’t reliable” and you’ve got a prescription to think for yourself. It can be a lonely world if you don’t believe in conspiracies.
How could a chinless psychopath shoot the most powerful and handsome man in the world? The story was too ugly and random. Straight away the conspiracy theorists said it couldn’t be so. Never-mind that the Warren Commission got it right. Forget evidence based research. Why, the Warren Commission was part of the coverup you see? John Kennedy had to have been the victim of an elegant, secret, furtive, organized system. The truth is just too painful: JFK didn’t want secret service agents on the back of his car; Oswald actually worked in a building situated along the motorcade route; he owned a shitty mail order Italian carbine that he’d already used in a failed attempt to kill an Air Force general; he actually had no ideology at all; he wanted his fifteen minutes of fame; opportunity knocked; he committed a murder most foul as Dylan says.
What’s the difference between a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory? The Wannsee Conference was an actual conspiracy. Powerful men gathered in Nazi Germany and outlined the logistics necessary to kill the Jews. People gathering in secret to plan crimes is the vital chief ingredient for a true conspiracy. This happens in fraternity houses, corporate board rooms and malevolent union meetings and in hundreds of other clandestine spots. The difference between a conspiracy and a theory is the former is provable and that’s because conspirators talk. Almost no one can keep a secret. Even the CIA can’t keep secrets. Nixon couldn’t do it. Bill Clinton. J. Edgar Hoover. (When JFK was informed that Hoover was having surgery he said: “What’s he getting? A hysterectomy?”) In general you can’t keep secrets in a free society. Even Stalin couldn’t hide the fact that he made his dinner guests dance to a gramophone record of howling wolves.
The truth will out. Cue Jack Nicholson: “You can’t handle the truth!”
In short, that’s the ars poetica of conspiracy theorists though they don’t know it. They’ll always say you’re insufficiently schooled on the subject at hand–fake moon landings, George Soros, hydroxychloroquine or the fraudulent media who ruin everything in the world (this is essentially the eggs in their mayonnaise) there’s not a fact that’s safe from the cool kids in the conspiracy lunch room–see their moue of disgust, you nerd unfit to sit at their table, you with your dopey facts, you dweeb!
There’s an adolescent quality to the affair. Left wingers and right wingers are equally prone to this. The left thinks 9-11 was orchestrated by George W. Bush. The right thinks COVID-19 was invented by Bill Gates. Some on the left tend to believe Bernie Sanders was cheated out of the Democratic nomination both in 2016 and 2020; people on the right think the post office is their enemy. Each viewpoint is puerile, unmoored from reality, and rife with teen angst. Scary secretive adults are the problem! Don’t trust anyone over thirty. (Remember that?)
Joe Forest has a terrific article over at Medium entitled “Why Your Christian Friends and Family are So Easily Fooled by Conspiracy Theories.”
“When people attach their belief in a conspiracy theory to their ego, it can be nearly impossible to convince them that they’re wrong. Every piece of contrarian evidence you present to a friend or family member simply becomes part of the conspiracy and expands the scope of the deception.
That’s what “They” want you to believe. If you just did some research, you’d find The Truth. All your sources are just part of the Cover-Up. I wish you’d open your eyes and not be such a sheep.
It’s an insidious bit of circular logic that not only creates a criticism-proof belief system, but it also makes a twisted sort of sense.
Conspiracy theories are self-perpetuating rationalization machines. They eat facts, distort reality, and destroy relationships. And, by the time someone realizes they’re in too deep, it’s often too late to salvage a reality-based worldview (or the relationships of the people they isolated in the process).”
One of the best books on the subject of conspiracy theories is by the Dutch psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen. In “The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories” he points out that there are five essential elements to the thing:
"1. Patterns – Any conspiracy theory explains events by establishing nonrandom connections between actions, objects, and people. Put differently, a conspiracy theory assumes that the chain of incidents that caused a suspect event did not occur through coincidence. 2. Agency – A conspiracy theory assumes that a suspect event was caused on purpose by intelligent actors: There was a sophisticated and detailed plan that was intentionally developed and carried out. 3. Coalitions – A conspiracy theory always involves a coalition or group of multiple actors, usually but not necessarily humans (examples of nonhuman conspiracy theories are The Matrix and the “alien lizard” conspiracy theories). If one believes that a single individual, a lone wolf, is responsible for a suspect event, this belief is not a conspiracy theory – for the simple reason that it does not involve a conspiracy. 4. Hostility – A conspiracy theory tends to assume the suspected coalition to pursue goals that are evil, selfish, or otherwise not in the public interest. Certainly people may sometimes suspect a benevolent conspiracy, and benevolent conspiracies indeed do exist (as adults we conspire every year to convince children of the existence of Santa Claus). But in the present book, as well as in other literature on this topic “ the term “conspiracy theory” is exclusive to conspiracies that are suspected to be hostile. Belief in benevolent conspiracy theories is likely to be grounded in different psychological processes than described in this book. 5. Continued secrecy – Conspiracy theories are about coalitions that operate in secret. With “continued” secrecy, I mean that the conspiracy has not yet been exposed by hard evidence, and hence its assumed operations remain secret and uncertain. A conspiracy that is exposed and hence proven true (e.g., the Wannsee conference) is no longer a “theory”; instead, it is an established example of actual conspiracy formation. Conspiracy theories are thus by definition unproven.”
This list is of course built on the premise that falsifiability is impossible. Research is suspect; news agencies are merely propaganda; universities are places of collective ideational malevolence.
Dorothy, wake up!