November 6, 2020
From claims that Elvis is still alive to theories that NASA faked the moon landing, Americans have always loved their conspiracy theories…
But add in a global coronavirus pandemic and a tumultuous presidential election to an already angry and divided nation and you’ve got the perfect breeding ground for wild conspiracy theories and fanatics who adamantly believe in them.
A conspiracy theory, according to academic expert Joe Uscinki, tries to explain an event that “cites as a main causal factor, a small group of powerful persons (the conspirators) acting in secret for their own benefit, against the common good.” That’s a big tent, allowing almost everyone to subscribe to at least a few conspiracy theories. Some are so much a part of our cultural fiber that we might not even think of our assumed facts as conspiracy theories at all. For example…
- A mid-March poll found that 54% of people surveyed think that the 1% of wealthiest Americans secretly control the U.S. government… and 43% subscribe to the notion of a Deep State.
- Around 90% of Americans – decades after the fact – think that the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy was a conspiracy and then covered up by the government.
- About half of Americans think the government is hiding information about the 9/11 attacks. In 2006, around one-third thought the administration of George W. Bush had planned, or knowingly allowed, the 9/11 attacks.
- In 2009, about one-third of Americans subscribed to the “birther” conspiracy (the promotion of which helped propel Donald Trump to the White House) that Barack Obama is a foreign citizen – who became president in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
- There have been 2,032 Bigfoot sightings in Washington state… and 109 sightings of a Loch Ness-like monster in a lake in Montana. Fourteen percent of Americans think that these types of creatures exist, and 31% of Americans believe in ghosts.
- An international survey found 17% of respondents believed so-called “chemtrail” conspiracy theories that the white lines in the sky trailing behind jet planes aren’t cloud-like plumes of water vapor – but rather evidence of a devious plot to poison the environment or control the weather.
Many conspiracy theories are just harmless good fun, life in Never-Never Land filtered through the National Enquirer. Speculating about who probed what foreign body in a desert in New Mexico is innocuous enough… (One in five Americans believe that beings from outer space have visited Earth anyway.)
And stories are how humans communicate, after all. Long before basketball star Kyrie Irving talked about the Earth being flat a few years ago (before apologizing to science teachers for his comments), Thag the Ugly Neanderthal was telling stories around the fire. He had theories to explain the unknown – why he felt warm when that bright star was shining, the best way to catch a zebra, or why Thaga the Lady Neanderthal was avoiding him.
Of course, they weren’t called “conspiracy theories” back then… That term – according to one conspiracy theory – was coined by the CIA in 1967 to try to discredit doubters of the official line about the death of President John F. Kennedy.
Conspiracy theories have evolved to be fundamentally political in nature. And while they can be a fun yarn, they can also – and increasingly do – undermine government, cultivate distrust in institutions and society, create artificial divisions between groups, and push us toward Lord of the Flies meets Mad Max. As Time magazine explained…
The facts that should anchor a sense of shared reality are meaningless to [people who parrot conspiracy theories]; the news developments that might ordinarily inform [them] fall on deaf ears… They are impervious to messaging, advertising or data. They aren’t just infected with conspiracy; they appear to be inoculated against reality.
Democracy relies on an informed and engaged public responding in rational ways to the real-life facts and challenges before us. But a growing number of Americans are untethered from that.
And there’s a very real (and big) cost to that… A Pew Research survey from June found that a quarter of American adults see at least some truth in the idea that the coronavirus was “intentionally planned by powerful people.” And it’s 48% of Americans with a high school diploma or less who subscribe to the theory (15% of people with a post-graduate degree buy into the coronavirus-was-planned notion). Hundreds of thousands of dead Americans could still be alive today if not for the deadly coronavirus-related conspiracy theories that have persuaded people to not wear facemasks.
The thing is, almost anyone is prone to conspiracy thinking – which is just interpreting events and information through the dark prism of shadowy conspiracies. When these beliefs are supported and reinforced by others in a group – a political affiliation, members of the same church, your neighbors, wacky Uncle Earl – something that you might at first dismiss as ridiculous can suddenly seem eminently reasonable. It’s social proof at its most toxic.
People stray toward conspiracy theories when they feel vulnerable and threatened. It’s easier to blame the Illuminati (a secret global cabal that runs the world – or so 15% of Americans believe) for why you can’t make your car payment, than to grapple with the real reasons for your cash-flow problems. Subscribing to the idea that the coronavirus was created in a lab in China turns facemask resistance into an act of patriotism.
And in the world of COVID-19, stress, uncertainty, and powerlessness is our daily diet. That’s why it increasingly feels as if conspiracy theories are increasingly the currency of thought and communication.
Why? It’s easy to blame social media. Uscinski argues that’s not the case, though, in a recent article in The Atlantic…
A common misconception is that the Internet, and social media in particular, is responsible for the seeming proliferation of conspiracy theories in American political culture. But while these platforms make spreading any idea easier and more efficient, the Internet is but a tool for disseminating a human concoction. For the most part, social scientists have yet to find evidence that conspiracy beliefs have increased in the Internet age.
Part of the reason conspiracy theories spread so quickly – and are so intoxicatingly compelling – is that sometimes, conspiracies aren’t just theories. Coincidence and randomness and the unexpected, and actual conspiracies (or their kissing cousin, cover-ups), are real… Watergate (which brought down Richard Nixon) and VW’s emissions scandal (a cover-up of an effort to fool pollution regulators) and doubts surrounding Theranos (a bogus blood-testing company) all started as someone’s pet wacko idea – a conspiracy theory that was true.
But there’s a big difference with those… In order to uncover real conspiracies, investigative journalists, lawyers, scientists, and others work hard. They develop a hypothesis, they cultivate sources, conduct research, and search for proof and evidence. If they don’t find sufficient proof of the hypothesis, they give it up and move on. Or it is real… And that’s how Pulitzer Prizes are won, investors lose money, Sean Hannity gets excited, people go to jail, and presidents wave goodbye for the last time as they helicopter off the White House lawn.
There’s a big distinction between this kind of actual research… and the “research” that, say, my Facebook ex-friend claimed was behind his posts that Bill Gates is plotting to use a COVID-19 vaccine as a cover to inject Americans with microchips. (By the way, around a quarter of Americans believe this, according to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll from May.) He’d gotten sucked down the YouTube rabbit hole… Watching a few videos online, though, doesn’t make anyone an expert on anything other than watching videos on YouTube.
So how can you prevent your brain from being hijacked by conspiracy theories – and preserve and protect the essence of democracy and society – by insulating yourself and your loved ones from them? A few tips…
Learn to identify them. A conspiracy theory has a compelling internal, circular logic that is airtight. As a psychologist writing in The Conversation explained…
Conspiracy theories are essentially irrefutable: logical contradictions, evidence showing the opposite, even the complete absence of proof have no bearing on the conspiratorial explanation because they can always be accounted for in terms of the conspiracy. The lack of proof about a plot, or any positive proof against its existence, is turned around and taken as evidence of the craftiness of the secret cabal behind the conspiracy. It is seen as confirmation of the conspirators’ ability to conceal their machinations.
If you find yourself on a logical merry-go-round when pondering a theory, it’s a warning sign. Just because a theory is tight as a drum doesn’t mean there’s anything inside…
Apply a filter of personal experience and logic. Some things that make sense when a guy wearing scrubs who says he’s a doctor fast-talks on YouTube, or which might make for good Hollywood, don’t hold up to scrutiny. My Facebook ex-friend didn’t bother to figure that even someone as clever as Bill Gates can’t come up with a microchip so small that, when injected into the human body, it wouldn’t cause an embolism. And even if he could, such a chip wouldn’t have the battery power to last for long.
Use Occam’s Razor. This is the principle that the simplest explanation for something is usually the correct one. Most conspiracy theories are complicated – that’s why they’re such good stories. Reality is (usually) simple…
If Little Johnny has a fever after going to the playground, he probably picked up a bad germ on the monkey bars. It’s unlikely that parent with COVID-19 on the bench nearby went over to Johnny and coughed in his face… Or that Johnny has an intestinal worm from bottled water he drank yesterday.
And if it’s raining and you see a flash of light outside, it’s more likely to be lightning than the local power station blowing up in a sea of sparks – or a UFO landing in the front yard.
Often, conspiracy theories assume a level of secrecy, organization, and discipline that are impossible in the real world. A Deep State of Illuminati bureaucrats that is hell-bent on derailing the agenda of President Donald Trump would suggest that thousands of hyper-coordinated people are unified in total secrecy around a single agenda that they execute flawlessly and without anyone else knowing…
But could a government – regardless of political party – that is so absurdly large (2 million employees) and complicated (budget: $4.8 trillion) ever muster the expertise, coordination, and organization to create a government within a government? The reality is that the federal government bureaucracy is ignorant of the intentions of whomever happens to be inhabiting the White House. It’s going to do whatever it’s going to do – which is the same as it’s ever done. One man’s Deep State is another man’s big bumbling blob of bureaucracy that will sabotage anyone with a notion of changing it.
Of course, sometimes the more complicated explanation is true. To understand when, context matters. “When you hear hoofbeats behind you, in most cases you should think horses, not zebras – unless you are out on the African savannah,” explains mental model master Shane Parish of Farnam Street. The simple explanation was to believe that Bernie Madoff was an investment genius who could generate consistently strong returns for decades… But the reality – that he had created a $65 billion Ponzi scheme – took a lot of work to unravel.
Remember that there is only one reality. In an era of deep fakes and fake news, reality can feel like a house of mirrors, or like a grown-up Choose Your Own Adventure book where we can decide our own reality.
But reality is crazy already. In an age of conspiracy theories, we’re crazy on steroids. It’s up to each of us to stay anchored… to prevent something even worse.
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Editor, American Consequences
With P.J. O’Rourke and Editorial Staff
November 6, 2020