Conspiracy theories: they’re all in your heads!

Published online 22 May 2013.

Or at least the New York Times Online says so.

Here’s an amusing piece:

Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories

Because real life contains conspiracies?  Naah.  Couldn’t be!Yeah, I know, Kos doesn’t want any “conspiracy theories” on his blog.  So we won’t discuss any of them, or at least not with the idea that we should take any of them seriously, which we shouldn’t.  But you can see there’s a problem here.  Will those messy conspiracies go away if we stop talking about them?  Probably not, which would explain why Maggie Koerth-Baker had to write the NYT piece in the first place. So here’s the solution! We’re going to make up some sort of pop-psychology “theory” to explain why people think about conspiracies.  That’ll do the trick!  Gee, if only members of the human race were to limit their thinking to whatever it is that the “experts” produce on any given topic, they could stay sane, and we wouldn’t have to discredit them.  Maggie Koerth-Baker is of course one of those experts, and she will protect you from the pernicious belief in conspiracy theories by psychologizing them away.  That and Kos will ban anyone who writes “conspiracy theory diaries,” one of which this isn’t.

So, yeah, everyone knows there are no conspiracies, and there are all kinds of events out there that might be attributable to conspiracies, but they’re all caused by people acting alone, and all by themselves, without so much as talking to anyone else.  Right?

Now, maybe some really twisted minds out there think that real-life conspiracies develop as a result of chance meetings at the meetings of the Trilateral Commission, or the Bilderberg Group, or the World Economic Forum, or the Council on Foreign Relations.  Or maybe such conspiracies are said to happen in the secret meetings of the FBI or the CIA or the NSA or ALEC.  But everyone knows that (even if these organizations really did exist, which they don’t) all they really do at those meetings is play ping-pong and eat pizza.  Right?

So, armed with our aerosol can of Conspiracy-Be-Gone spray, ahead into the NYT piece we venture!

“The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories,” says Viren Swami, a psychology professor who studies conspiracy belief at the University of Westminster in England. Psychologists say that’s because a conspiracy theory isn’t so much a response to a single event as it is an expression of an overarching worldview.

There is, of course, an alternate explanation for conspiracy theories — I think it goes like “maybe the official explanations aren’t credible” or something like that.  But only people with a certain worldview believe crazy stuff of that sort.

Perfectly sane minds possess an incredible capacity for developing narratives, and even some of the wildest conspiracy theories can be grounded in rational thinking, which makes them that much more pernicious.

My god, they’re developing narratives!  Human nature must be innately bad.  And I have to wonder in this context whether the perniciousness of a conspiracy theory can be quantified.  Could we put a conspiracy theory on the Wild-O-Meter, and if it goes above a certain number, then we could say it’s pernicious?  This could be important in distinguishing pernicious theories from merely innocuous ones.Here’s an example.  Just after the disaster of September 11th, 2001, the Bush administration allowed the bin Laden family to be flown out of the country without so much as an FBI question on a day when every airplane in America was grounded.  Let’s say (hypothetically; we don’t really believe this stuff, do we?) that the bin Ladens were allowed to do this because they had urgent family business or something.  Now that’s not very pernicious, is it?  I experience urgent family business all the time.  Don’t you?

On the other hand, some of these theories about who killed JFK, well, we don’t want to break the Wild-O-Meter, do we?  You can’t buy them at the 99 cents store anymore.

While psychologists can’t know exactly what goes on inside our heads, they have, through surveys and laboratory studies, come up with a set of traits that correlate well with conspiracy belief. In 2010, Swami and a co-author summarized this research in The Psychologist, a scientific journal. They found, perhaps surprisingly, that believers are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular.

Now everyone here knows cynicism isn’t rational, right?  Your leaders are always acting in good faith, of course.

Economic recessions, terrorist attacks and natural disasters are massive, looming threats, but we have little power over when they occur or how or what happens afterward. In these moments of powerlessness and uncertainty, a part of the brain called the amygdala kicks into action.

So, you see, if you stop searching for explanations for economic recessions, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters, and just accept that your tendency to do so is a product of your errant amygdala, you will be closer to enlightenment! 

Our access to high-quality information has not, unfortunately, ushered in an age in which disagreements of this sort can easily be solved with a quick Google search. In fact, the Internet has made things worse. Confirmation bias — the tendency to pay more attention to evidence that supports what you already believe — is a well-documented and common human failing. People have been writing about it for centuries. In recent years, though, researchers have found that confirmation bias is not easy to overcome. You can’t just drown it in facts.

And so, you see, our social scientists have everything under control.  All that’s left for us to do is to believe all of that “high quality information” we’re given, and restrain our impulses to reside in the land of “confirmation bias,” which prevents us from seeing the light.

Psychologists aren’t sure whether powerlessness causes conspiracy theories or vice versa. Either way, the current scientific thinking suggests these beliefs are nothing more than an extreme form of cynicism, a turning away from politics and traditional media — which only perpetuates the problem.

Thus if we can all quit “turning away from politics and traditional media,” and learn to accept the system, we can overcome those feelings of powerlessness as they are caused by our belief in conspiracy theories.See?  Problem solved.  Conspiracy theories are all just in our heads, and the quicker we recognize that, the more easily we’ll be able to ignore them, and get on with the enlightened task of believing what we’re told.

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