Do You Believe . . . in Conspiracies?



The Americans now have a President who is Commander in Chief of Conspiracies.  It began, publicly at least, with his stated belief in the birther movement which claimed that Barak Obama was actually born in Nigeria and not in the US.  It now takes the form of asserting that Obama ordered wiretapping in his headquarters in Trump Tower, prior to the election. Even if he does not actually believe this but has put it out as a rather clever ploy to distract attention from his possible connection with Russian oligarchs, it is clear that many of his supporters DO believe it.


Who believe in conspiracy theories, and why?  According to empirical research (University of Miami political scientists Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent and presented in their book American Conspiracy Theories) about one third of Americans believed in the birther theory or that 9-11 was an inside job masterminded by the Bush Administration. “37% of surveyed Americans believe that the FDA is deliberately preventing the public from accessing natural cures for cancer because they’re beholden to drug companies.”  According to surveys they have administered, “believers in conspiracies cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational status.”


And, according to a Public Policy Polling survey “around 12 million people in the US believe that interstellar lizards in people suits rule our country.”  (Now, this figure only represents 4% of the population, so put it in perspective, although the latest election might strain your rational mind if you are a Democrat.)


Uscinski and Parent define a conspiracy theory as having 4 four characteristics: “(1) a group (2) acting in secret (3) to alter institutions, usurp power, hide truth, or gain utility (4) at the expense of the common good.”  At the core of a conspiracy belief is that some people or groups have power and they are out to inflict damage on the powerless. (That would be us!)


Psychologist Rob Brotherton, an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology at Barnard College and the author of “Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories” believes that one of the causes of the existence of conspiracy theories is that they’re the result of people trying to explain the world around them by identifying – or misidentifying — patterns.  We look for meaning when something occurs and find it almost impossible to believe that something may be simply random or occur by chance.


Psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen, of VU Amsterdam in the Netherlands, said “Conspiracist beliefs in the face of setbacks are particularly likely in people who are high in narcissism. When a narcissist’s feelings of personal superiority are undermined he looks for a scapegoat.”


My own theory as to why people (or which people) believe various conspiracy theories is due to the fact that we have lost trust, in a massive way, with those institutions which were once considered bedrocks of our democracy:  the Church, the Media, and Government.  Pedophile priests and ministers, news organizations that let their political views affect their coverage of newsworthy events, and Governments that lie and withhold information until a whistleblower or reporter uncovers it, are all to blame for the decrease in trust felt by many.


You might just as well forget about trying to change the mind of those who believe in a conspiracy.  It is ridiculously tempting to try and do so, of course, because most of these folks have facts (or at least alternative facts) that prove their belief.  You think that if you can just give them the “true” facts (are there really any other kind?) they will understand how mistaken they are.  There are people, for example, who believe that the massacre of kids at Sandy Hook is a hoax, and that the grieving parents are paid actors.  They go so far as to send their accusations to these people on a regular basis.  There does not appear to be any data that you can provide them that will give them a reason to change their mind.  I guess that, in the face of such a horrific event, the only rational way for some people to cope is to invent a hoax and avoid the sad reality.


Although there is no iron clad defense against the formulation of a conspiracy, maintaining as clear and transparent organization and process as possible works as well as anything.


While conspiracy believers may be cynical about the motives and trustworthiness of the powerful they are not altogether delusional.  Not every group or individual has our best interest at heart.  But it is a pretty big step to go from believing that our boss is out to get us to thinking that he is a lizard person in a well-cut suit.  And be cautious that you do not fall into the proposition issued by George Will: “The utter absence of proof for a proposition is proof of a successful conspiracy to destroy all proof “