Why Do People Believe Conspiracy Theories?

Perhaps no aspect of the Donald Trump era has been as surprising – or as alarming – as the rise of fringe conspiracy theories into mainstream political discourse. Everything from windmills causing cancer to South African “white genoide,” to Bill and Hillary Clinton being involved in political assassinations, to DNC e-mail servers winding up in a basement in Ukraine has been elevated into mainstream news and political discourse in recent years. In just about any other time, these kinds of stories would have been relegated to the front page of the Weekly World News at the check-out line in the grocery story, but in 2020, they have all been peddled by no less than the President of the United States. How did this happen, and what are we going to do about it? Let’s take a deep dive into the murky world of conspiracy theories and see what we can find out.

To begin with, conspiracy theories are very difficult to deal with from a factual basis for two reasons. First, they are often uselessly vague. It’s very easy to say, “I think Bill Clinton had Jeffrey Epstein killed.” While it is true that there are questions surrounding his death, without some specifics on how you think Bill Clinton might have been involved, there’s really nothing to investigate or disprove. The claim has to be specific enough to be falsifiable if it is to be taken seriously. If you said, “Bill Clinton met with one of the prison guards in Central Park and paid him $50,000 the day before Epstein’s death,” that claim could be falsified by showing that Bill Clinton was out of the country that day. Secondly, conspiracy theories provide a built-in escape hatch for their proponents in the form of what’s called a special pleading in logic. When I point out that there is no evidence of any sort linking Bill Clinton to the death, it’s easy to come back with, “Well, there wouldn’t be. They made sure it was destroyed or hidden.” That position involves inherently unverifiable claims, so we’re really done there. It’s sort of like saying there’s no evidence of God because God doesn’t want there to be. That’s an interesting philosophical question, but from a practical standpoint there’s simply nothing to debate once the rules of evidence go out the window.

Proponents of conspiracy theories also frequently get the burden of proof backwards. They like to throw out extraordinary claims and present them as factual until disproven. Donald Trump can tweet out a claim that “Obama had my wires tapped” or that Joe Scarborough murdered his assistant with no supporting evidence at all, and his surrogates and supporters will treat it as factual until disproven. Well, that’s just not the way logical argument works. First of all, it’s logically impossible to prove a negative. It’s impossible to prove that ghosts don’t exist. The best we can do is show there is no evidence so far. Therefore, when dealing with conspiracy theories, we apply two scientific and skeptical principles – the Sagan standard, set forth by the late astronomer Carl Sagan, which states extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the weight of the evidence required must be proportional to its strangeness, and Occam’s razor, which holds that all things being equal, the simplest explanation requiring the fewest new assumptions tends to be the right one. Once we apply those two standards, pretty much all conspiracy theories fall apart rather quickly.

But where do these conspiracy theories come from, and why do people believe them so easily? Well, these days, the most active originator of conspiracy theories is almost certainly the Russian government, via its official outlets, Sputnik News and Russia Today. A great many conspiracy theories in the Trump era can trace their origins to these two outlets, from whence they spread to fringe media outlets like Infowars and Breitbart, and eventually get picked up by mainstream outlets like Fox News and then repeated by Donald Trump. Even many of those that are actually not originated from Russia may be selectively re-framed and pushed by these outlets once they are deemed to be useful. Russia will push just about anything they believe is divisive and creates some degree of mistrust of government and official news sources.

“But wait,” I hear you saying. “Aren’t you pushing a conspiracy theory here?” No, because all of this is well-documented. Declassified KGB documents reveal that as early as the 1960s and throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the KGB was engaged in a massive disinformation campaign to promote conspiracy theories about everything from the U.S. Government creating AIDS in a lab to CIA involvement in the Kennedy assassination, secret government adoptions of Honduran children for organ harvesting, mailing out fake fliers and books to promote a race war between Jews, the KKK, and the Black Panthers after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and even stories about UFO cover-ups. Anything that creates an erosion of trust in institutions and sows the seeds of divisiveness is fair game. The espionage term for this practice is active measures. Vladimir Putin is a former KGB agent, and this is what he did extremely well; he is a Checkist to the core. These days, the disinformation comes via the Internet Research Agency, and it’s a lot easier than it used to be. All they have to do is make an anonymous post on 4chan or share a meme on Facebook, and the algorithms take it from there. This is all detailed in Part 1 of the Mueller Report. Now clearly, I’m not saying that all conspiracy theories come from Russia, but the fact is Russia is a major megaphone for them.

That’s all well and good, but starting them is only half of the problem. The other half is that people so easily believe them. Tell Trump supporters that 16 separate U.S. intelligence agencies, the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Democratic National Committee, dozens of members of Congress, the intelligence agencies of Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia, the government of Ukraine, dozens upon dozens of independent media outlets, and a retired British spy all conspired to frame Donald Trump and Russia for election interference, but then keep it all secret until after the election so they could impeach him, and they believe it without question. But show those same Trump supporters a chart of COVID-19 deaths around the world that looks bad for the U.S., and they will go to their graves screaming, “FAKE NEWS!” What is it inside of us that makes us want to see the world this way? What is it that’s broken in our critical thinking process that prevents us from seeing reality?

First and foremost, conspiracy theories make the world more interesting. The reality is that it’s just more fun to believe in a world secretly run by lizard people living underneath the Denver airport who are controlling the population with secret toxins spread by airplane chemtrails and installing tracking chips in everyone through vaccines. It distracts us from the humdrum reality of our day-to day lives and gives us something to talk about. When I was young, I used to believe in ghosts, the Loch Ness monster, alien visitors, ESP, and anything else that made my world more fun growing up. But as I grew older and learned about skepticism, science, and reason, those things all began to disintegrate right in front of my eyes. I frequently use the example of the Loch Ness monster to describe my personal developmental process. As a kid in the ’70s and ’80s, I thought the evidence for the existence of the monster was pretty compelling – photos, videos, and sonar contacts. But as the years wore on, one by one, the pieces of evidence began to be exposed as either hoaxes or bad science. The surgeon’s photograh was a hoax. The Dinsdale film was a man in a boat. The underwater Rines photographs were of a stump on the bottom of the loch. The Lachlan Stewart photo was three floating hay bales. Eventually, it got to the point that there was simply nothing left, and I had to face the realization that my dragon had been slain. But rather than choose to despair and view the world as a less interesting place, I learned to view the mysteries of real science as far more interesting than pseudoscience mysteries.

Secondly, conspiracy theories satisfy our human need to understand very complex subjects that we are not trained to understand. From the earliest beginnings of human civilization, people looked up at the sky and wanted to understand what they were seeing. But because they weren’t equipped at that point in human history to understand weather, astronomy, and astrophysics, they did what people tend to do when they don’t understand – they made some shit up. Conspiracy theories are the modern-day equivalent of sun gods and astrology. Although the evolution and transmission of viruses from animals to humans has been well understood for most of the last century, and instances of it are not even remotely unusual, very few people have the specialized training required to understand how this actually happens. Because virology, genome sequencing, and infectious disease are complex subjects that are way over most people’s heads, but people still desperately want to understand what’s happening, it’s a lot easier to believe that it was manufactured in a lab as part of some global conspiracy to take down Donald Trump than to spend a decade going to medical school and specializing in infectious disease. Of course, those aren’t the only two options – we can just listen to the people who did, but that isn’t very satisfying from a psychological standpoint. And as a side note, if the virus was created as a bio weapon, it’s the worst one ever. Real bio weapons like Anthrax have a kill ratio of around 50%, while COVID-19 seems to be somewhere around 5%.

Conspiracy theories also give us some level of comfort by providing someone to blame for everything bad that happens. It’s human nature to want to find someone to blame for things not being the way we think they should be. Naturally, no one wants to admit that they might have been wrong, or possibly made bad choices. Nobody is proud to admit that they were fooled by a con man. Even worse, no one wants to admit that sometimes bad things happen for no reason at all because the universe is random and nobody is actually in charge of things. That’s a terrifying prospect to most people, so we seek out ways to comfort ourselves and create some sort of structure that we can recognize, sometimes through religion, sometimes through conspiracy theories, or maybe sometimes by other means. Likewise, if global temperatures are rising catastrophically due to human activity, that means we might have to make some difficult choices and face some personal inconvenience to our comfortable lifestyles in order to survive as a species. But if politicians and pundits assure us that it’s all a hoax, we can take comfort in believing that we can continue along in our current lifestyle uninterrupted. That’s a comforting, but incredibly dangerous, way to think.

The most fundamental problem with conspiracy theories is that they require you to work backwards. You start from a conclusion and then work backwards to find evidence to support it, and that’s contrary to every rule of investigation known. It’s also important to note that no conspiracy theory has ever turned out to actually be true. There may have been grains of truth to some of them, but the overall idea has always failed to materialize as promised. If you support a conspiracy theory – even one promoted by the President of the United States – history says that you are almost certainly wrong. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There is no shame in being wrong, but continuing to cling to a belief that you really know is not true in order to avoid facing reality or admitting a mistake is a very bad thing. The English author and gerontologist Aubrey De Grey once wrote, “Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it.”

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