Thursday, May 21, 2009

Conspiracy Theories

Following on from Viking's excellent summation on the propensity for some people to believe in conspiracy theories, here is a piece I first posted on this very blog on May 8, 2008 about a year ago. Coincidence..? I think not..wooOOoeeeoo...

Human beings are prone to believe in nonsense.

We typically find ways to use our rational thinking to support our nonsense theories, and usually the nonsense we believe in is harmless so long as it doesn’t interfere with our ability to work, love, and play (to use Freud’s old descriptor’s of mental health.)

Conspiracy theories have been a staple of Western zeitgeist for decades and have spawned a cottage industry and made many people quite wealthy. UFOs, AIDS, 9/11, JFK's assassination, the moon landings, the Freemasons, the Illuminati - to name but a few.

The conspiracy theories reinforce some people’s existing anxiety about government and also reinforce the comforting idea that life is not completely random. Even if “they” who are in control are evil, it is a comfort to know someone is in control and knows what is going on.

Conspiracy theories exploit a known glitch in human reasoning.

The theories are occasionally true but their truth is completely uncorrelated with the believer’s certainty. For some reason, sometimes when people think they’ve uncovered a lie, they raise confirmation bias to an art form. They cut context away from facts and arguments and assemble into reassuring litanies.

And over and over you will argue helplessly with seemingly smart people consumed by theories that they were sure were irrefutable, theories that in the end proved complete fictions.

The Mother of All Conspiracy Theories, at least in the West, goes something like this: There is an ubiquitous secret society in our midst, alien to our religion, which aims to seize control of the world, or at least the only part of it which counts, i.e. ours. They are everywhere; they are ruthless and powerful (often, supernaturally powerful); they are sexually corrupt (often, incestuous); they perform the very worst of crimes, perhaps as rituals (often, infanticide, cannibalism and religious desecration).

It is now as it has always been the mainstay of demagogues, and for some reason it seems Westerners are particularly vulnerable to it.

So what kind of thought processes contributes to a belief in conspiracy theories? Essentially, people often assume that an event with substantial, significant or wide-ranging consequences is likely to have been caused by something substantial, significant or wide-ranging.

To appreciate why this form of reasoning is seductive, consider the alternative: major events having minor or mundane causes - for example, the assassination of a president by a single, possibly mentally unstable, gunman, or the death of a princess because of a drunk driver. This presents us with a rather chaotic and unpredictable relationship between cause and effect.

Instability makes most of us uncomfortable; we prefer to imagine we live in a predictable, safe world, so in a strange way, some conspiracy theories offer us accounts of events that allow us to retain a sense of safety and predictability.

The way we search for and evaluate evidence affects our belief systems. People give greater attention to information that fits with their existing beliefs, a tendency called “confirmation bias”.

This fits with the observation that conspiracy theories often mutate over time in light of new or contradicting evidence. So, for instance, if some new information appears to undermine a conspiracy theory, either the plot is changed to make it consistent with the new information, or the theorists question the legitimacy of the new information. Theorists often argue that those who present such information are themselves embroiled in the conspiracy.

2 Opinion(s):

Vanilla Ice said...

Indeed, this article is just a plot to divert attention. You are actually involved, together with the Rothchilds. By the way, Elvis is still alive too.

Doberman said...

Darn it, I've been unmasked. My bosses at Black Helicopter HQ won't be amused.