Way back in 2009 I wrote a post called “On the Conspiracy” wherein I was rather disparaging and dismissive of conspiracy thinking. I found it illogical and absurd. In many ways I still do, but over the course of the past four years I think I have become a bit more calmed in my critic. Adding to that is the benefit of interesting reads, like this one in today’s New York Times.
I have, throughout my life, known a fair number of people who believe and hold what is normally considered “conspiracy theories.” Some of the things they believe are nothing too extreme, while as others are outright bizarre. Some of the people are difficult to interact with at all because of their thinking and world views, while others are personal friends of mine whom I interact with regularly. All and all I think this is to say, like an alcoholic, a conspiracy theorist can be hard to spot from appearances alone.
In 2009 I thought that their thinking demonstrated a failing of logical facilities, but now my view has changed some. In many cases I think that people who adhere to conspiracy theories are actually using pretty good reasoning and logic within the conspiracy itself, however, I think that the conspiracy proper stems from a miss-assumption, a misguided premise, or an unseen fallacy in thinking. Furthermore, I feel like it demonstrates a missing of the point, a kind of focusing attention on the wrong details, but also, an over complicating worldview that is filled with paranoia.
I found this to be the most interesting line in the above New York Times’ piece:
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. Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.
I found it interesting because reading it I can say, with quite a bit of confidence, that I too often feel cynical about the world and politics. I too think that I am powerless to change certain aspects of the world and I feel the stress of the seemingly ceaseless uncertainty of life. Yet, considering all that, I am a decidedly not conspiracy theorizing type of person. In fact, I am on the opposite end, in that I spend more energy debunking things that I think of as conspiracies. Whenever I hear explanations for almost anything in the world, my mind immediately goes to work thinking, “Is this good reasoning? Where are the facts? Why would somebody do something like this?” I often apply Occam’s Razor quite heavily and raise serious questions the more complex reasons and explanations become.
So why? The article above breaches some of the reasons why people tend toward conspiratorial thinking and they all make sense to me. In many ways I think there is a cultural element to it (not to say this kind of thinking cannot exist in other cultures) in our beliefs in the American Dream and manifest destiny, and when things in the world interfere (or at least appear to interfere) with those pursuits, we seek to explain it. There is also a kind of total scapegoating to the whole thing, with a desires to blame the woes of life on some other party (whether those woes be the requirement of paying taxes or failures to understand the sciences or whatever else have you). But ultimately, I think it is because it is easy and safe and creates a sense of control.
For my own part, I suspect one of the reasons I don’t fall into conspiratorial thinking is because I have, for the most part, come to the conclusion that “I don’t know everything and I am okay with that. There are just going to be some things in this life that I don’t understand or can’t control, and I am going to do my best not to fret too much about that.” Does the government hide stuff from the public? Yes, unquestionably. Do businesses and scientists and whoever occasionally (or sometimes not so occasionally) lie to or mislead people? Sure they do. Are there some things that seem to just defy understanding and explanation? Quite a lot really. But in the end, I think that I just have to conclude that trying to apply my own explanations to these and other things is not going to really help me out all that much. When good solid evidence comes to light I will voice my opinion and make my decisions, in the mean time, I’ll let others do the conspiracies.
In the meantime, let it be known (again) that we all, legitimately, live in a world where some people are convinced that our world is secretly controlled by shape-shifting reptilians. And if that doesn’t give you a new perspective on things I don’t really know what will.