“It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” ― Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes
According to the late Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper, the validity of a scientific hypothesis hinges on its falsifiability: the quality of being open to refutation by new empirical evidence. To be recognised as “successful”, said theory must withstand sustained attempts to disprove it. In the social sphere of the day, where existence entails accepting certain realities untestable by the individual (“How can global warming be real if it’s snowing out?”), a degree of trust is placed in the judgement of the broader community. To this end, a “successful” theory is one that is embraced by a satisfactorily high proportion of the people it is offered to: the achievement of consensus.
A conspiracy theory, understood to be “a belief that an event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by powerful people”, satisfies each of these criteria by working on the definitions in reverse. Through the scientific lens, contrary evidence is automatically dismissed as supporting facts alone are plucked and placed into the necessary alignment that “logically” justifies the conclusion (a wonderfully effective perversion of backwards induction). From the social perspective, instead of increasing the theory’s argumentative power so as to convince the wider population, the pool of worthy acceptors is restricted to those enlightened few outside of the mainstream (being affirmed by “the herd” would nullify its raison d’être after all), of whom 100% are bound to proudly attest to its legitimacy.
An individual employing these techniques would be laughed out of the room. It follows that the often overlooked key principle behind these practices is that of collectivism: a subordination of the individual (and his/her interests) to the priorities of the group. This is encapsulated in language promoting facile bifurcations of society into “believers” versus “non-believers”, “us” against “them”, those “in-the-know” and the naïve and helpless “sheeple” (the range of not-so-subtle insulting neologisms warrants its own stocking-filler novelty glossary). Both “sides” have been swept up in perpetuating this state of affairs: any conventional journalist is reflexively branded a mindless shill by conspiracy theorists, and anyone voicing outlandish claims of government cover-up is cast into the looney bin by the general public.
The continuation of this sorry status quo means we all lose. Lives are lost due to the spread of misinformation, important disclosures are deprived of the attention they deserve, friends and family members become ostracised and time is irrecoverably wasted. The chasm widens and the void in between darkens every day this dilemma is left unaddressed. Understanding how we got here is crucial to breaking free from this spell. For that we must descend into the belly of the beast…
To say that human-beings are pre-disposed to be attracted to conspiracy theories is something of an understatement. From the outset, like a glaring warning light on a dashboard, their sensational titles wrench the attention away from the mundanity of regular news. “New legislation reduces restrictions on the use of pesticides in farming” or “Government expands plans to rain down mind-control substances through chemtrails”? Juicy bait indeed.
The moment you’re on the hook, a collection of biases declares war against your rational mind, increasing your susceptibility to the claims. Proportionality bias is the tendency to assume major events have major causes (“Everything happens for a reason”). Intentionality bias has us yearning to believe all outcomes are intentionally planned. Conspiracy theories therefore offer much-needed emotional reassurance by explaining what you’ve always wanted to believe: the world is pitted against you.
The idea that only the dull are prone to falling into this trap is mistaken. Quite the opposite in fact. Through a sophistication effect, those with the highest levels of intellectual firepower and knowledge are the most adept at crafting arguments in support of a position (however tenuous), as well as counterarguments to the contrary. In intelligence terms at least, it can happen to the best of us.
Once started down that path, a whole other psychological dictionary comes into play to keep you on it without looking back. The crux of which is cognitive dissonance: the distressing phenomenon of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s head simultaneously (in this case, that the world is random and indomitable and that everything is organised in such a way to conspire against you). This tension is invariably diffused via motivated reasoning: convincing oneself of what one wants to believe through confirmation bias, favouring evidence that supports our beliefs, and its inverse, disconfirmation bias, applying harsher scrutiny and scepticism to non-concordant evidence.
Behaviourally, this tends to manifest itself through selective exposure: seeking only information which reinforces pre-existing views whilst skirting contradictory facts entirely. This goes some way in explaining how incredible amounts of personal “research” always seem to consolidate what you believe every step of the way (since when did simply spending a lot of time reading become research? You could pour through the Bible ad infinitum without learning how to make an adequate omelette).
The online environment is tailored to indulge this desire in order to keep us happy consumers. Eli Pariser decries the dangers of becoming ensconced in a filter bubble: an intellectual cocoon created by website algorithms guessing what we’d like to see and personalizing our search results based on our history, past click-behaviour and current location.
Regardless of your intent or the amplitude of your personal biases, by now you are “one of us”. For those who never really felt like they fit in, this can provide a much sought-after sense of acceptance and belonging. How can it be wrong to find heart-warming companionship among harmless ordinary people? Your agency in global affairs is suddenly overestimated by the illusion of being a same-sized cog in a smaller machine. Within this comfortable echo chamber, your worldview is no longer the source of ridicule; it is reinforced and projected back to you (the world is pitted against us).
Projection bias means those most likely to endorse conspiracy theories tend to exhibit more conspiratorial behaviour themselves (spreading rumours or tending to be suspicious of others’ motives). Thus, it seems natural that other people would do the same, making conspiracies themselves more plausible (in itself a manifestation of the false consensus effect).
The thought of hanging up your boots is exquisitely unattractive. Not only are you acutely aware of the vitriol that would be hurled your way by the community you’d be rejecting (no one likes a quitter, let alone a traitor), but no one is waiting to graciously welcome you back to reality. As if this weren’t enough, you would have to suffer the indignity of admitting you were duped and thoroughly wrong, potentially about almost everything. There’s really no choice at all but to stay and cling for dear life on to the hope that you will one day be vindicated and hailed as a prescient champion of the truth.
The collectivisation imperative transcends the membership into the ideological: irrespective of your support for each individual conspiracy, the requirement for a unified theory of everything conspiratorial takes precedence. It’s all or nothing in this game; disagreeing with anything makes you an enemy of everything. Independent voice is disallowed, you speak for the community in its entirety: toe the line or suffer the consequences.
This clustering of all conspiracies is blatantly self-serving. Not all conspiracy theories are created equal, and thus it stands to reason each one should be evaluated on its individual merits. Individually, a great many of these claims could easily be refuted, but isn’t it just too improbable that ALL of these theories aren’t true! Miraculously, a corruption of probabilistic statistics makes the whole fantasy greater than the sum of its crazy parts. Almost 300 years ago now the Humean problem of induction hinted that applying conclusions from one set of observations to the generality was a foolish pursuit.
Backing the most preposterous claims is a signal that you can be trusted and are loyal to the cause. This ensures the suppression of dissenting opinion from within (in case a reference to Stalinism seems too far-fetched, anyone dubious of the dangers of radical self-policing is encouraged to read up on The Third Wave experiment, you will not be disappointed). As there’s no way to distinguish such “tests” from run-of-the-mill theories, the boat keeps getting pushed out farther and farther.
The combination of demonstrating unwavering allegiance to the ideological resistance and proclaiming the death of objectivity makes it all too easy for belief to trump fact. Perhaps someone innocently mistranslated Descartes’s famous maxim as “I think I’m right therefore I am right”, but it bears repeating that believing something, however wholeheartedly, does not make it true (the world isn’t an extension of your views upon it any more than it revolves around you). The fervour with which this most often occurs is rarely more than a displacement mechanism to conceal one’s underlying insecurity about their position (“I’m not misled, you are!”). Every attempt to lure you astray with reason is but a test of your conviction.
In hindsight, divergent phenomena are retroactively brought into the fold through immunization strategies (“Oh but that’s what I actually meant!”). By no small feat, flatly contradictory evidence is perceived as proof of mass delusion and actually bolsters the conspiracy. The persistent hostility towards the theories alone is often entered as evidence. This idea is particularly fascinating in its childishness: if these revelations weren’t true, why would anyone be resisting them? (No evidence, no problem: no evidence is evidence of a cover-up, and evidence of a cover-up is evidence of the deed. Thanks a lot, Nixon).
The fact that conspiracy theorists are themselves embattled justifies their war: the fight is their lifeblood. If the product they peddled were to become mainstream, the entire underground ecosystem of “investigators” would vanish overnight (as would many organisations upon completion of their objective for that matter; no more need for the military-industrial complex without enemies on the horizon. Hmm).
Just because their trade is exposing the ulterior motives of evil cabals ruling the world, doesn’t mean these people are beyond their own private interests. They’re only human, scrambling up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs like the rest of us: they still need to pay their bills and feed their families (or at least, their cats) and share desires for belonging, recognition and self-actualisation. In much the same way an architect’s house is always crooked, are they just too altruistic for introspection?
Danger lies in this recognition: calling everything into question makes it easier than ever for liars to prosper. The c-word should never be used lightly, but add a sufficiently manipulative leader and it’s hard not to call this a cult. Much like the entrepreneurial religious fanatics cashing-in on blind faith (televangelists being perhaps the most successful cult leaders of all time, at least if number of private jets per capita is an appropriate metric), many minds are made vulnerable to exploitation.
Recognising the collectivist doctrine that governs the conspiracy movement and re-asserting individualism at every turn is the best lifeline on offer. Dispelling the idea that the world is but a battleground for two warring ideological factions is a start. In case it wasn’t painfully obvious, the “mainstream” doesn’t agree on just about everything at the moment. The only apparently insular community that seems to have coagulated into groupthink is that of the “outsiders”.
Differing opinions are more likely to resonate than ever. The onus is on conspiracy theorists to leave the womb and make the case for each theory one by one (how can we the “sheeple” have any hope of removing the wool from our eyes without you?). Refusal to do so is the epitome of cowardice. In return, the rest of us must endeavour to provide an impartial platform and not shun those who purport these views. Any self-satisfied temptations of “I told you so” must be swallowed. We can all do better.
Such a change of tack won’t be pleasant, but we can all benefit from recognising our common fallibility. The temptation is tantalising, and we’re evolutionarily inclined to let our curiosity get the best of us. Disabusing ourselves of collectivism extracts the keystone that will send this whole unfortunate edifice tumbling down. All of this may well fall on deaf ears (or, I suppose, blind eyes?), but at the very least my contribution to the façade should prompt the “globalists” to spare my life…