Conspiracy theorists these days sometimes object to the term ‘conspiracy theory’ – they claim it was a term invented by the CIA to discredit the truth getting out.
That’s right. There’s a conspiracy theory about conspiracy theories.
But what is a conspiracy theory anyway and are they ever right?
Unless your friends are all members of the Skeptic Society there’s a good chance that you’ll see a conspiracy theory pop up in your social media feed every now and then. Examples include:
– the moon landings were fake
– 9/11 was an inside job
– covid-19 is caused by 5G
– there’s no such disease as AIDS.
– the Earth is actually flat
– the world is run by a secret society of Jewish bankers
What do they have in common?
1. They offer an alternative explanation for an established truth. You might think the world is a globe hurtling through space but actually it’s a flat plane with ice all around it and a dome above!
2. They also claim that powerful interests want to keep us in the dark. The American government would like us to think that they’ve been to the moon but actually it was all filmed in Arizona!
3. They present new evidence that shows it all to be a lie. These 5G towers were installed just before the outbreak of covid-19!
4. There’s usually an expert or an inside source who spills the beans. This nobel prize winner says that covid-19 was created in a lab!
5. Finally, conspiracy theories encourage you to open your eyes, do your own research and work it out for yourself instead of just believing the official story.
But why would someone think these things to be true?
Historically, everyone believed that everything that happened was the will of God. If you got ill or your cow died or it snowed in May, that was just how God wanted it. Maybe it was part of the divine plan or maybe it was punishment for something you did. Maybe it was even the Devil playing tricks.
With the rise of science and critical thinking, people began to look for other explanations. Maybe everyone was dying of cholera because they didn’t go to church enough or maybe it was just because the public toilet was next to the well.
But it turns out we kinda missed someone being in charge of things.
The world is a chaotic place. People die, viruses mutate, markets crumble, accidents happen, natural disasters take place, Cats was made into a film.
If we can’t blame God any more for all of this then at least we can point the finger at Jewish bankers, the illuminati, the CIA, NASA, or reptiles from another dimension.
It might be an evil secret society in charge but hey, at least someone’s in control.
And, intuitively, we would like a big movie-like explanation for the big things that happen. Covid-19 is caused by a coronavirus that originated in bats. But that’s not as satisfying as saying it was created in a lab by the Chinese government.
But what feels true often has no connection with what is true. Intuition can be very wrong.
The reason that conspiracy theories are usually not credible is that while people do plot and conspire for their own profit it rarely goes perfectly to plan. The real history of the world is a story of mistakes, accidents, misunderstandings and general screw-ups. It’s a wonder that humans get anything together at all.
Just think of the times nuclear war was almost caused by a moonrise, a flight of swans and a solar flare.
Conspiracy theories also usually require the silence of hundreds or thousands of people. If the Holocaust didn’t actually happen then that required around 250,000 people who survived the concentration camps to lie convincingly well for the rest of their lives. Plus all the soldiers who liberated them. And the guards and the officials who ran the camps.
It’s just not credible. People are really bad at keeping secrets. Even though authorities do try to cover things up they usually don’t do that great a job. Like when the American public health service ran a study where they let black men suffer with syphilis for decades so they could see what happened.
Eventually someone leaked the story and it went to court.
What about the experts and scientists who said the theories were true?
They’re usually a tiny minority. Every now and then everyone is wrong except for a lone expert but it’s pretty damn rare.
And remember: experts and scientists are people, too. Some of them want attention. Some of them want to make money. Some of them are just plain crazy.
There are 10-15 million practising scientists in the world. It would be a miracle if they were all honest and sane.
There’s even a phenomenon called Nobel Disease where scientists who have won a Nobel Prize go on to say really foolish things. They’re obviously really smart people at the top of their game but whether through arrogance, vanity or eccentricity, end up believing in delusional stuff.
So what, we live in a friendly world where there are no conspiracies?
Of course not. People conspire all the time.
Corporations lobby governments to relax environmental regulations so they can exploit the earth.
Wealthy people donate to political parties in return for favours later on.
Newspapers write biased stories to influence how we vote.
But when real conspiracies are unmasked it’s usually through conscientious whistle blowers who speak out or leak information to the press. Or when journalists chase a story for years, building a case with thorough field work and interviews.
Like when Edward Snowden revealed that American and British intelligence were running a mass surveillance program.
Like when the Boston Globe exposed the sex abuse of children by priests that the Catholic church had covered up for decades.
It’s not generally done by people making Youtube videos at home. In fact, when a conspiracy comes to light like the Iran-Contra scandal of the 80’s or the Panama Papers in 2016, conspiracy theorists are generally quite uninterested.
So are conspiracy theories total nonsense?
Actually, no. At their heart conspiracy theories sometimes contain a kernel of truth.
Bill Gates is the current favourite target of conspiracy theorists who maintain he wants to vaccinate the world and slip in microchips at the same time to track us. That would require the kind of perfect political control and complicity that just doesn’t exist in the real world.
But does the Bill Gates foundation have too much influence on world affairs? Maybe.
Are there real concerns about digital privacy and surveillance? Certainly.
Even when we look at really wild theories like that of David Icke who claims that the world has been infiltrated by reptiles from another dimension. According to some surveys, 12 million Americans believe in it. But as this author put it in an insightful essay:
‘And when the staggering inequalities of wealth and power in the contemporary world have allowed the ruling class to live fantasy lives so utterly alien from our own, is it any wonder some of us have come to see them as almost inhuman?’
Icke was banned from Youtube and Facebook after repeatedly posting misinformation about covid-19 and I saw people in my own social media feed suddenly take an interest: there must be something to what he says if he’s getting banned!
The world is a complex, chaotic and confusing place. It’s tempting to believe in a story that makes it a simple struggle between Good and Evil. But if we want to change the world and make it a better place, then we need to understand how it works.
And conspiracy theories won’t help us with that.
https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/i-was-a-teenage-conspiracist/610975/ – on what it was like to believe conspiracy theories as a teenager and why they are so alluring.
https://theconversation.com/how-to-spot-a-conspiracy-theory-expert-guide-to-conspiracy-theories-part-one-133802 – the first in a 5 part series on conspiracy theories, their history and the psychology behind them.
https://www.newframe.com/beneath-conspiracy-theories-the-class-war/ – on the underlying truths of conspiracy theories in how they relate to inequalities of power and corruption.
https://medium.com/@julesevans/conspirituality-the-overlap-between-the-new-age-and-conspiracy-beliefs-c0305eb92185 – a lucid essay examining the relationship between spirituality and conspiracy theorising.