Why are we so gullible when it comes to conspiracy theories?
Updated: May 18, 2020
Science has been under attack for centuries, mainly when its ideas and theories conflict with what people want to believe. Is the world is flat? Can vaccines cause disease? is global warming is a hoax? Any of the dozens of conspiracy theories now floating across the internet challenges our entire view of reality and poses a darker picture than we previously assumed. Buy why?
For most of human history, there have been all sorts of strange theories about the world and how things came to be. Most of them were based on legends and were dead wrong, but they helped us make sense of the world. Then starting in the middle ages science came along and challenged many closely held beliefs. When once mankind thought the earth was flat and at the center of the universe, people like Copernicus and Galileo proved that none of that was true. Earth is a round ball in the midst of millions of other round balls that extend as far as the eye can see. This was one of the first big collisions between belief and reality, and it both revolutionized thought and caused a backlash against people like Galileo that punished them for proposing it.
Theories are perfect for coming up with a framework for how the world is supposed to operate. But conspiracy theories are something entirely different. According to those who propagate these theories, there is a grand conspiracy of leaders or groups working against humanity to control, manipulate, or fool them. To believe in one of these theories one needs to toss out trust in most institutions and begin trusting new sources. In a sense, the popularity of these theories is an indicator of how high or low the general population's satisfaction with their reality has become. People who are content don't need conspiracies, but those who are unhappy need someone to blame.
As I write this, here are some popular conspiracy theories circulating all over:
- The Covid-19 epidemic was caused by 5 G cell phone towers, vaccine producers wanting to control us, or Chinese scientists who deliberately created and released the virus.
- The deep state of government employees is deliberately sabotaging President Trump.
- The US government is hiding aliens in area 51.
- The 9/11 attacks were an inside job.
- The world is flat and scientists are in on the conspiracy.
- Climate change is a hoax perpetrated by governments and scientists.
- The Apollo moon landings were faked in a television studio.
- The Sandy Hook mass shooting was staged with fake actors.
- The Denver airport sits atop a secret headquarters of world-controlling Illuminati
- Elvis Presley faked his own death and is secretly still alive.
- Big pharma has a cure for cancer, but is holding it back to make more profits.
What to all of these theories have in common? They all take a darker view of humanity and propose instead that anonymous, malicious actors have formed an impenetrable conspiracy to fool and hide truths from people. (Except the Elvis one- that's just people not being able to let go of the King.) There are two problems with all of these theories. First, it's hard to imagine any instances where the type of coordination required wouldn't eventually fall apart- someone, somehow would crack if such a juicy secret were actually true. Getting governments across the world and across time is next to impossible on anything, much less a huge conspiracy. And second, there are no instances in history where conspiracies such as these were later uncovered with actual proof. None. The type of secrecy required is only available inside such organizations as the CIA or KBG, which are staffed and monitored by fallible human beings who don't rise up to the evil genius level portrayed in superhero movies.
Let's take the most popular conspiracy theory out there, one that for a long time many have agreed with, including myself. Was John F. Kennedy killed by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, or was he killed by an elaborate conspiracy? The Warren commission, which was set up to investigate JFK's death, concluded that Oswald acted alone. But because so many people had reasons to hate Kennedy, conspiracy theories have persisted over decades. Oswald had visited Russia. The CIA was mad at Kennedy over the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the defense department may have been worried that he wouldn't escalate the war in Vietnam. The mafia even had ties to Kennedy and some think they were involved. In the 50 years since that event, no one has brought forth any new evidence, including Oswald's killer, Jack Ruby, who many think was in on it.
The real problem is that Kennedy was a young, charismatic, and popular president who was gunned down randomly on the streets of Dallas. The accused assassin, Oswald, was himself brutally shot to death just days after JFK. Americans were in grief and wanted answers, and the Warren commission didn't give them the ones they wanted. US presidents aren't supposed to be subject to the whims of crazy men with a rifle. In an instant, the world was turned upside down.
Huge events like this produced the kinds of speculation that led all sorts of creative conspiracy theories to fill in the gaps. (See Oliver Stone's movie JFK to get a sense of the furor of the moment.) With the limited evidence of a single home movie, amateur sleuths have spent the last half-century trying to come up with better reasons. In a way, it would be more comforting to think that a conspiracy took JFK down. That would make more sense. The conspirators could be identified and punished. And Americans could go back to feeling safe in their assumptions like they had before. The thought of a lone gunman changing history was too much for many to digest. (even though three other presidents before JFK had also been shot and killed). Could future presidents be taken out as easily?
Conspiracy theories come from a deep part of our brains that want to feel like we live in an ordered and predictable universe, even if that order means evil characters manipulating us. Randomness terrifies us. We want to feel in control of our lives, and use the one power we have left- the power of what to choose to believe, to take back control. We can get mad at evil and fight back at conspiracies, but how do you prepare for random crazies with guns?
The same lesson can be used for Covid-19 and all other pandemics. All scientific evidence shows that the virus traveled naturally from animals to humans, mutating as it went. There is no evidence of any conspiracy regarding Covid-19, yet we have created many of them because we hate the idea that a tiny microbe could so easily spread and take out a huge chunk of humanity. Viruses are impossible to see and hard to understand, while evil geniuses using 5G technology can be better understood, identified, and defeated.
Before we get too comfortable thinking "well of course I don't believe that rubbish", there's a bigger concept at work here. The big idea is that we all want our world to make sense. Only a lot of times it doesn't. So we fill in the gaps to make sense of it- maybe not with elaborate conspiracy theories, but with other assumptions and beliefs that can be just as wrong. The world is just too large and complex for any of us to fully grasp, as I've written about before. We all need to approach reality with a bit of humility and a lot of curiosity. If you think you know better than anybody else what's really going on, you're only fooling yourself.
Why on earth would anyone believe that a pizza parlor would be a front for a human trafficking and child sex ring? Why did people insist against all evidence that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya when his birth certificate showed him being born in Hawaii? Some believe that conspiracy theories are becoming more prominent because of the extreme polarization in our politics. There is a need to demonize the other side, so much so that terrible things are made up and spread around to make it easier to hate them. Motivated reasoning has produced reality bubbles that people protect at all costs, sometimes by making up stories to explain away things that don't fit.
Conspiracy theories are nothing new. They've been around as long as gossip because they serve a purpose and give those who harbor them a new sense of superiority and meaning. The advantage we have today is that we have all sorts of tools to sort out fact from fiction. Sites like Snopes, Politifact, and Factcheck. If you get swept up in a conspiracy theory that ends up being debunked, you have no one to blame but yourself. Reality is messy, but it's the only game in town.