Conspiracy Theorists. Aren’t They Just Delightful?

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The election of donald j. trump has brought the conspiracy theorists out of the woodwork like never before.  After all, the man LOVES the uneducated.  He said so himself, and conspiracy theories are those theories that are not based in fact.  They are not based on scientific evidence.  They are not even based on common sense.  They are cooked up stories based on literally nothing, and their proponents claim that they “resonate” with them or that they are “spiritually based” or other reasons, and they vehemently believe them.

Most roots of conspiracy theories stem from prejudice, whether it is racial discrimination, sexual discrimination or other redneck, uneducated beliefs.

I found this commentary on conspiracy theorists on Scientific American, and wanted to share it with you, because this seems to cover the subject very well.   However, first, I want to bring attention to an excellent book on the topic of people who believe conspiracy theories.  It is called Empire of Conspiracy by Tim Melley.

Melley seeks to explain why conspiracy theories and paranoia have become so pervasive in American culture in recent decades. He discusses some of the paranoia behind our obsessions with political assassinations, gender and race relations, stalkers, mind control, bureaucracies, and the power of corporations and governments.

Melley proposes that conspiracy thinking arises from a combination of two factors, when someone: 1) holds strong individualist values and 2) lacks a sense of control. The first attribute refers to people who care deeply about an individual’s right to make their own choices and direct their own lives without interference or obligations to a larger system (like the government). But combine this with a sense of powerlessness in one’s own life, and you get what Melley calls agency panic, “intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy” to outside forces or regulators.

When fervent individualists feel that they cannot exercise their independence, they experience a crisis and assume that larger forces are to blame for usurping this freedom. “For one who refuses to relinquish the assumptions of liberal individualism, such newly revealed forms of regulation frequently seem so unacceptable or unbelievable that they can only be met with anxiety, melodrama, or panic.”

Research by psychologist Jean Twenge is consistent with his hypotheses. Twenge’s research examines how Americans’ personality traits have been changing over the past several decades. She reviews the results of hundreds of studies published from the 1960s through the end of the century, looking at the personality scores for each year. For example, she finds that trait anxiety (or neuroticism) has been rising dramatically in both children and adults over this period.

In another study, she shows that people have come to hold an increasingly stronger external “locus of control”; this refers to the feeling that external forces are determining what happens to you, as opposed to an internal locus of control, the feeling that you dictate your own outcomes. Twenge suggests that the stronger external locus of control reflects our ever-increasing exposure to uncontrollable events and a rise in the “victim mentality” of our culture. (Is this sounding familiar?)

Individualistic values have also been getting stronger in our culture, with greater importance attached to personal freedoms and self-reliance. The U.S. currently ranks highest in individualism compared to all other nations in the world.

The rise in anxiety, individualism, and external locus of control may therefore underlie the rise in conspiracy thinking. This is somewhat troubling because these personality trends show no sign of leveling off. In fact, given the current pace of globalization and the “Americanization” of other countries, it seems likely that these personality traits (and conspiracy thinking) will be increasing elsewhere too.

But what’s the actual appeal of believing in conspiracy theories? What purpose do they serve people?

For one thing, conspiracy theories help us cope with distressing events and make sense out of them. Conspiracies assure us that bad things don’t just happen randomly. Conspiracies tell us that someone out there is accountable, however unwittingly or secretly or incomprehensibly, so it’s possible to stop these people and punish them and in due course let everyone else re-establish control over their own lives. Conspiracies also remind us that we shouldn’t blame ourselves for our predicaments; it’s not our fault, it’s them! In these ways, believing in conspiracies serves many of the same self-protective functions as scapegoating.

In addition to the changes in personality, conspiracy theories are also growing more popular because of the mass media, which circulates these ideas to a wider audience and indoctrinates more believers. Plus, the sheer amount of information in today’s media increases the odds that someone will detect “coincidences” or “patterns” that serve to fuel these beliefs. These trends in the media won’t be reversing themselves anytime soon either.

Does all this mean we should expect even more conspiracy theorizing and paranoia to come? Will conspiracy theories ever become a dominant ideology in our culture the way scapegoating sometimes is in other cultures?

It’s not clear whether we’ve reached any sort of tipping point yet. But if polls are any indication, the events of 9/11 may have transformed conspiracy theories from “implausible visions of a lunatic fringe” to a mainstream response to the most disturbing of events.

Here is the Scientific American article that I referred to earlier:

By Caitlin Shure on September 1, 2013

Scientific American

Credit: Flickr/Upside of Inertia

Conspiracy theories and scientific theories attempt to explain the world around us. Both apply a filter of logic to the complexity of the universe, thereby transforming randomness into reason. Yet these two theoretical breeds differ in important ways. Scientific theories, by definition, must be falsifiable. That is, they must make reliable predictions about the world; and if those predictions turn out to be incorrect, the theory can be declared false. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are tough to disprove. Their proponents can make the theories increasingly elaborate to accommodate new observations; and, ultimately, any information contradicting a conspiracy theory can be answered with, “Well sure, that’s what they want you to think.”

Despite their unfalsifiable nature, conspiracy theories attract significant followings. Not all theorists, it seems, hold their “truths” to the standards of conventional science. And scientists are beginning to understand the types of personalities that buy into more extreme and unlikely theories. Research reveals that conspiracy theorists tend to share a core set of traits, regardless of their conspiracy of choice. Low self-esteem, for example, may characterize both those who believe that Paul McCartney died in 1966 and those who think that Britain’s royal family consists of reptilian aliens.

For a more in-depth account, see “What a Hoax” by Sander van der Linden in the September/October issue of Scientific American MIND.

DA VINCI’S DISCIPLES


Credit: Courtesy of Jez Elliot

The theory:
Some or all of the claims made in Dan Brown’s 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code, are true.

Studies say:
Even theories billed as fiction can attract a following. A survey conducted in 2005 revealed that 64 percent of respondents who read The Da Vinci Code believed to some extent that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene had spawned a secret bloodline. Willingness to believe in this conspiracy may be related to what researchers call “terror management theory,” which holds that subscribing to such grand dogma can assuage fears related to mortality. Indeed, a 2011 study found an association between belief in Da Vinci-esque conspiracies and anxiety about death.

AMELIA EARHART


Credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Harris & Ewing Collection Collection

The theory:
The disappearance of aviators Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan has bred an array of conspiracy theories ranging from the optimistic (Earhart survived and lived in New Jersey until 1982) to the extraterrestrial (the duo was abducted by aliens).

Studies say:
In a study of 914 adults in London, University of Westminster’s Viren Swami andAdrian Furnham of University College London found that 4.5 percent of respondents espoused an alien abduction theory, 5.5 percent believed the two were spies taken down by the Japanese, and only 32 percent endorsed a relatively undramatic account that the plane crashed into the Pacific after running out of gas. Further, researchers found that respondents who believed in Earhart conspiracy theories had lower self-esteem, were more likely to be cynical toward politics, were less agreeable and gave themselves lower ratings of intelligence.

[break]

SPAWNING A “TRUTH MOVEMENT”


Credit: Courtesy of diking

The theory:
Numerous outlandish narratives exist surrounding the events of September 11, 2001. In many of these stories, the U.S. government knew about the attacks ahead of time; in some, they even helped orchestrate the tragedy.

Studies say:
A second study by Viren Swami and colleagues found that belief in a 9/11 conspiracy was associated with political cynicism and a general tendency toward believing in conspiracies. This latter finding supports what psychologists call a “monological belief system,” in which any and all events can be explained by a web of interconnected conspiracies.

INFECTIOUS IDEAS


Credit: Courtesy of Michael Irving

The theory:
HIV was created by government-funded scientists as a bioweapon to extinguish certain minority populations.

Studies say:
Conspiracy theories can sometimes arise as a means of making sense of an otherwise senseless tragedy. In this way, theories about the HIV epidemic may help people cope with fear of the virus or the passing of loved ones afflicted by disease-related illness. Though assigning blame may be therapeutic to some people, such attribution has been linked with risky sexual behavior, negative attitudes about medication and lower treatment adherence among those infected with the disease.

DIANA and OSAMA (and 2Pac and ELVIS)


Credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Exit Art’s “Reactions” Exhibition Collection

The theory:
Osama bin Laden was dead prior to the U.S. raid on his compound. Also, he is still alive.

Studies say:
A study in 2012 by Michael J. Wood and his colleagues at the University of Kent found that those who believed Bin Laden was dead prior to American intervention are more likely to believe he’s currently alive. Similarly, authors found that those who think Princess Diana faked her death are more likely to believe she was murdered. So, which is it? Dead or alive? Research suggests that such contradictory narratives are linked by an underlying distrust of authority. Among conspiracy theorists, it seems, this suspicion is strong enough to overpower traditional life-death logic.

FAKE SCIENCE


Credit: Courtesy of Kathryn Hansen/NASA

The theory:
Scientists are not to be trusted. The 1969 moon landing was produced on a Hollywood movie set. And global warming is a conspiracy between the government and scientists to achieve world domination.

Studies say:
Polls estimate that anywhere from 6 to 25 percent of the general population believes the moon landing was faked, and 37 percent of Americans suspect global warming is a hoax. Although theories of earth and moon seem worlds apart, they are linked by a general rejection of science wherein distrust of one scientific claim predicts distrust of others.  Researchers have found, for example, that people who reject climate science are also more likely to reject evidence that smoking causes cancer. But that’s just, y’know, according to science, and who believes that stuff, anyway?

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