Conspiracy theories – why people get into them & a few more reflections

I see people getting caught up in things that – even if true – are typically far less important than what we know is happening in the world. We know our civilization is in the middle of a massive ecological crisis. We know our civilization is currently ecocidal and suicidal. We know we need a deep transformation to survive. So why choose to get caught up in something more peripheral?

I have written about conspiracy theories before and thought I would briefly revisit the topic.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?

Why have I taken time to write about conspiracy theories?

There are several reasons.

If a number of people are caught up in (poorly supported) conspiracy theories, it threatens our collective ability to make grounded and informed decisions.

Conspiracy theories generally distract us from far more important issues. What we know is going on in the world today – unraveling ecosystems, massive overuse of Earht’s resources, grotesque social inequalities, and so on – is far more important than what most conspiracy theories are about.

The phenomenon is interesting from historical, social, and psychological perspectives. It tells us something about how we function individually and collectively, including in times of crisis.

Analyzing conspiracy theories is a great way to learn history, psychology, valid reasoning, scientific methods, evaluating the solidity of data, and so on.

What I see in people, including those caught in conspiracy theories, mirrors something me. It mirrors dynamics I can find in myself. It won’t take the same form, but the same dynamics are inevitably here in me. It’s an opportunity for me to discover more about myself.

Questioning my judgments about conspiracy theorists helps me find clarity around those and similar thoughts, and find what’s more true for me. This helps me relate to myself, others, and conspiracy theories in the world in a more clear and effective way.

SOME EXAMPLES OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES

What are some of the conspiracy theories?

Here is just a small selection of the old, recent, or current ones:

Flat Earth. This ignores a huge amount of data that shows that the Earth is round, including people flying and sailing around the world, the curved horizon and things disappearing behind the horizon, the simple stick-and-shadow experiment of Eratosthenes that anyone can do for themselves, the shape of the shadow of Earth when it falls on the moon, the shape of all other large objects in space and what gravity inevitably does to large masses (make them round), and so on. It also ignores that a huge number of people will have to be in on the conspiracy, including pilots, sailors, astronomers, astronauts, and so on.

The Covid vaccine is designed to kill off most people in the world. It hasn’t happened yet, and there is no reason why it should.

Covid doesn’t exist. It’s a variation of a well-known type of virus. There is nothing about it very much out of the ordinary. Also, pandemics happen about once a century so this one was right on schedule. There was nothing surprising about a pandemic coming about this time.

The pandemic measures implemented by governments are designed to remove people’s freedoms and will not be reversed. These are common-sense pandemic measures that we know from history work. They are standard recommendations from epidemiology. There is nothing unusual or surprising about them. And there is absolutely no reason to assume they are anything but temporary. (Most if not all have already been removed.)

Climate change is not happening, or it’s not generated by human activities. What we see in the world today closely fits climate change models from the early 1970s. Nothing about it is surprising. The general physics is also simple: We collectively put a lot of gasses into the atmosphere that allow sunlight in, this light is converted to heat when it hits the Earth, and these gasses then trap that heat. That’s why they are called greenhouse gasses, it functions like a greenhouse.

The sexual allegations against Russel Brand are staged to discredit him since he speaks truth to power and is a danger to those in power. What he says is nothing new and nothing unique. It’s pretty banal and he is often missing the bigger picture. And no matter what, he is certainly no threat to the current system. There is no need to fabricate any allegations against him. Also, what happened was broadcast and captured on tape minutes after it happened. And fueling these kinds of conspiracy theories only makes it more difficult for women to speak up against sexual abuse, and it’s already more than difficult enough for them.

Vaccines are dangerous. This is perhaps not in itself a conspiracy theory but it’s often mixed in with them. Yes, of course, vaccines are dangerous. All medications are. Some bodies react strongly to vaccines, as they likely would to the actual virus, and they can get seriously ill or even die. Anybody who is minimally informed knows that. It’s a matter of weighing the risks and benefits and making up your own mind. Nobody is forcing you to do anything. It’s up to you to be informed and make the best choices for you.

The Covid-19 vaccine doesn’t work. Again, not exactly a conspiracy theory in itself but often mixed in with them. If you live in the uninformed illusion that vaccines always prevent a disease 100%, then I understand why you may see it that way. But in the real world, they definitely work. They prevent serious illness, which innumerable studies show. They protect the ones most at risk for serious illness and death.

Anti-woke views are similarly not a conspiracy theory in itself but are often mixed in with them. They come from the far-right and are adopted by some who generally have a left-wing or progressive orientation.

I know very well that any and all counter-arguments or counter-data to these conspiracy theories are expected by the ones into them and they have their own counter-counter arguments and counter-counter data. The question is, how solid is the logic? How solid is the data? Would it hold up in a court of law? If not, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong, but it may be good to examine it more closely and perhaps hold it more lightly.

Of course, some conspiracy theories turn out to be true. When conspiracies have been revealed in the past, it’s been through the work of diligent reporters and historians. And they have been uncovered through finding a good amount of solid data that can be verified by anyone.

WHAT DO I SEE IN CONSPIRACY FOLKS?

What do I see in people caught in conspiracy theories? What are my judgments? What do I imagine is going on?

Here are some examples, and not all apply in all cases.

Some seem not very well informed about history. For instance, we know from history that times of collective crisis tend to fuel conspiracy theories. Pandemics inevitably lead to conspiracy theories. There is scapegoating and attempts to blame someone for the pandemic. There is denial – it’s not happening or it’s not as serious as people say. There is resistance to the common-sense measures implemented to reduce the impact of the pandemic. All of this is typical and predictable, and yet people repeat patterns from history without knowing that that’s what they are doing.

Some may go into conspiracy theories to feel better about themselves. They can tell themselves they know, while others don’t. They know something most others don’t. They see through the scam while others don’t. In this way, they can boost their self-esteem.

Some may prefer a simple answer over the complexity, unpredictability, and messiness of the world, even if that simple answer is a stressful story. They prefer to have someone to blame rather than admitting that a lot of problems are systemic and we are all part of it, or that life sometimes is just random.

Some may go into conspiracy theories because it fits their identity. They have created an identity for themselves as an outsider, against the mainstream, critical of power, and so on. Conspiracy theories fit into this, so they adopt them because they fit and reinforce their familiar identity. (Conspiracy theories become mainstream to them.)

Some may want to poke at the “elite”. Their main motivation is to go against the political, academic, and scientific community and get a reaction. That’s more important to them than reality and grounded arguments and data. Reactivity trumps reality. (They don’t bother doing the work to argue against the “elite” in a more grounded and solid way that actually could bring about more lasting change.)

Some may follow someone they trust. They may know and look up to someone, for instance, a media personality, teacher, or friend. That person goes into it. So they go into it too.

Some may have a desire to split apart communities. For whatever reason, they seek to split apart families, friend groups, organizations, and even whole countries. This may come from reactivity. It may be a strategic political reason. Or a combination.

Some may paint themselves into a corner, and find it difficult to back out. They may realize, at some point, some of the craziness of the conspiracy world, and they find it difficult to leave. They would have to leave a community. They would have to admit they allowed themselves to be duped. They would have to admit they based it on poor data and reasoning. They would lose a certain identity. And so on.

Some may not be very familiar with the dark side of how the world works. They take little pieces of information that are new to them and blow up their significance. They don’t see it in perspective and the bigger picture. For instance, corporations and commercial media are obviously in it for profit. That doesn’t mean they are part of some grand intentional conspiracy to mislead people. Biases and misleading people inevitably happen anyway for a variety of reasons.

Some want to blame individuals and organizations instead of looking at our systems. A lot of what’s happening in the world comes out of the way our systems are set up. There is no need for individuals and organizations to do anything intentionally to make it happen. For instance, our economic system was set up at a time when nature was – for all practical purposes – limitless. With our current numbers and technology, this system is inevitably destructive to nature and suicidal to ourselves. Similarly, our social system (politics, economy, education, etc.) is set up to largely preserve the status quo, including the privileges of the already privileged. That’s how any system works. No grand scheme is needed. (And all of it can and will change, that’s inevitable too.)

Some may wish for community. They find a community of like-minded conspiracy folks. They feel they belong. They feel seen and understood. (Even if the seeing and understanding are mostly just people reflecting conspiracy theories back to each other.) They have an outer enemy which reinforces and justifies their community and cohesion.

Some may go into conspiracy theories for entertainment, either consciously or because they are compelled to seek entertainment (and distraction from something in themselves or their life). They like the sense of discovery, drama, and excitement.

Some may feel their mind has been opened up to things outside of the “mainstream”, so they get into anything outside of what they see as mainstream. They don’t realize they have joined a new mainstream.

Some base their arguments on weak data without realizing how weak the data is. They latch onto outlier data and assume these are true while 99.9% of other research and data are not. They ignore that outlier data exist in all fields of science and that these are 99.9% of the time based on faulty data and interpretations. Or they find articles that sound and look scientific but are written by non-experts in the field and published on questionable websites and then pretend these are more solid than research and articles done by experts and published in reputable journals.

Some seem unfamiliar with valid reasoning and logical fallacies. They typically commit a series of well-known logical fallacies in their reasoning. For instance, some said that limited and common-sense pandemic measures (that we know work from history) are a violation of human rights. Human rights have nothing to do with wearing a mask or quarantining yourself if you are sick. You already accept a large number of guidelines and laws created to make our society work. These are just a few minor and temporary ones, so why get upset about them?

Some use pieces of information from science without understanding how little they understand. They pick up bits and take them as solid data or solid logic because they are not familiar with the bigger picture. They are not experts in the field. They don’t know how to examine data well. They don’t know how to detect fallacies in the arguments. They don’t examine the source well enough. They don’t have the maturity in the field to realize how little they know. In short, they assume they understand more about a field than experts who have devoted decades of their lives to it

Some may not be aware of the inconsistencies in their views. If they need their car repaired, they go to a car mechanic. If they need a kidney transplant, they go to a kidney specialist and surgeon. If they need a bridge designed and built, they go to an engineer. And yet, when it comes to whatever their conspiracy is about, they suddenly distrust a whole field of experts. They don’t trust climate scientists if they are into a climate change conspiracy. They don’t trust epidemiologists about pandemics. They don’t trust geographers (and many other fields of science) if they think the planet is flat.

Some may start with the conclusion. They fit whatever comes up into their existing conspiracy worldview. For instance, someone pointing out weaknesses in their logic is obviously brainwashed or part of the conspiracy.

Some seem to live in an apparently horrific worldview. For instance, how do you experience the world if you assume that normal airplane condensation trails are meant to poison people? (And that pilots, airlines, and so on are in on it.) Or if vaccines are meant to kill people? (And again, where a large number of people are in on it. In this case, diverse governments around the world, WHO, pharmaceutical companies, and perhaps even doctors and nurses.) What kind of world is that? What kind of view do you have on humans?

Some may not personally know the types of people they have conspiracy ideas about. If they knew more of these people, they would probably realize that they are people just like them, and most of them would never agree to be part of anything like it. It’s easy to project the shadow onto a mostly blank slate, and far more difficult if you actually know these kinds of people. (And these kinds of people are the normal kinds of people, like you.)

Some don’t realize the immense privilege they have, and that the privilege allows them to go into certain views and conspiracy theories. For example, we live in a society (relatively) free of many serious diseases because of vaccines. And the people currently holding anti-vaccine views benefit hugely from decades of vaccines without apparently realizing it.

Some may be caught up in blind shadow projections. They imagine terrible things in the world without recognizing it’s a projection. They don’t recognize the characteristics and dynamics in themselves. (Of course, it’s often in the world too, one way or another, although perhaps not exactly the way we imagine it.)

Some may use conspiracy theories as a distraction. They get into conspiracy theories because they are compelling and distracts them from their own discomfort and what they don’t like about their own life.

Some may use conspiracy theories to intentionally mislead others. Either because it gives them some personal satisfaction. Or as a more intentional strategy to confuse a social issue and create division between people. (Sowing doubt is often effective in preventing or slowing down collective action. We see that with climate change, as we saw it with the tobacco industry a few decades ago. Polarizing a population is an effective way to weaken a country, as we see with Russian troll farms targeting the US and Western democracies.)

Several conspiracy theories and certain related views (anti-vaccination, anti-pandemic measures, anti-woke, etc.) start at the far right and are then adopted by people with a traditional left-wing or progressive orientation. This is well known, and people still adopt these views as if they don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know that they, in many cases, are intentionally being duped and manipulated. (See “Everything you have been told is a lie!” Inside the wellness to fascism pipeline,
The dark side of wellness: the overlap between spiritual thinking and far-right conspiracies, and other articles on this topic.)

Finally and more to the point, I see people getting caught up in things that – even if true – are typically far less important than what we know is happening in the world. We know our civilization is in the middle of a massive ecological crisis. We know our civilization is currently ecocidal and suicidal. We know we need a deep transformation to survive. So why choose to get caught up in something more peripheral?

WHAT DOES THIS MIRROR IN ME?

The question then is, how does this mirror me? How and when do I do the same?

The short answer is that I can likely find all of this in how I see and relate to conspiracy folks

Just writing this list helps me recognize when I do something similar.

I have done more systematic inquiries, mostly using The Work of Byron Katie, and plan to do more.

Images: Created by me and Midjourney with the exception of the cartoon


INITIAL DRAFT

CONSPIRATY THEORIES & USING THEM AS A MIRROR

WHAT DO I SEE IN CONSPIRACY FOLKS?

What do I see in people caught in conspiracy theories?

I see people not informed about history. For instance, we know from history that times of crisis, like pandemics, tend to fuel conspiracy theories. And that’s what we predictably saw during the last pandemic. (Knowing a little history helps innoculate us from getting caught up in it. We know the pattern from history. We see it happening now. And that gives us a healthy skepticism and distance to it.)

I see people go into conspiracy theories to feel better about themselves. They can tell themselves they know, while others don’t. They know something most others don’t. They can boost their self-esteem.

I see people who prefer to think they know what’s happening over admitting we cannot know anything for certain. They prefer a simple answer over the complexity, unpredictability, and messiness of the world. (Even if that simple answer is a stressful story.)

I see some going into conspiracy theories because it fits into their identity. They have created an identity for themselves as an outsider, against mainstream, critical of power, and so on. Conspiracy theories fit into this, so they go into it because it fits and reinforces their familiar identity. (Conspiracy theories is mainstream to them.)

I see some go into conspiracy theories because someone they trust do it. They may know and look up to someone, for instance, a media personality, teacher, or friend. That person goes into it. So they go into it too.

I see people not very familiar with the dark side of how the world works. They often seem naive and take little pieces of information new to them and blow up their significance instead of seeing it in perspective and the bigger picture. (For instance, corporations and commercial media are in it for profit. That doesn’t mean they are part of some grand intentional conspiracy to mislead people. Biases and misleading people inevitably happen anyway.)

I see people wanting to blame individuals and organizations instead of looking at our systems. A lot of what’s happening in the world comes out of the way our systems are set up. There is no need for individuals and organizations to do anything intentionally to make it happen. For instance, our economic system was set up at a time when nature was – for all practical purposes – limitless. With our current numbers and technology, this system is inevitably destructive to nature and suicidal to ourselves. Similarly, our social system (politics, economy, education, etc.) is set up to largely preserve the status quo, including the privileges of the already privileged. That’s how any system works. No grand scheme is needed. (And it can and will change, that’s inevitable too.)

I see people wanting community. They find a community of like-minded conspiracy folks. They feel they belong. They feel seen and understood. (Even if the seeing and understanding are mostly just people reflecting conspiracy theories back to each other.)

Similarly, they often base their arguments on weak data without realizing how weak the data is. They find outlier data and articles and think these have to be true while 99.9% of other research and data are not. (Ignoring that outlier data and articles exist in all fields of science and that these are 99.9% of the time based on faulty data and interpretations.) Or they find articles that sound and look scientific but are written by non-experts in the field and published on questionable websites and pretend these are more solid than research and articles done by experts and published in reputable journals.

I see people unfamiliar with valid reasoning and logical fallacies. They typically commit a series of well-known logical fallacies in their reasoning. For instance, some said that limited and common-sense pandemic measures (that we know work from history) are a violation of human rights. Human rights have nothing to do with wearing a mask or quarantining yourself if you are sick. You already accept a large number of guidelines and laws created to make our society work. These are just a few minor and temporary ones, so why get upset about them?

I see people using pieces of information from science without understanding how little they understand. They pick up bits and take it as solid data or solid logic because they are not familiar with the bigger picture. They are not experts in the field. They don’t know how to examine data well. They don’t know how to detect fallacies in the arguments. They don’t examine the source well enough. They don’t have the maturity in the field to realize how little they know. (And they assume they understand more about a field than experts who have devoted decades of their life to it.)

I see some who don’t see the inconsistencies in their views. If they need their car repaired, they go to a car mechanic. If they need a kidney transplant, they go to a kidney specialist and surgeon. If they need a bridge built, they go to an engineer. And yet, when it comes to whatever their conspiracy is about, they suddenly distrust a whole field of experts. They don’t trust climate scientists if they are into a climate change conspiracy. They don’t trust epidemiologists about pandemics. They don’t trust geographers (and many other fields of science) if they think the planet is flat.

I see people start with the conclusion. They fit whatever comes up into their existing conspiracy worldview. For instance, someone pointing out weaknesses in their logic is obviously brainwashed or part of the conspiracy.

I see people living in what seems a terrible worldview. For instance, how do you experience the world if you assume that normal airplane condensation trails are meant to poison people? (And that pilots, airlines, and so on are in on it.) Or if vaccines are meant to kill people? (And again, where a large number of people are in on it. In this case, diverse governments around the world, WHO, pharmaceutical companies, and perhaps even doctors and nurses.) What kind of world is that? And what kind of view do you have on humans?

I see people who may not personally know the types of people they have conspiracy ideas about. If they knew more of these people, they would probably realize that they are people just like them, and most of them would never agree to be part of anything like it. It’s easy to project the shadow onto a mostly blank slate, and far more difficult if you actually know these kinds of people. (And these kinds of people are the normal kinds of people, like you.)

I see people caught up in what seems like blind shadow projections. They imagine terrible things in the world without recognizing it’s a projection. They don’t recognize the characteristics and dynamics in themselves. (Of course, it’s often in the world too, one way or another, although perhaps not exactly the way we imagine it.)

I see people use conspiracy theories as a distraction. They get into conspiracy theories because it’s compelling and brings their attention to the wider world. And that distracts them from their own discomfort and what they don’t like about their own life.

I see some people using conspiracy theories to intentionally mislead others. Either because it gives them some personal satisfaction. Or as a more intentional strategy to confuse a social issue and create division between people. (Sowing doubt is often effective in preventing or slowing down collective action. We see that with climate change, as we saw it with the tobacco industry a few decades ago. And polarizing a population is an effective way to weaken a country, as we see with Russian trolls farms targeting the US and western democracies.)

Perhaps most importantly, I see people getting caught up in things that – even if true – are typically far less important than what we know is happening in the world. We know our civilization is in the middle of a massive ecological crisis. We know our civilization is currently suicidal. We know we need a deep transformation to survive. So why choose to get caught up in something more peripheral?

WHAT DOES THIS MIRROR IN ME?

The question then is, how does this mirror me? How and when do I do the same?

…..

I see people who prefer to think they know what’s happening over admitting we cannot know anything for certain. They prefer a simple answer over the complexity, unpredictability, and messiness of the world. (Even if that simple answer is a stressful story.)

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