We seem to live in an age of conspiracy theories. They lurk in dark corners of the internet, in chat rooms and social media, always promising that the world is more sinister than we realize. They promote the existence of cabals of pedophiles and Satan worshipers operating global sex trafficking rings; of COVID 19 vaccines laden with tracking devices; of shape-shifting reptilian humanoids living among us, and so on. All are assailed by critics and supported by adherents, and none seem likely to disappear anytime soon.
Yet this is hardly new. Human beings have always been conspiratorial minded and vulnerable to simplistic, vague explanations for events that frighten us or are difficult to understand. We are prone to that sort of thinking because it’s an easy way to make sense of a crazy world. Most of us fight the urge to give into extreme world views, but not everyone succeeds. There are still those who claim the 9/11 attacks were an inside job, that the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting was staged, that the Illuminati or the Trilateral Commission or the UN have plans for world domination, and that the Earth is flat. The list is endless.
What has changed, however, is the scale of conspiracy theories. For much of human history they tended to be local and limited in scope. They were used to explain fires (as in Rome in 64 AD or London in 1666), assassinations, crimes, corruption, or natural disasters, etc. But starting in the 1700s, as the world became increasingly interconnected through trade and communication, they grew grander and were used to explain everything. Some of them blended with apocalyptic religious belief and predicted the end times, and a few ended in horrifying mass murder/suicide, as in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978.
It’s worth noting, of course, that some conspiracies are real. People engage in criminal conspiracies all the time. And it’s also true that most conspiracy theories aren’t harmful. If Major League Baseball really does “juice” the ball to produce more home runs, for example, it’s not as if anyone is getting killed, right? And we’re wise to be skeptical, so there’s no argument here that we should simply believe everything we are told or that we read.
But all-encompassing conspiracy theories that lack evidence are a real problem. They undermine faith in institutions and often do lead to violence. Anders Breivik, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and Timothy McVeigh are just a few of the people who perpetrated mass killings in recent years because they feared alleged conspiracies, and they are hardly alone. And even when they don’t lead to direct harm, unfounded conspiracies cause unnecessary dissension and distract us from the real problems in society that deserve our attention. Arguing over alleged conspiracies involving vaccines, for example, takes time and attention away from debating the scientific evidence related to diagnosis and treatment of the diseases that threaten humanity. That doesn’t mean we should blindly trust anything the government or big business tells us. But it should mean we focus on evidence rather than innuendo or rumor or the latest Facebook post that says shape shifting aliens are responsible for the measles.
And yet, if unfounded conspiracy theories have always been with us then it’s not really likely that focusing on evidence by itself will be enough. In an era when we are drowning in information we ironically seem to have more trouble agreeing on what constitutes evidence than ever before. So how do we make our way forward and interact with those whose beliefs seems strange to us? First, try being empathetic. Surveys make plain that we are all vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking. It remains common among the well and the poorly educated, among men and women, liberals and conservatives, professionals and the working class, and certainly in every country on Earth.
Second, remember that the really big conspiracy theories vary in details but are strikingly similar in general. They promote black and white worldviews without nuance where simplistic good and evil forces struggle but leave little or no verifiable evidence. Believers feel special because they are in on the secret and are often driven to self-isolation because they despise criticism and distance themselves from loved ones alarmed by their conspiratorial obsessions. Their theories are unproven by design because they won’t bear legitimate scrutiny, and dedicated supporters will often argue that the lack of evidence is actually proof of how pernicious the conspiracy really is, which makes it hard to reason with them. They believe the truth will eventually be revealed and prove how right they were all along, and they’ll almost always be victims of confirmation bias, which is the tendency we all have to decide what we believe up front and then interpret facts to conform to our reality.
Most conspiracy theories also implicitly have an unspoken faith in the brilliance of their enemies, because that is the only way to explain why the evil and gigantic groups who are allegedly so dangerous never get caught, never make mistakes, never confess or feel guilt, and never leave a paper trail. That last point might be the best argument to discredit them, because enough life experience will usually convince people that human beings are never that smart or self-disciplined in numbers large enough to perpetrate colossal conspiracies in secret.
And finally, the truly massive conspiracy theories have just never been true historically. Ever. Maybe one day that will change. But for now, history tells us that a little common sense, a little trust in each other, a little faith in our institutions, and a healthy dose of skepticism are far more likely to create and preserve the kind of world we all want to live in.
So be careful out there.
Lance Janda has degrees in history and lives in Norman.