February 12, 2021

Dear Drama Observers,

The subject of conspiracy theories seems to be all the rage these days—either the content of the theories themselves or the fact that such things are being propagated. Webster defines a conspiracy theory this way:

a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators”

Given the trending nature of the topic, I thought I’d use this week’s letter to discuss them myself. So, let’s get right to it.

(Warning: this letter will be a tad longer than most.)

Seven Features of Conspiracy Theories

  1. They’re based upon exaggerated fears

In August of 1949, the Soviet Union conducted its first nuclear test. Two months later, Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong declared the creation of the People’s Republic of China. The Cold War was off and running with a hot war involving nuclear weapons becoming an all-too-distinct possibility.

Four months later, in February of 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy delivered what became known as his “Enemies from Within” speech in which he claimed to have in his hand,

a list of 205 State Department employees that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.”

But that 205 number soon meandered down to 57, then back up to 81, and then back down to 10. Between that speech in 1950 and his censure by the Senate in 1954, McCarthy never produced any solid evidence that supported these audacious claims.

McCarthy took a legitimate fear (nuclear war) and embellished it into an illegitimate paranoia (Communists are hiding everywhere among us). And he did so, we now know, for his own self-aggrandizing purposes. He was an attention-hound who needed a hot topic by which he could occupy the center stage of American life and, in that era, fear of Communism fit the bill perfectly. His technique of making accusations without evidence eventually became its own thing: McCarthyism.

We learn in Psych 101 that all paranoid thoughts contain within them grains of truth. Conspiracy theories take root and flourish when grains of truth are planted in soil over-fertilized with fear.

All conspiracy theories stoke fears of devious “others” whose wily ways are hidden from public view. Good guys are being victimized by persecutory bad guys, and the theorists are showing you what the bad guys don’t want you to see. Or so the thinking goes.

  1. They replace complexity with simplicity

It’s a feature of human nature to yearn for simple explanations for complex things because our minds strain to handle ambiguity. We tend to be reductionistic. That is, we like to reduce something complex down to something simple in order to get our minds around it. People sometimes reminisce about “simpler times” but the times they yearn for didn’t seem so simple to the people back then.

Look, we all prefer simplicity over complexity. I’m told that my smart phone has more computing power than the Apollo lunar landers, but I have no need to understand all its inner workings to benefit from its use. I just click things and it does what it does. (Although, I would like someone to explain to me that annoying autocorrect feature.)

But some individuals are more driven by reductionism than others and have an excessively low tolerance for the ambiguities of complexity. Just as a plane needs two wings to fly, a conspiracy theory can only fly with two wings. One wing is the theory itself which offers simple explanations for complex things. The other wing is that segment of the population that has a higher-than-normal need for certainty to offset life’s ambiguities.

  1. They are lies gussied up with “facts”

In good faith research, one forms a hypothesis and then sets about to see if the data supports it. Conclusions are then drawn that either confirm or disconfirm the original hypothesis and are derived from an honest evaluation of all the facts.

Not so with conspiracy theories which start with conclusions, cherry pick facts that confirm them, and then filter out all disconfirming facts.

With good-faith research, you start with facts and draw conclusions. With conspiracy theories, you start with conclusions and search for facts that support them. All disconfirming facts are cast aside, discounted, or simply ignored.

By using this method, the conspiracy theorist can legitimately proclaim, “Hey, I’m just telling you the facts.” And indeed, they are. But the facts they leave out tell a different story. And as someone once said, “Half-truths are often the most effective whole lies.”

But there’s another way they play loose with the facts.

Most conspiracy theories promise that all remaining doubts will be laid to rest, once and for all, when what’s currently misunderstood is one day explained. The word apocalypse is sometimes equated with the word catastrophe. But the term in Greek actually refers to an uncovering or a revelation. All conspiracy theories create apocalyptic expectations that we will one day understand what may be confusing to us now.

So, in the meantime, adherents are told to “stand by.” “You won’t believe what we’re finding out,” they are assured. Like modern-day Millerites who in 1844 sold their belongings, sat on a hill, and waited for Jesus’s return, they hold out for a future reckoning when all their conspiratorial beliefs will be authenticated.

So, if someone raises questions about the conspiracy theory, the propagator resorts to the question-dodging technique of saying, “It may not make sense to you now but just wait, it will very soon.”

  1. They are unfalsifiable

The site, Logically Fallacious, describes the concept of unfalsifiability this way:

Confidently asserting that a theory or hypothesis is true or false even though the theory or hypothesis cannot possibly be contradicted by an observation or the outcome of any physical experiment, usually without strong evidence or good reasons.

Making unfalsifiable claims is a way to leave the realm of rational discourse, since unfalsifiable claims are often faith-based, and not founded on evidence and reason.

The site describes the logical form of the concept this way:

X is true (when X is cannot possibly be demonstrated to be false)

Let’s say your friend, Bob, shows you a picture from his camping trip that contains a grainy figure in the woods that—if you squint your eyes real tight—could possibly look something like Chewbacca from Star Wars. “That’s Big Foot, right there,” Bob insists. You’re skeptical, but there’s no convincing Bob because you can’t directly prove that wasn’t actually Sasquatch.

Conspiracy theories make assertions that are unfalsifiable—they can’t be directly disproven. And if they can’t be disproven, then they could technically be true.

Simply put, unfalsifiability is a way to cheat in the war of ideas.

  1. They’re fueled by crowd-power

We’re all subject to the powers of groupthink. Psychology textbooks describe those experiments where group pressure alters the previously-held views of individual subjects who fear being the odd person out.

It’s very difficult to counter a crowd—to stand athwart and be the lone voice of dissent. We all welcome inclusion and eschew that which excludes us from the group. Conspiracy theorists exploit those human tendencies by offering a warm embrace to believers and the right foot of fellowship to those who refuse to go along. They lure in others with self-assured phrases like, “Look, I know it, you know it, and everyone knows this is true.”

Lies are easy to embrace and hard to challenge when everyone around you appears to believe them.

  1. Their adherents are dogmatic

Very few conspiracy theorists are characterized by humility which I describe as the stance: “I could be wrong, you could be right, let’s talk.” Instead, they tend to display a stance of arrogance: “I’m right, you’re wrong, end of discussion.”

Maybe they exist, but I’ve never met someone who holds their conspiracy theory loosely. Quite the opposite, they cling to their theory with something akin to religious devotion and view their beliefs, not as possible interpretations, but as articles of faith. And no amount of convincing will convince them otherwise.

They confidently assert that they are the ones “in the know” and disbelievers fail to believe simply because they haven’t “done their research.” Almost like the Gnostics of old, they see themselves as privy to a secret body of knowledge which is unavailable to the uncurious.

I’ll put it this way: You can always tell a conspiracy theorist, but you can’t tell ’em much.

  1. Their skeptics are denounced

Conspiracy theorists believe they are right and everyone who dares to disagree is either stupid, naïve, duped, oblivious, uninformed, or downright sinister. They don’t view skeptics as good people who see things differently. They see them as bad people who deserve nothing but scorn. And they’re angry at non-believers for not jumping on board.

Remember, a conspiracy theory posits that powerful elites are exploiting unsuspecting victims. Perhaps skeptics are themselves part of the sinister cabal but just won’t admit it.

In short, there is never an acceptable, valid reason to question the validity of a conspiracy theory. Such skepticism will get one cast into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.

***

Well, I’ve probably run on long enough, far exceeding my self-imposed weekly word limit. Next week, I’ll address how to safeguard oneself from the conspiracy theory virus.

Wait, hold on here just a second. This letter discusses seven features of conspiracy theories. Isn’t the number seven one of those important numbers in the Bible or something?

Hmm, coincidence? I think not.

Till next week.

4 replies
  1. Stiofan O Murchadha
    Stiofan O Murchadha says:

    Hey Alan, thank you so much for your research, I always look forward to your email every month. Great, great insights. However, this time I felt I would like to leave a reply to your ‘Conspiracy Theories’. Some of my comments may overlap your seven theories. In no. two you mention the conspiracy theorist ‘replaces complexity with simplicity’ but I feel this is more often associated with the scientist instead of the philosopher or theologian. I say philosopher and theologian for your ‘Drama Reviews’ and especially here often make biblical references and relate to the ‘faith’ person. The scientist often tries, and rightfully so, to logically deduce knowledge and is often full of deconstructionism which the Cambridge Physicist John Polkinghorne notes as ‘suicidal’. In this way the scientist is usually the brains behind simplicity for ambiguities and complexities are not something the scientist is comfortable with. I would deem the scientist, as you note, as having ‘an excessively low tolerance for ambiguities of complexity’.

    In no. three you mention ‘good faith research’ is beginning from hypothesis’ and I cannot agree here as it seems to neglect the other side of research that begins with conclusions. This form of research is well put together in the scientific philosopher Michael Polanyi’s research, especially his ‘Personal Knowledge’ and his tacit knowledge in which he focuses upon ‘subsidiary awareness’. In this case, Polanyi believes that our research in all aspects of knowledge begin with ‘intuitions’ and what are personal beliefs. How is this so? Well, we do believe in the rationality of the world in that it makes sense before we find this sense out. Even in your research, you presumably believe that people can be helped and understood better and I assume without being able to logically deduce how you believe this. We make judgements based on our personal knowledge and Polanyi notes this with scientists who, in the ‘wise neglect of such evidence prevents scientific laboratories from being plunged forever into a turmoil of incoherent and futile efforts to verify false allegations.’ Our intuitions that are irreducible to logical analysis seems to be quite important and even vital for any form of knowledge in the first place. For example, with ‘love’, it is impossible to logically deduce what this is without falling into the trap of saying its chemicals and hormones and leading us into an understanding that we have no free will and are determined. We intuitively know what love is without being able to say what it is, what Polanyi notes in his tacit knowledge as ‘we know more than we can say’, that is, we know more by intuition than we do cognitively.

    John Henry Newman, in his ‘Illative Sense’ in ‘An Essay in Aid of A Grammar of Assent’, noted that our reasoning moves from antecedent to conclusion without us knowing how, as if something unconscious occurred. Another example of this is that we know where to hit a nail with a hammer without having to focus and logically deduce our knowledge into how we should hold and swing that hammer. We just know. Not to say that we just know means its true, it will show itself as false if this intuitive knowledge does not work. This movement from antecedent to conclusion is beyond reductionism for we see the same in good ole metaphor. A word like ‘chess’ has its own meaning (if we do not kill it with the nihilistic and suicidal tendencies of deconstructionism) and also does ‘war’ and when they come together in the metaphor of ‘chess is war’ something unconscious occurs for that knowledge to intuitively make sense to us. We cannot logically reduce metaphor and if we did, we would end up, as Polanyi notes, ‘being plunged forever into a turmoil of incoherent and futile efforts to verify false allegations.’

    St Anselm’s hermeneutic circle is ‘we believe in order to understand and understand in order to believe’. This is what is happening here for in our intuitions we naturally believe and find that it makes sense and sometimes it does not and have to understand that bit more. Even your own research begins this way, as I noted, in believing in the rationality of the world and in helping people, the most noble cause of all. This is where your conspiracy theory of the ‘unfalsifiable’ also has some warranted comments. Our personal knowledge in which all forms of knowledge begin is ‘unfalsifiable’ and believed to be true. Therefore, not all forms of knowledge that are unfalsifiable are false or can easily be dismissed. N.T. Wright is helpful here in noting, in this form of personal knowledge, that ‘the proof of the pudding remains in the eating’ instead of the sciences way of the proof is in the pudding. This is where I noted that conclusions can offer hypothesis’ that can be true and often these conclusions in which we may begin seem unfalsifiable and we dismiss it for we have not understood it yet. The ‘reasonable’ faith person will see with St Anselm’s hermeneutic circle that both forms of knowledge going from hypothesis to conclusion and conclusion to hypothesis are complimentary and not to be seen as problematic as science sees them. The reasonable faith person will see different forms of knowledge as gifts instead of enemies.
    You mention dogmatism as part of the conspiracy theories and dogmatism does have its problems like all else I suppose. But, I think your scripture allusions are heavily dogmatic for it logically judges them with a certain extreme vision of ‘unreasonableness’ in your choosing not to read between the lines. In this way as Polkinghorne notes, you kill the meaning behind the words and knowledge cannot work then as I noted with metaphor (the reason I use metaphor is that I believe metaphor relates very well to how we know and create epistemologies around faith). It seems dogmatically deconstructionist. The Cambridge theologian Rowan Williams’ ‘Edge of Words’ book is a good source on this. Also the novelist-philosopher Iris Murdoch is a good source for she comes to claim that God turns our lies into truth meaning that we are very creative with stories and so on with things we cannot understand so we must create stories in order to grasp a reality that is beyond the logically reducible and the ‘fallible’ and ‘finite’ human mind as theologian Colin E. Gunton notes.
    So, I feel we must be aware of the massive amounts of knowledge that come from realities beyond the surface, realities that are most often seen through ‘faith’ instead of ‘sight’ or, as you seem to suggest, from a conspiracy theorist. This is why I mentioned personal knowledge from Polanyi, for our intuitive knowledge that you seem to dismiss is the foundation of all forms of knowledge. This form of knowledge is natural to us, as noted by molecular bio-physicist and theologian Alister McGrath, who notes in his ‘Reimagining Nature’ that our intuitions are natural and our cognitions are unnatural and uses Robert McCauley’s (philosophy and psychology) ‘Why Religion is Natural and Science is not’ and Paul Bloom’s (psychologist) article ‘Religion is Natural’ to claim such. Therefore, I ‘feel’ rather than ‘see’ that many of these conspiracy theories are very human centric and not very open to other forms of knowing which sees to cause the theory to collapse in on itself.
    Like you, I also do not believe that your understandings are ‘coincidental’ for I feel there is meaning to what you are seeing and doing.

    Nonetheless, just a few thoughts. Thank you do much for your research and the value you add to this field and peoples lives, it has certainly given me great insights as I encounter others, most often with my own mother I’m afraid.
    All the best,
    Stiofan

    Reply
  2. Jack Carver
    Jack Carver says:

    My wife was actually told by a friend that if we knew the facts that she knew we would would be on board with her conspiracy theories, but she has yet to share those facts with us.

    Reply

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