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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.