I have a confession. In my young adult life, conspiracy theories were my hobby.
One of my all-time favorite shows is the X-Files. The premise of the show is that there is a government conspiracy to hide the existence of extraterrestrials.
Adventures with Conspiracy Theories
I am still not totally sure if I believe in the existence of aliens. However, I fell hard for the X-Files and spent many a happy hour investigating conspiracy theories surrounding Roswell in New Mexico, as well as Area 51.
These investigations also led me to other conspiracy theories such as those surrounding JFK’s assassination. I was a middle school teacher at that time. For fun, I had my students research and debate whether Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman in JFK’s assassination.
Why Conspiracy Theories Attract Us
Conspiracy Theories can be intoxicating.
Such theories are often imaginative labyrinths filled with intrigue, arcane facts, and shadowy figures (like Smoking Man in the X-Files). When you get caught up in a conspiracy theory, there is the rush of feeling like you are outsmarting someone.
In your mind, you are a critical thinker, and you you see through people’s sneaky tricks.
Conspiracy Theories Help Us Feel in Control
That feels good.
Conspiracy theories also give us a measure of control in a confusing world. If tragic events are the machinations of sinister people working behind the scenes, we can battle these dark forces.
On the other hand, it feels impossible to battle random, impersonal tragedy.
Conspiracy theories help us feel in control. Do you tend towards conspiracy theories? I do, sometimes.
What is a Conspiracy Theory?
Britannica defines a conspiracy theory as “an attempt to explain harmful or tragic events as the result of the actions of a small, powerful group.” So, for example, some people have argued that events like the sinking of the Titanic or the 9/11 attacks were the result of a conspiracy.
“Untergang der Titanic”, as conceived by Willy Stöwer, 1912, courtesy of Wikipedia
Sometimes conspiracy theories do not pertain to a particular tragedy. Rather, they focus on powerful groups working sinister plots behind the scenes.
Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust, courtesy of Unsplash
None of these conspiracy theories, of course, turned out to be true.
Fair enough. But there is a problem.
Conspiracy Theories that Turned out to Be True
The problem is that sometimes theories originally labeled as conspiracy theories do turn out to be true. For example, here a few weird historical events about which there were theories labeled conspiracy theories:
At one point, the U.S. government stole the body parts of deceased people to study the effects of nuclear fallout on the human body.
The US government ran a top secret program called MK Ultra. They dosed volunteers with hallucinogenic drugs like LSD to experiment with mind control and behavior modification. Eventually they also dosed some unsuspecting non-voluntary subjects with drugs.
The FBI spied on John Lennon for a while because of his anti-war songs and protests.
For decades, big tobacco companies knew that cigarettes were dangerous to people’s health, and they hid the evidence anyhow.
Photo by Markus Spiske, courtesy of Unsplash
Do You Tend Towards Conspiracy Theories?
Because some conspiracy theories do in fact turn out to be true, it can be a little tricky to differentiate between a plausible theory and a conspiracy theory.
It is possible, however, to identify common characteristics of conspiracy theories. Here are four.
Your Theory Might Be a Conspiracy Theory If . . .
One: Your Theory Ignores Simpler Explanations
The next time you are tempted to believe a secret cabal is working some sinister plot, ask yourself these questions:
1) Am I willing to consider a simpler explanation for the matter?
2) Have I thoroughly considered simpler explanations?
Photo by Evan Dennis, courtesy of Unsplash
If your answer is “no” to one or both these questions, it is likely that your theory is a conspiracy.
Sometimes the explanation for events is complex. Usually, however, the simplest answer is the best. Why? Because the more complex something is, the less likely it is to happen.
An Example with Covid
For example, during the recent Covid crisis, some people have theorized that the Chinese communist government manufactured Covid as a weapon against the U.S.
I would like you to consider all the things that would have to happen for someone (or some group) in China to be able to pull off this sort of thing.
Here are just a few
#1: Every (or most) doctors in China examining the virus (and trying to find a cure to it) would need to be ignorant of this fact or hush it up. Given the ethical convictions or the financial incentive people would have to reveal such a plot, this is incredibly unlikely.
#2: Once again, every (or most )doctors in the U.S. examining the virus (and trying to find a cure to it) would need to be ignorant of this fact or hush it up. Given the ethical convictions or the financial incentive people would have to reveal such a plot, this is incredibly unlikely.
Photo by Ashkan Forouzani
#3: For the third time, every other person connected to the medial industry (like nurses, pharmacists, lab technicians, medical researchers, medical journalists) in both China and the U.S. would need to be ignorant of this fact or hush it up. Given the ethical motivations or the financial incentive people would have to reveal such a plot, this is incredibly unlikely.
#4: And once again, every person connected with any of the people in 1-3 who was privy to such secret information would need to be ignorant of this fact or hush it up. Given the ethical motivations or the financial incentive people would have to reveal such a plot, this is incredibly unlikely.
Possible but Highly Unlikely
Is it possible that #1-#4 could happen? I tend to think it is impossible. For the sake of argument, however, I will grant that it is possible but highly unlikely. It requires millions of people to remain silent who have a strong incentive to do otherwise.
People are notoriously bad at staying quiet and keeping secrets, especially large groups of them.
That is why we should look for a simpler explanation first. And there is one. Covid is a naturally occurring virus. It is like many recent viruses, but it is more virulent. Thus, it caught many people off guard.
A Cookie Example
Let’s consider a more mundane example. Imagine you bake cookies. After you take them out of the oven, you go into another room to work on a project. You return and find the cookies have vanished, upon which discovery you ask your five-year-old son for an explanation. He says, “A stranger wearing a mask came in the back door and stole them all”.
Is There a Simpler Explanation?
Now, it is possible that this occurred, but a much simpler explanation is available. You are likely to suspect that your son, rather than the mystery thief, is the culprit because it is a simpler and more obvious answer.
The point: The explanation behind events is indeed sometimes complex. Usually, however, the simplest answer is the best. Therefore, if your mind automatically jumps to complex theories to explain things, especially tragedy, you may be dabbling in conspiracy theories.
Two: Your theory involves large groups of people like liberals, conservatives, fundamentalists, or academics acting unanimously to carry out a plot.
One of the most common marks of a conspiracy theory is that it requires large groups of people to act and think in the same way to carry out a plot.
For example, I often hear people suggest, that there is a plot by liberal academics in the U.S. to corrupt college students.
Photo by Victoria Heath, courtesy of Unsplash
(Note: This lovely building is actually of King’s College in the UK.)
I would like to set the record straight.
I am an academic. Let me assure you that academics–both liberal and conservative–have difficulty agreeing on almost everything.
Academics love to argue, to be contrary, to champion their own unique theories, and to sequester themselves in their offices to read and do research. It is incredibly rare for academics to agree completely with each other on major matters or even most minor ones.
Not Very Likely
So, the idea that all the liberal academics of the U.S. have formed a unanimous pact, and are working together harmoniously to corrupt the youth of our country is highly implausible.
(And if you think that I am biased because I am an academic, please talk to anyone who is no longer in academia who has ever had a dissertation committee. Although to be honest, my committee was pretty great.)
And here is my point
It is not just academics who disagree, although they are especially contrary. Whenever you have any large group of people—conservatives, liberals, doctors, journalists, news-reporters. or church-goers—you will have people in that group that vehemently disagree with each other.
This is because people are contrary, opinionated, stubborn, and like to do their own thing.
Therefore, the more your theory requires all the people in a large group to cover up a plot without breaking rank, the more likely it is that your theory is a conspiracy.
Three: The heroes and villains in your theory coincide with people you like and dislike.
People have a natural tendency to form “us and them” groups. People also have a tendency to think in black and white categories. Namely, the people who are like us are good, and the people that are not like us are bad.
Both these tendencies—group-forming and black-and-white thinking—are somewhat normal and do not automatically cause problems. After all, we all have special friend groups, and we tend to think the best of our friends.
Photo by Michal Matlon, courtesy of Unsplash
However, when group-forming and black-and-white thinking become constant and extreme habits, they become a problem. Such habits shut down our thinking. They close us to new ideas. We become motivated to reject and villainize people simple because they are different. They cause us to overlook bad behavior in our own groups.
Extreme Thinking Patterns
Conspiracy theories are an extreme version of these problems. In a conspiracy theory, we (and the people like us) are never the problem. It is always some secret, sinister group oppressing us and our friends.
Therefore, if the people groups you don’t like—whether they are liberal, feminists, or fundamentalists—are always the villains of the theories you subscribe to, it is likely that you are buying into a conspiracy theory.
Four: The theory capitalizes on fear in times of social change.
In the eighties, the Satanic Panic struck.
There were widespread rumors that secret satanic groups all over the United States were engaging in satanic masses and orgies. These rumors also maintained that these satanic groups were coercing children to participate.
There were also rumors that thousands of children suffered profound abuse through such ordeals and were sometimes even murdered.
Was it True?
The crazy thing is that these supposed mass satanic activities never happened.
After extensive investigation by the police and judicial system, a variety of people—both experts and lay people—debunked the Satanic Panic. Unfortunately, during this hysteria, many innocent people were accused of crimes they never committed.
That Conspiracy Theory Had Staying Power
This conspiracy did not die easily. I was a teenager in the eighties and vividly remember many intelligent people discussing some aspect of this theory with grave seriousness.
Today, the Satanic Panic is largely forgotten. If it is remembered, people usually recognize it for what it clearly is: a debunked conspiracy theory.
Contemporary researchers who investigate the Satanic Panic note that the conspiracy was often promoted by thoughtful, moral people with good intentions. They wanted to protect their children, and they were afraid of social change.
Fear of Change
U.S. culture was changing dramatically. Counter-cultures and differently types of music and belief systems were becoming mainstream. The public was becoming more aware of formerly taboo social problems like child abuse and child pornography. People had also recently witnessed disturbing media coverage of events like the Manson Family murders. These cultural factors created a perfect storm for hysteria.
Good people wanted to protect their children, and they were fearful about how to do this in a rapidly changing world.
Photo by Markus Stephanus Griffiths, courtesy of Unsplash
Good People Sometimes Do Stupid Things
It is important to realize that good, well-meaning people like you and me can get caught up in conspiracy theories. We are more likely to do so in times of massive social change. Especially when the conspiracy theory taps into our deep-seated fears.
The more your theory promotes fear in a time of profound social change, the more likely it is a conspiracy theory.
Why All This is Important
One of the main reasons I am writing this, of course, is that given the pain people feel over Covid and our recent tumultuous elections, there are a lot of conspiracy theories floating around.
Conspiracy theories can be a fun as a side-hobby . . .
Like UFO conspiracies!
Photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger, courtesy of Unsplash
. . .but when they become a way of life, they can undermine our thinking, our emotional stability, and our personal and political relationships.
What We Need in Times of Change
When tragedy, social change, and surprising world events occur, we need compassion rather than conspiracy. We need logical and moral thinking rather than paranoia.
Do you have a tendency towards conspiracy theories? I sympathize. I do, too, sometimes. You might find these posts helpful:
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 Sometimes people argue that governments threaten people and that is why they are silent. People often suggest this type of thing goes on in communist countries like China. I would like to point out that people living in communist countries dissent all the time and have for decades, both publicly and privately. (You can read about this here and here.)
No communist country has ever squashed dissidents entirely—or even been very successful at it generally. And, if you live in the U.S., you know that our country’s history is full of dissidents and people protesting government actions, even when their lives were threated because of it. (The Watergate Scandal is a good example of this.)
Thus, it is not realistic to argue that the government has somehow managed to threaten everyone knowledgeable about a situation into silence. This type of coercion never works long-term in any country.
Sometimes people also claim that there are dissenters but that, for example, the liberal media is hushing it up. This claim involves the thinking problem discussed in #2 above.