There are classic conspiracy theories like the Loch Ness monster, faked moon landings, flat earth, alien abductions, and UFO sightings (read about our visit with the Roswell aliens from five years ago). Then there is JFK’s assassination with theories involving LBJ, the CIA, the KGB, and the second shooter on the grassy knoll. I was visiting NASA Houston with my parents many years ago and I was in this room that had a bust of LBJ and the pen he used to sign important space exploration-related legislation. A dad walked in with his young son sitting on his shoulders, much like I carried Vivian around many many years later. He looked at the bust of LBJ and announced to his son “So – this was the guy who killed Kennedy”, and spun around and walked out of the room. People in the room, mostly foreign tourists like my family, stared slack-jawed after him, awkwardly smiled at one another, and continued with their visit.
Holocaust denying is another amazing conspiracy theory. Erasing the cold-blooded deaths of six million Jews and all the hard evidence that goes with it requires agile mental gymnastics. But it shows that if you really want to believe something that contradicts the facts, then the audacity of your falsehoods is not an impediment. Popular 9/11 conspiracies include a US government inside-job theory and a theory that Israel carried out the attacks. It almost seems that the bigger the event, the greater the likelihood that there’s a conspiracy theory tied to it. Many feel that climate change is a well-funded conspiracy theory. Still others believe that there is a conspiracy theory to debunk climate change.
Covid has spawned its share of conspiracy theories: masks are dangerous to your health, the Chinese created the virus to enslave Americans, the whole thing including the death counts are a hoax, and Bill Gates made the vaccines to inject chips into your body to turn you into a communist. There are more subtle ones like the mRNA vaccines will change your DNA.
Unlike Nessie and Roswell, conspiracy theories surrounding the holocaust and 9/11 are dangerous. If a conspiracy theory gets enough support, the innocent are sentenced guilty and the guilty go free in the court of public opinion. In the case on Covid, the conspiracy theories have resulted in poor policy and risky behaviours, leading to one of the worst outcomes of the disease in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. People have died because of Covid conspiracy theories.
I wrote about another particularly nasty conspiracy theory a few months ago while rambling about morals:
Two years ago on Valentine’s Day, a shooter armed with a semi-automatic rifle shot and killed 17 people at the Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. If you are a staunch 2nd Amendment supporter and worry that “the government is coming for your guns”, that’s one thing. But if you morally believe that anyone should be allowed to own guns and ammunition without restrictions, your choices are limited when you learn that a troubled underage youth is able to legally buy a semi-automatic weapon that he then uses in his rampage to kill 14-year old students at a school. One option is to dive into a wild conspiracy theory conveniently provided to you. Instead of admitting that some gun purchases may be dangerous you are willing to accept a theory that the whole school shooting is an elaborate hoax put on by parents, school administrators, local, state, and federal government, hospitals, doctors, nurses, funeral homes, students, the police, and journalists, all of who are doing this just to make your god-given right to bear arms look bad so that it can be taken away. This suddenly gives you the license to become the enraged victim and to rail against the devastated parents who are grieving the sudden violent death of a child.
This happened soon after the Sandy Hook school shooting too. About eight years ago, a 20 year old shot and killed 26 people at an elementary school in Connecticut including 20 six and seven year old children. You can Google for a podcast of This American Life for an amazing interview with Lenny Pozner whose son Noah, one of a twin, was killed at Sandy Hook that day. It will take you deep into this particular conspiracy theory that claims that no one was killed and everyone involved were actors. You will hear the recorded voice of one on my fellow Austinites, Alex Jones, the founder and chief conspiracy theorist at Info Wars.
These theories are no longer supported by isolated crackpots. Greene, recently elected to the US congress from Georgia has supported that both Parkland and Sandy Hook are fake (and she also believes that the California wildfires were started by Jewish laser beams from space). Jones is considered only second to Trump in inciting the January 6 failed Capitol coup. Which bring us to the mother of all modern day American conspiracy theories: the QAnon business. Way back, in December 2020, back when most of the world either hadn’t heard of QAnon yet or assumed that it was an isolated crackpot thing, polls showed that 17% of Americans believed QAnon’s core falsehood, that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media”. I feel silly even saying it. But more than one in every six people in this country think it is true. That is more than the number of people who believe in Santa Claus.
What makes us do this?
Some of it is about our psychological profiles. Evan more sceptical and Vivian tends towards gullible. But they will probably moderate both tendencies as they grow older. In fact age is highly inversely correlated to belief in conspiracy theories. Most kids believe in Santa Claus (for a good reason – they are systematically encouraged to do so by their trusted adults), and most adults don’t. To fall for a conspiracy theory, we need the right mix of scepticism and gullibility: just enough scepticism to suspect there’s something wrong when there isn’t, and just enough gullibility to believe something is true when it isn’t. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is understandable because neither unconditional trust or complete scepticism are winning recipes.
A reason for the popularity of conspiracy theories is that they meet a fairly basic epistemic need, looking for knowledge for the sake of knowledge. We prefer certainty to not knowing. Another explanation is more existential. If we lack control over our lives or situations, especially big situations like 9/11 or Covid, knowledge, however flawed, gives us back a sense of control. This is similar but subtly different from a third reason why conspiracy theories flourish – they are social. They give us a feeling of superiority over others who we view as just sheep.
We start with an underlying feeling that something is not quite just right. Often this is caused by justifiable scepticism of past events. If we feel like the world is spiraling away from us, or we feel underappreciated but have an over inflated sense of our own importance, we are primed for that conspiracy theory clickbait. We are ready to be sucked down the rabbit hole.
The problem isn’t that we are skeptical because something doesn’t feel right. It is that we are looking for answers in the wrong places. Evolution has given most of us at least three tools to judge the veracity of new information: intuition, trust, and logic. Intuition is the easiest and often the best way to tell true from false but it can be systematically tricked, just as a magician does. Optical illusion are simple proof that the brain is easily fooled. See my graphic of the Shepard tables – they completely and totally fool my intuition. Then we have trust. We ask someone we trust. This used to mean our parents, teachers, priests, elders, neighbors. Now it is whoever that has the best clickbait designed to entice our psychological vulnerabilities. Finally, there is logic. But often we never get here because we’ve already used intuition or trust to judge what is true. The earth looks flat. The night sky looks like a dome. Time feels invariant. Particles are not waves. Nobody I know voted for Biden.
On January 20th just before noon there were millions (yes, millions) of Americans waiting for QAnon’s prophecy to come true. They had been convinced that the elections had indeed been stolen and that Trump was the rightful heir. Besides, he had not yet delivered the Great Awakening where he frees the nation from the cabal of pedophillic globalists, as he is destined to. So the only way forward was for Trump to regain the presidency. When he and his wife boarded Air Force One that morning for Florida, the message boards buzzed that it was a decoy. Trump was only giving everyone the impression that he had left Washington, D.C. As noon approached the frenzy grew. Some wailed that Trump had deserted them. Others theorized that this was the plan all along and that he’d be back. Some even guessed that Biden may be QAnon. It was sad to watch so many collapse into despair. This guy summed up the feelings of the faithful at that moment of doubt (though his English teacher may have preferred more nuanced adjectives).
Pat Bagley explains Occam’s Razor nicely in the cartoon I started with. Occam’s Razor is a founding principle of machine learning. When YouTube serves you up the next video and you automatically like it, and Echo plays the song you asked it to, and in hundreds of other ways in our daily lives, machine learning algorithms are scrubbing huge amounts of data every second and finding new interesting relationships and patterns using Occam’s razor. We too use it to tell fact from fiction sometimes. Given two explanations, we usually believe the simpler one. Except that sometimes what is simpler is deceptive. Relativity at first doesn’t sound simpler than classical physics. A theory that explains a lot about the universe by telling us how gravity bends space and time is simpler. To use god to explain the world sounds like it is simpler but it is the opposite of Occam’s razor. About 15 years ago I was watching a thunderstorm with one of my nieces. The sky opened up and rain came pouring down. My niece who was four said “God really wants it to rain”. I tried to convince her that “conditions were right in the atmosphere for precipitation”. The god explanation sounded simpler to her. But the atmospheric precipitation explanation is simpler. It has good predictive power over a broad range of weather conditions.
On the other hand Yuval Harari thinks that one of the reasons humans got to where we are today is our ability to believe in abstract things. It enabled us to create common myths which in turns allowed is to live in ever larger social groups. Yet we act surprised when half the country believes in wild conspiracy theories. But we have evolved to believe. We have been taught to believe. And to believe is to see.