Friday, 1 December 2017

Things I Don't Understand - Conspiracy Theories

I don’t understand conspiracy theories. Or, rather, I don’t understand the people who believe in them, the theorists themselves. No matter what explanations the psych types come up with (and there are many hypotheses), none of them really explain why people are so willing to ignore common sense to believe in them.

To make myself clearer, let me define what a conspiracy theory generally consists of, according to the experts. Michael Barkun, a political scientist, defines a conspiracy theory as the belief in a “secret plot by exceptionally powerful and cunning conspirators to achieve a malevolent end.”[i] It typically has three elements in it, namely –

1) They “appear [and I stress ‘appear’] to make sense out of a world that is otherwise confusing.”

2) They claim the world is divided “between the forces of light, and the forces of darkness… [tracing] all evil back to a single source, the conspirators and their agents.”

3)  They claim that only they “know the truth”, having unmasked the “plotters' deceptions”, unlike the “brainwashed herd” of the masses.

I would also add that most conspiracy theories seem to point the finger at ‘The Government’, especially the US one, and/or its agencies. None of them ever seem to adequately explain WHY government is supposedly doing these things. It just seems to be assumed that it’s corrupt and evil, full stop. And that they are the only ones who are ‘in the know’, so of course the government wants to silence them… Basically then, conspiracy theories are all just more sophisticated versions of “the gubmint’s out ta getcha”, and/or “we know something you don’t, nah, nah, nyah, nah…” 

Some conspiracy theories are pretty harmless. We can laugh at the flat-earthers, roll our eyes at chemtrail believers, and shake our heads at the Roswell crowd. But others are not so easily shrugged away. Holocaust deniers, for instance, must cause a lot of hurt to Jews everywhere. And more recently, parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook shooting have been subjected to incredible verbal abuse and vitriol by those who claim the whole event was ‘faked’, that their children didn’t exist, and that the parents are liars, paid by those with an anti-gun agenda, etc. The pain this must cause those who have lost loved ones I can only imagine.

And then there’s the anti-vaccine crowd. I think they must win some kind of award for the most harmful conspiracy theory on the planet. Thanks to them, diseases once made nearly extinct or rare by high vaccination rates have returned, with devastating consequences. People have become extremely ill and even died as a result, or sustained horrible and sometimes life-long damage, with many others left in a vulnerable state, but they shrug all this off. 

Government, along with the medical establishment, they shrill, have conspired to conceal the ‘terrible harm’ that vaccines do. To believe this, they must ignore all of the evidence presented by history, statistics, the entire mainstream scientific consensus, and simple logic, and instead resort to chanting the mantra of “but toxinz… but Big Pharma…but gubmint…” (And I’m not even going to start on the whole ‘vaccines cause autism’ garbage. Suffice to say it makes even less sense than the rest of their crap, especially since Wakefield’s been thoroughly discredited.) Like other conspiracy theorists, they believe that they have somehow uncovered ‘truths’ denied to the majority of the populace.

But does any of this really make sense? Can we really be the victims of a (or any) horrendous plot/s by governments, doctors, etc?

Think on it. Just think on it, for a moment. We’re a social species. On the whole, we do not keep secrets well. We blab. We tell a friend “in strictest confidence of course”. We get drunk, and boast to the bartender, or the person next to us. We pillow talk, we gossip and chatter, natter and prattle and “have you heard……!” Even things that governments try to keep hidden, from Watergate to Abu Ghraib, have a way of working their way out of the woodwork in the end. The only secrets that seem to be (more or less) kept are those belonging to those who are disinclined by temperament to blab (e.g. spies). And such people are a rare breed.

So the idea that hundreds of thousands, millions even, of doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, politicians (an exceptionally gabby species), civil servants, other health care workers, scientists and all their ancillaries, over a very long period of time, and through umpteen changes of governments, in dozens of different countries, are all in on some giant conspiracy to - what? Get people sick, for some strange and evil end of their own? – is patently absurd. It assumes, and sometimes anti-vaxxers even outright assert, that ALL of the above professionals are either a) deluded, b) lying, or c) incompetent to recognise a health issue when it presents itself, despite all their years of training and practise and research… Plus know how to keep their mouths shut about it.

All of them. 

All the time. 


…Yeah right.

But then logic doesn’t seem to be a strong point of any conspiracy theorist. Over the last few years, I’ve watched the hardcore anti-vax crowd repeatedly and consistently do the following – 

- present weak, incoherent, illogical or contradictory arguments

- have a poor understanding of basic science, and refuse to listen to those who have a better one

- think Google searches means that they know as much as doctors and scientists who have studied and practised for years

- scorn anyone who defends vaccines as ‘sheeple’ or ‘paid shills’ for ‘Big Pharma’, but swallow unquestioningly anything that comes from other anti-vaxxers, even when they make wildly inflamed claims, have no professional expertise in vaccines, and are pushing bizarre (and expensive) ‘cures’

 - blame vaccines for pretty much ALL human illnesses and even social problems there are, regardless of the weight of evidence that proves otherwise

- when asked to provide proof for what they allege, ALWAYS link to at least one of the following – 

                1) Reports describing shonky ‘science’, which has either been already discredited/withdrawn/redacted, or can be easily demonstrated as bad or pseudo-science;

                 2) Other anti-vax websites, who seem to be competing, in a sort of endless circle-jerk, as to who can produce the most outrageous allegations;

                3) Articles and reports that don’t actually say what the headlines and/or the anti-vaxxer are screaming – it seems that anti-vaxxers often don’t read beyond the headlines, just grabbing links off AV websites that they think ‘prove’ something.

- most especially, they ‘shift the goalposts’ – as fast you tear down one of their arguments, they switch to another. Mercury has been disproven? Oh, it must be the aluminium. Or the formaldehyde. Or green monkey cells, or aborted foetuses, or this, or that, or something else. On and on….

In short, they display an appalling lack of basic common sense, and often seem to verge on outright hysteria, and yet present a very real danger.

And I just don’t understand them. Or any other conspiracy theory, for that matter. I don’t understand why anyone would swallow such crap, how on earth anyone with an ounce of common sense can subscribe to them. It just baffles me. Yes, the world is a chaotic mess, but conspiracy theories that try to ‘explain’ it by positing some simple division between good and evil, with them as the ‘angels’, and governments, along with anyone who opposes them, as the ‘devils’, just don’t wash. Saner, you’d think, to just accept that there are no handy explanations, that the world is just totally screwed up. But sanity doesn’t seem a strong point of any conspiracy theorist either.

And after pondering all this, I’m still left with the question - is it because I’m autistic, that I can’t grasp why anyone would embrace the totally illogical, just to make themselves feel important and ‘in the know’? Are their egos really that big? Or is there something else I’m missing? I just…. don’t get it.

[i] This, and all subsequent quotes, are from the Wikipedia entry on ‘Types of Conspiracy Theory’.


  1. I'm autistic and I do believe in some conspiracy theories. I have studied them for more than fifteen years and have learnt to look for certain markers that help me determine whether or not I'm wasting my time.

    I avoid any that insist they alone have all the answers and any that are dogmatically religious. I consider any that are academically researched with evidence that I can personally verify, for example history books or online videos. I appreciate any that leave judgement up to the reader/viewer, and I always make up my own mind on anything I come across.

    My opinions have changed over time; there are some conspiracy theories I used to believe which I don't any more, and others I had refused to take seriously only to now consider them very likely. Although I believe in some conspiracy theories they play little part in my day to day life, I never volunteer information on my conspiracy beliefs unless directly asked, and I don't care whether other people believe in them or not.

    1. Without you giving me any examples, it's impossible to say whether what you chase after are truly 'conspiracy theories', or something more akin to 'investigative journalism', of the kind that saw the uncovering of the Watergate scandal, for instance.
      To answer that, i think you'd have to ask yourself - do any of my favourite theories fit the 3 points of definition i've given above? Do they defy common sense (eg flat earth theory). Do lots of others believe in them too, and religiously back each other up in their beliefs (ie a cult, even if you're not an active member of that cult).
      If the answer is yes, to all three, then they are true conspiracy theories. If not, well, Watergate...
      I've deleted your second comment, btw, as it didn't really add anything to your first, and it contained links that i frankly don't have the time or spoons to check out.