The effect of conspiracy theories

“Conspiracy,” a photo by Fleeting Pix. Colorized and digitally altered by Tucker Lieberman.
Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0 license.

How do conspiracy theories arise? Why, despite how implausible they sound to most people, are they so “sticky” for others?

Telling stories that aren’t true

If Only by Neal Roese.

Neal Roese, in If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity (2005), discusses the role of counterfactual expressions—that is, things that just aren’t so. At their best, they help us analyze a situation and seek a better path. One type of counterfactual is “it could have been worse” which is supposed to serve as consolation.

Here’s one of Roese’s examples. An employee of Cantor Fitzgerald—a company that suddenly lost hundreds of employees in New York City when the World Trade Center fell on September 11, 2001—survived because he happened to be inquiring about a gym membership and was not in the office when the plane hit the building. The counterfactual narrative that he easily might have died does not meaningfully explain why he lived. The simple observation of his near-brush with death, applied to this situation of survivor’s guilt and when taken up as an existential perspective, “is a counterfactual that shoots blanks,” Roese says. Such an approach “can get in the way of successful coping by conjuring phantom explanations and phony sense making or simply by failing to provide resolution and understanding.”

The man’s survival is random, yet that answer leaves most of us itching. Some will contort themselves to come up with a different explanation.

What existential function might a conspiracy theory serve?

A conspiracy theory—pick one, any one—is, in my view, a more elaborate kind of counterfactual. It asserts itself to be true, or at least plausible and meriting more inquiry, but it is not true. Like other counterfactuals, it serves the need to point out unresolved questions and find some way to make sense of the world.

Power Corrupts: “Conspiracy Theories.” Launches May 2, 2019.

This is explored in the “Conspiracy Theories” episode of the Power Corrupts podcast that launches today (May 2, 2019) on iTunes, Spotify, RadioPublic, and Stitcher. Brian Klaas, the podcast writer and narrator, says that the tendency to adopt conspiracy theories

“seems to be part of a coping mechanism: a human instinct to deal with large, unexpected, and often tragic events. Sometimes things just happen randomly; not for any reason, not because of sinister forces. And in human psychology, randomness is much more threatening than discernible causes, even if those causes are shadowy or sinister.”

Paranoid by David J. LaPorte.

We tend to want to believe that Someone (or Something) is calling the shots and that what happens to us (or to our known world) matters within some grand plan.

Conspiracy theories are often products of paranoia. A paranoid person believes that “you can’t trust what you see, so you need to interpret and see behind the surface presentations of situations,” David J. LaPorte wrote in Paranoid: Exploring Suspicion from the Dubious to the Delusional (2015). Such people report experiencing a “sudden clarification,” which feels as if they “immediately recognize [an event] for ‘what it really is.’” Their sudden clarification feels true even if it is not.

A believer in a conspiracy theory, Klaas says, is “choosing to discount evidence and rational thought in favor of snippets of ‘What if?’ speculation.” In this case, unfortunately, “the normal way of convincing someone of an idea by presenting rational thought and evidence just isn’t very effective.” It is hard to persuade someone to abandon these theories. They are constructed in such a way that they cannot be falsified, and criticism only triggers a paranoid person’s suspicion of outsiders.

I have never knowingly been a conspiracy theorist on any matter. Generally, such stories are repugnant to my occasionally obsessive fact-checking habits, to my worldview in which ethics does not reduce to a battle between good and evil, to my personality that tends to be more trusting and less paranoid, and to the social bonds I form with people whose attitudes are similar to my own.

I do, however, see how conspiracy theories might appeal to someone else. Counterfactuals more generally—the past that wasn’t, the future that isn’t yet—are “entertaining,” according to Roese, because they are imaginative variations on a known theme, and they are “cognigenic, meaning that they spur further creative thought.” I suggest that conspiracy theories, too, fit this description. They are intricate fictions and mostly self-contained worlds. If I were to allow myself to spend time with one and if I were to engage it on its own terms, I could see myself growing fond of it.

One of Klaas’ interviewees for Power Corrupts says that believing in a conspiracy theory predisposes one to begin believing in yet another, even if the two theories are unrelated or contradictory. Klaas describes conspiracy theories as having “a weird way of metastasizing: they morph as they spread; they grow more outlandish; the conspiracy gets weirder and weirder as people build on the unhinged beliefs of others.” For this reason, to me, such stories feel a bit dangerous, like ideological gateway drugs, and I have always avoided them when I recognize them.

What we become

At the end of the road of a multitude of conspiracy theories, a person may be well trained in the consistent rejection of logic.

Denialism by Michael Specter.

According to Michael Specter, author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives (2009), the rejection of science is a coping strategy for living in an increasingly technological society that every day becomes a little harder to understand. When people are fearful and “decide that science can’t solve their problems,” they may abandon scientific process and findings, gravitating instead toward some other answer on the merits of its perceived popularity. This is a problem: “Either you believe evidence that can be tested, verified, and repeated will lead to a better understanding of reality,” Specter warns, “or you don’t. There is nothing in between but the abyss.”

In politics, similarly, embracing a multitude of conspiracy theories may lead a person to distrust and reject democratic principles. Ultimately, experts are not believed; leaders are not trusted; process is not given credibility; norms are not understood; facts cannot be verified; no one can be held accountable. This is a terrible outcome, but it is hard to stop conspiracy theories from starting and spreading. Perhaps being aware of their psychological function can prompt us to think of other ways to confront the human fear of random, small, and impersonal causes.

Everyone (else) is a hypocrite

rkWe’re all hypocrites. Why? Hypocrisy is the natural state of the human mind.

Robert Kurzban shows us that the key to understanding our behavioral inconsistencies lies in understanding the mind’s design. The human mind consists of many specialized units designed by the process of evolution by natural selection. While these modules sometimes work together seamlessly, they don’t always, resulting in impossibly contradictory beliefs, vacillations between patience and impulsiveness, violations of our supposed moral principles, and overinflated views of ourselves.

This modular, evolutionary psychological view of the mind undermines deeply held intuitions about ourselves, as well as a range of scientific theories that require a “self” with consistent beliefs and preferences. Modularity suggests that there is no “I.” Instead, each of us is a contentious “we”–a collection of discrete but interacting systems whose constant conflicts shape our interactions with one another and our experience of the world.

In clear language, full of wit and rich in examples, Kurzban explains the roots and implications of our inconsistent minds, and why it is perfectly natural to believe that everyone else is a hypocrite.

Watch a video here.

Read a New Yorker piece here.

Politics and Religion

Motivating Political Participation?

Does religion spur persons to engage in such nonviolent political activities as signing petitions, joining in boycotts, participating in demonstrations, taking part in unofficial strikes, occupying buildings and factories, or voting and membership in political parties?

A large cross-national study recently published in Religion, State, and Society examines the relationship between religion and political activity. Researchers at the University of Kansas examined data that covered over three decades in order to look at the influence that various religious factors had on political participation. The lead researcher, commenting on the new study, reckons from the data that “religious beliefs, by themselves, do not suffice to motivate individuals to act politically.” Thus: “it is incorrect to infer political behavior from religious beliefs alone.”

The study itself informs us that while religion may well influence individuals’ opinions on hot-button issues (take same-sex marriage, abortion as examples), personal religiosity doesn’t necessarily propel persons to political participation.  Rather, it interacts with secular configurations and pressures to encourage or deter individuals from engaging with the political world. The study abstract, in summarizing the research, indicates that individuals become more likely to engage in political activity of the types examined due to their affiliation with others, whether it be membership in religious organizations or belonging to other voluntary associations of a secular nature.

Read a summary and interpretation at:
https://phys.org/news/2017-10-religious-beliefs-dont-people-political.html

Letter from South America

Dear Bob,
 
My brother and his family were visiting Greece these past days. They went to Athens, and then from there they sailed to the islands of Santorini and Mykonos. What a wonderful trip! My 12 year-old niece loves mythology and knows a little bit about philosophers so they really enjoyed seeing all the classical sites and museums (besides enjoying wonderful wine, food and views of course). The first picture my brother sent was the front view of the Parthenon. He pointed out that the one sculpture remaining in the pendant of the actual building is that of Dionysius. As my mother loves wine he joked: “after 2500 years, Dionysius is the only survivor!” However, the Dionysius they found in a museum had only half face, no neck, torso, neither arms nor legs, and only one hand holding a glass. Here he said: “ Well, here only the glass survived!”  (Perhaps he drank in excess – haha).  But not everything was about humor, pictures, restaurants, museums, or being a tourist. He told us that being there gives you a natural motivation to think about thinking… nice. Traveling and thinking about thinking sounds like a good life; feeling that you are really alive. I don’t have the money to travel to Greece but it is my consolation to think that going back to the Greeks and thinking about what they said is as good as travelling there (this is half joke, half serious).
 
Today is Sunday and on Sundays I rest as most. On Sundays I have time to do laundry, to plan my week, to go for a long bike ride, to think. I sit down or lay down here on the sofa sometimes, staring at the window, the blue sky and the cloud formation, listening to the birds and feeling the breeze. I need to use this time I have to think, to learn something, to make my mind a better mind, to clear it so I have some insight about something. But how do I do that. I read good stuff, I download some podcast and then I think about it, I think about what bothers me, my never ending ruminating, my feelings. However, sometimes I think I don’t make any progress and my mind is still not very clear, not very clever. The Greeks said that before trying to learn something new we need to know ourselves: ‘Know Thyself’. Know my self sounds wise, but if the self is just an artifice, an illusion, what exactly am I to get to know?  If I analyze my thoughts or my actions, then I interpret them, I go on and on with analysis: labeling something good or bad, convenient, undesirable, mistaken, well done, etc. But I do not think the Greeks meant such a methodology could lead to self-knowledge. All right, let me go back: If we accept that self is not an entity to be known, we surely can accept that mind is, just because mind simply exists. OK, I need to understand mind. That requires knowledge in philosophy, psychology, neurology, and more. Wow, that is a lot of studying! But surely the Greek saying was meant for everyone as a practical motto relating to living a good life, not an academic endeavor, so not only experts could achieve the goal. It has to be hard but not so hard; one hopes!
 
Know thyself: knowledge of my own self, an exploration of my own self to find something true about its nature, its workings.  My mind is something amazing. My work is done thanks to my mind’s prodigious processing capacity. Has it happened to you that sometimes your brain corrects some mistake it has made WAY AFTER the fact and when not even thinking about the fact (which is what I find amazing)?
I remember when I was working for a telecommunications shop in Canada; I was always very worried about doing things correctly.  My job was repairing radio equipment for loggers. When a radio fails and you are in the middle of the forest, it can be trouble, so I was very keen on doing a good job. One afternoon I had repaired a radio and the client had picked it up and left satisfied. That night I woke up at midnight with the thought that I hadn’t installed a small protection component. Next day I called the client who came back to have his equipment re-checked. I had not, in fact, installed that component. My brain told me in my dream what I had forgotten while doing the job. Fantastic! But my brain is also very annoying! The ever present chatting, rumination, story making and the feelings all those thoughts give me drive me crazy. I have explored meditation in order to be more focused and to stop the chatting, and although I have not had success in adopting the practice, I think it definitely works. I am wondering now how meditation could relate to knowing myself. Here, then, is something to explore. I have to try to retake the practice first.  Despite my not understanding how to go about knowing myself, I surely believe it is fundamental.
 
Well, it is 6 pm, no more time for thinking. It is time for drinking. No more Socrates but Dionysus! Until next time.
 
Laura.

 

The Ultimate Thought Experiment

limits

Imagine taking a substance that alters your perception of reality such that the language you have developed so far according to your naturally occurring experience is useless to convey these new thoughts. But you know they make sense, and you know if you could talk about them they would make sense to others too.

Well, you can’t really, unless you’re the one taking the trip down these newly carved neuronal pathways. In this case, it’s me and the magic mushrooms I just took. I came out on the other side all shaken up/out and with one main question: If a philosopher takes a mind-altering drug alone in her room, is she still philosophizing?

Let me start off by saying it is very rare for me. In the few times I have taken psychedelics I have been too modest in my dose to achieve anything resembling a trip (with the exception of salvia, which I do not recommend). This is the first I’d felt, if I can attempt a vague metaphor, an opening of the mind. I thought I’d have to wait until my deathbed to have any entirely new thoughts, and yet here they were a fungi away.  I felt frightened, exhilarated, frustrated, and like I wish I did this more often, though my typical arrangement does not think that’s a good idea.

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