Afternoon Inquisition 10.6

First, let me apologize in advance for not talking about sex this week.

Last week, Steve Fossett’s plane was found with what appeared to be human remains. But even the fact that human bones were found in the wreckage is not enough to convince some folk that Steve Fossett is actually dead.  They’re still insistent that he faked his death.

What is it about imagining conspiracies? What is it about conspiracy theorists? Why would someone rather ignore or twist the facts than face them? Why do they insist on believing the very worst about other human beings (i.e., that they’re devious and manipulative and the truth is always something bigger than “they” are letting on)?

(And I scheduled this post to go up at 2:58pm instead of 3:00pm because I’m all crazy rebellious like that. Use that to create your own Rebecca-Elyse conspiracy if you wish.)


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. People believe in conspiracies for the same reason people believe in God. It is a belief in meaning and one’s own uniqueness.

    If there is a God or an all powerful conspiracy, then it means that someone is in charge and big things happen for big reasons. Whether or not you love or hate the ultimate power, it is still a comfort to believe that the power exists.

    If you either belong to the one true religion or know about the conspiracy, then you are special, smarter, or more deep than people who do not.

    Someone is in control and you are special.

  2. As TheCzech said, I agree that conspiracy theories come from the same source as religion in a lot of ways. We like to see patterns in things. And once we start to see a pattern — where one is really there or not — we start to fit all our other observations to fit within this pattern… Add to that the fact that we all like to be ahead of the curve, feel like we have the big secret (though not “The Secret.” That is crap.) that no one else is on to, that we’ve outsmarted the rest of the world.. and voila: Conspiracy Theory!

  3. In part it seems to be some sort of pseudo-skepticism, and a pseudo-rebelliousness: “At least I don’t believe everything they tell me. ” Kinda like what TheChech and greenisblu have already said.

    The other part seems to simply be that conspiracies often make better stories than reality – and everybody loves a great story.

  4. I agree with TheCzech’s comments – also want to add that when you mix our brains’ tendency to find meaning in patterns and coincidences with our sophisticated and overactive imaginations, you’re bound to get some TALL tales. I think people are story tellers and if there isn’t a standard that one judges their imagination against (ie: the scientific method) then those metaphors become literal truths and you get fundamentalism and conspiracy nuts.

    Plus I think a lot of times people get their egos wrapped up in admitting they might be wrong. Depends how much is at stake. Once someone is in to a conspiracy theory so deep, just like with religion, they will reject any contrary information – easily dismiss it by saying that’s “the system” or “big brother” or whoever just trying to hide the TRUTH. Much similar to the “faith without evidence” scapegoat so often used by the religious.

  5. My college professor once had a fairly interesting idea for why conspiracy theories run rampant: He thought that people believe in conspiracy theories because they are freaked out at the idea that individuals or even small groups of people can drastically affect the world around them.

    Take for example the 9/11 attacks. The reason so many people believe in a government conspiracy is because they just can’t accept that a relatively small group of people could pull off such an event a completely change everything in America in the span of a few short hours. If they can blame the government, they can saythat there was nothing that could be done – after all the Big Bad Governmentâ„¢ was behind it.

  6. @greenishblu: Pattern-seeing is part of this, indeed. This tendency touches on a almost every aspect of human nature and behavior.

    @Beowulff: The storytelling aspect should indeed not be dismissed. It’s hard not to hope the urban legend is true.

    @laurae: The best way to learn how to handle being wrong is lots of a lots of practice.

  7. @9bar: Exactly. A world where a small band of assholes can kill thousands of people is much more scary than one where a huge conspiracy is in charge.

  8. Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute…

    What if all of the people who claim conspiracies at the drop of a hat are really all a vast conspiracy of their own, seeking to promote paranoia and illogical thinking to further their own aims???

    And just WHERE the HECK is my tinfoil hat, anyway?????

  9. People need a narrative around their lives. A model. Something to make sense of a harsh world. And most of them stopped reading before they found the one that modern science provides.

    So there was religion, which held on a for a very very long time, and then when god seemed to be dead the UFOs came, along with the angels, and when those were debunked it became the Illuminati and Freemasons and the CIA. (of course, the order is rough, there was much overlap )

    I wonder what’s next?

  10. Next after “quantum” everything, that is. Probably dark matter/energy.

    Wherever the frontier of science lies, woo will stand miles back and misunderstand it. ‘vibrations’, ‘energy’, ‘fields’, ‘quantum’… Jerks.

  11. Expatria: that was awesome :)

    Make sure you get the real tin foil hats, though, not the ones that Big Tinfoil says you should use.

  12. It is about epistemology. How do we know anything that we know about the outside world? Assuming one can’t be onsite to examine the body and run one’s own DNA test to prove or disprove identity, why would a skeptic believe the news story?

    Have news stories ever provided information that later was proven false? If so, how would one rationally distinguish between the ‘false’ stories and the ‘true’ stories? If not, please let me know what channel you have been watching!

    We all know there have been conspiracies throughout history and even in recent memory. Were Woodward and Bernstein irrational regarding the Watergate conspiracy theory?

    What is the difference between the Watergate scandal and the Business Plot?

  13. It’s that whole extraordinary claims vs extraordinary evidence thing. Depending on your viewpoint, the balance between the two shifts. For some people, the claim that Steve Fossett crashed requires a lot more evidence than just a wrecked plane, a couple ID cards and some bone fragments. On the other end of the scale, some people are perfectly happy to accept “orbs” in photos as evidence of ghosts. What baffles me is that sometimes these are the same people.

  14. @Steve:

    That they **should** require extraordinary evidence I agree with.

    That the often do not come with the aforementioned evidence is pretty routine.

  15. People who dedicate their lives to conspiracy theories are actually slowing down the progress of mankind. Chomsky has some really good stuff to say about it and how completely pointless it is.

    “Every example we find of planning decisions in the society is a case where some people got together and tried to use whatever power they could draw upon to achieve a result…That means that almost everything that happens in the world is a ‘conspiracy’.”

    Noam Chomsky!

    All this ufo, jfk, 9/11 conspiracy nonsense is the result of excited imaginations and nothing else. It’s exciting to believe in conspiracy so they do it. Judging from the amount of books, films on this subject it’s probably quite good for your career too.

  16. @Steve: I think there’s a mistake in the meaning of “extraordinary” in their evidence. Where we use it in the sense of being exceptionally convincing and complete, they use it in the sense of being beyond the usual or odd. Sometimes those are the same thing, but most of the time those people are just nucking futs.

  17. I agree with 9bar and those who compare religion and CTs. I think they are two sides of the same coin. Religion (generally) allows people to believe that a benevolent entity controls the world/universe and will see that justice is ultimately served. Conspiracy theories are also based on the idea that an entity is in control of events in the world, but the entity is malicious and power-hungry. Either way it allows people to feel that someone/thing is in control and we’re not simply drifting in the winds of fate.

  18. I agree with peaches agreeing with 9bar who agreed with laurae who agrees with TheCzech and with greenishblu about pattern recognition and insecurity. Wait… what?

  19. “Use that to create your own Rebecca-Elyse conspiracy if you wish.”

    I’d like to see a Skepchick conspiracy theory calendar. A different ‘shopped image for each month. January: Skepchicks doing an alien autopsy. February: On the set of the fake moon landing. March: On the grassy knoll. April: At an Illuminati world domination picnic. May: Posing with the lizard-people royal family…

  20. Why would someone rather ignore or twist the facts than face them?

    I’ll agree with the sentiment that there is a touch of skepticism in conspiracy theory. The distinction is often (not always) hard to discern. For example, (without having read up on the CT’s around Fossett), finding bone doesn’t mean it’s Fossett’s yet, and it’s “healthy” (arguably) to question whether it’s actually his.

    There are, of course, clear realms of lunacy in CT. …Like the dude who believes the LHC is designed to open a gateway to hell. Or Cheney is a robot. : )

    Why do they insist on believing the very worst about other human beings (i.e., that they’re devious and manipulative and the truth is always something bigger than “they” are letting on)?

    Now, now. Some Theories in this vein are actually useful. For example, theories that the last American election was rigged. Whether or not it was true, by examining how such a conspiracy might have panned out, we get a better idea of what to look for in the future.

    In these cases, it’s much the same as “Open Source Security”: the more people talk about how secure systems might be broken, the better we get at defending against attacks.

    It would have been nice if people were more vocal about theories that a hijacked plane could be used as a weapon. Oh, wait, someone was vocal. Hmmn.

    : )

    Or, more seriously, the stealth bomber. There’s a case where they were right. The operational strength of the US Army during WWII was conspiratorially inflated. Watergate.

    (And, yes, we don’t want to get carried away with confirmation bias. I know.)

    Anyway, all I’m trying to say is that it’s worth segregating the genuinely curious/critical and the genuinely paranoid/delusional, and I’m a little disappointed at how dismissive people are of conspiracy theorists*.

    Heck, I’m even willing to give them a little (a tiny, itty-bitty little pinhole of) leeway on the “aliens are here” theory. Is it plausible? No. Is it possible? Very, very remotely possible? Yeah. If (and that’s a cosmic-cookie sized “IF”) they’re here, are they mutilating cattle? Ummmn, no.

    [shrug] Like I said, it’s a matter of sorting possible, plausible, and delusional. For the most part, I think as long as they aren’t getting people killed (antivax comes to mind–and even in that case, it was worth questioning until there was conclusive evidence of its safety), we’ll occasionally hear a nugget of truth and it’s worth leaving them be. They are, after all, skeptical. It’s the abandon of reason that we can’t let them get away with. And, admittedly, those are the CT’ists who get the most “press time”, so I understand the generalization. But they’re not all nutjobs.

    * Full disclosure: I have a friend who is a Conspiracy Theorist. I find him mostly harmless.

  21. That should be December’s theme. Skepchicks conspiring to not make the calendar. Topless, of course.

  22. There are some days that I feel like Captain Picard in the Cardassian prison:
    “There are THREE lights!”

    I hope the reference is not lost on the group…

  23. Oops, it really thought they were tags…that was supposed to say “Oh I forgot my “nasally nerd voice” and “/snort laugh” tags. Minus 5 nerd points for me.

  24. @Kimbo Jones: lul, it is pretty heinous to mess a TNG reference up.

    Anyway, back on topic. I followed the JFK assassination forums for a few years back when the intertube first started. I still can’t tell you what makes CTs tick. It has got to be a chemical imbalance.

  25. TheCzech said: “If there is a God or an all powerful conspiracy, then it means that someone is in charge and big things happen for big reasons. Whether or not you love or hate the ultimate power, it is still a comfort to believe that the power exists.”

    I LOVE that. Believing someone else is in charge absolves them of any responsibility for what is wrong with the world. It’s just another cop out.

  26. I get off on being a victim. The knowledge that I’m being lied to and taken advantage of by some huge conspiracy of faceless super-powerful men in suits gives me a warm fuzzy feeling and something to commiserate with other victims about.


  27. @JRice:

    There are, of course, clear realms of lunacy in CT. …Like … Cheney is a robot. : )

    Oh come on. The real loony conspiracy is those trying to convince us that he’s human.

  28. Shouldn’t True Skeptic be showing up sometime around, I don’t know, six hours ago? Or did he get banned?

    Oh, the thread. Right. I think people believe in conspiracy theories because it allows them to frame unacceptable truths in a more palatable way. Take the reptoids: Powerful and intelligent individuals control the economy and governments for sinister and selfish ends. They want to enslave and oppress the human race.
    Now, would you rather believe that those individuals are fellow human beings? Or reptilian aliens disguised as humans?

    I think every conspiracy theory contains a truth – in the case of the reptoids, that the global financial system is at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the interests of the ordinary citizen; in the case of 9/11, that those we rely on to protect us aren’t always up to the job, and might not really care about us either – wrapped up in a dramatic package that raises the stakes to a point where the conspiracy believer can’t possibly do anything about it.

  29. I would habve to agree that most conspiracy theories are total bunk. However, I happen to know about a real one that I am willing to reveal only here on skepchick for the very first time. I happen to know for a fact that Gene Roddenberry was actually an accidental time traveller who couldn’t get back to his future century. There were only a few people at Paramount who know the truth and they managed to keep it quiet for years. Star Trek was not a fictional enrtertainment show. It was actually a semi-documentary meant to encourage mankind to have a posititve outlook for the years to come. Of course the actual stories themselves were not real, but the depiction of what the future is going to be like was. How do I know all this? I met James Doohan once and he told me. The whole cast was in on it. Gene even brought some of the technology back with him…look at your cellphone then look at a communicator. Look at a tricorder then look at your PDA. Look at the dramatic and unprecedented progress in computer technology. I’m telling you, it happened. And no, he didn’t die. They came back for him. Something about the Prime Directive I think…

  30. Recent research suggests that many of the symptoms of schizophrenia result from an inability to perceive context. Schizophrenics, for example, are less likely to “see” optical illusions, of the “they look like they’re different colours but are really the same” form, because the perceived difference is due to context. Taking auditory hallucinations as an example symptom, this may simply be the suffer’s inner monologue, as perceived by someone who can’t “get” the context.

    As KristinMH pointed out, many conspiracy theories do contain a grain of truth. This idea of not perceiving the context may be one explanation for conspiracy theories.

    I think that the notion of having “secret knowledge” also plays a part. Everyone wants to be privy to something that nobody else knows.

    Most respectable religions aren’t “mystery religions” any more, but I have a theory (which isn’t thoroughly tested) that those religions which have a bigger “arcanum” tend to be those that have a culture of conspiracy thinking among its members.

    Case #1: American Christian fundies have the secret knowledge that everyone in the world is controlled by Satan, and the Liberal Media Conspiracy (formerly Jewish Media Conspiracy (formerly Communist Media Conspiracy)) is out to get them.

    Case #2: Secret knowledge doesn’t get any weirder than OT III. Many Scientologists are certain that anyone who has a beef against Scientology is part of a big conspiracy.

  31. While I can see why conspiracy theories are similar to religion in terms of their use of higher power as TheCzech suggested, and also why CT are a form of misguided skepticism as Beowulff suggested, I think that the belief in CT is far from being attributed to only these two things. Whereas I have nothing to add to TheCzech’s comment, I think I can expound a little on what Beowulff wrote.

    In my opinion, there is more for this “psuedo-skepticism” than just a person saying “At least I don’t believe everything they tell me”. I think that there are several factors in people’s education and thinking process that determine whether or not they will reach the righit conclusion.

    First, I would like to point out an interesting fact: When a layman tries to find information about, say, what really happened in WTC7 , he would most probably google “wtc7”. The interesting fact is that most of the sites he’ll find in the first page are uncritical, CT-related websites, that any connection between them and critical analysis is circumstantial.

    Speaking of a lack critical analysis skills, here in Israel, the education system is almost completely useless when it comes to science-education, and the teaching of critical analysis skills. I can assume, according to several articles I read, that in the US the situation is similar.

    Moreover, the lack of critical analysis skills is often accompanied by the lack of ability to distinguish the meat of a claim from the sauce. This causes most conspiracy theories, which rely heavily on Proof from Verbosity, to be largely irrefutable for most people, who just can’t deal with the enormous amount of information thrown on them.

    Another issue with some people relates to their hatred and natural mistrust for authority. In the case of the WTC7, it’s natural that the goverment would be blamed for a demolission that never happened. People tend to prejudice authorities such as govenment, scientific institution individual researchers who tend to oppose the mass’s common incorrect belifs.

    Another weakness of humans is their over-confidence in themselves and their conclusion. Confirmation bias and biased memory are well documented and their implications are far reaching when it comes to CT.

    In short, it’s not only for psychological reasons that people believe CT.

  32. I think people get a big kick out of thinking they know stuff other people don’t. If I know the masons are running everything then I’m one up on all the sheeple who think we live in a democracy. It is in fact much the same kick I suspect many of us get from being skeptics.

    The interesting question for me is whether what really matters is the special knowledge one gets from being in on the theory, or whether the conspiracy theory is just there as a key to joining a community.

  33. @csrster: Exaaaaactly. Wait. My fiance and I were just having this conversation the other day. You have cameras in my house! Boooo. That makes me special/important and a part of something bigger! Yaaaaay.

    I’m onta you!! [shifty eyes]

  34. I stand corrected – however, the point is still valid. Chalk it up to early dementia – I just turned 51 last week. ;-)

    The people around me insist that I agree to see their insane logic and “respect” it.

    ‘There are four lights.”

  35. The refusal to believe that someone could die, or is actually dead, says something to people’s inability to wrap their heads around their own inevitable, inexplicable death. If one’s gods/celebrities can die suddenly, horribly, without warning, that does not bode well for oneself.
    Conspiracy theories are at the root of christianity.

  36. @teaandoranges:
    I have often said that Christianity may well be the most successful conspiracy theory in history, because it has it all (Well, except for those cool tinfoil hats, anyway).

    It has violence, history, drama, a fallen monarchy on Earth, miracles, an alleged resurrection, and a deadly enemy that is invisible and virtually all-powerful (Satan and Co.). Its adherants believe that the entire world is against them and that they are in a war with the aforementioned enemy for the highest stakes imaginable. They believe that their belief gives them superpowers such as healing, “discernment,” accurate prophecy, commanding supernatural beings, etc.

    What more could a paranoid want?

  37. Before I learned anything about skepticism, my view was that “the scientists” didn’t know anything. “The scientists” were always saying one thing and then “the scientists” were always saying the opposite thing. Obviously “the scientists” were not to be trusted.

    “The media” couldn’t be trusted either, becuase “they” said things that were contradictory and said things I knew to be false.

    Therefore, it could only be someone outside the establishment that was telling the truth. Crop circles were obviously made by aliens, because guys on the farm said so, and “the scientists” disagreed. It was obvious to me who was telling the truth.

    Alternative medicine obviously worked, because average everyday people swore by it. “The scientists” disagreed, but again they don’t know anything so it is obvious who is telling the truth.

    With this midset, it is very easy to get swept up in a conspiracy theory – especially if it is a good story. Thinking “outside the box” made me smarter, and knowing things that were not generally accepted by the “sheep” that listened to “the scientists” made me smarter.

    Besides, it’s far easier to believe the crazy theories, because it doesn’t take any of that pesky critical thinking and research. Just pick the better story and you have the truth.

    I am SO GRATEFUL I found skepticism.

  38. @Mrs.Schaarschmidt: That’s a good point. People at large tend not to “get” that there may be different scientific opinions on an individual event but that is different from a scientific consensus on a trend (in which there still may be different opinions). And since “the media” tends to report one study at a time, and not on general trends, it’s easy to get the impression that all of science should turn on a dime every time a study comes out. When it doesn’t then people get confused and distrustful of science.

  39. @questionauthority: And add to all your excellent examples of what constitutes conspiracy theorists, add to it the early history of the Church where one theory about Jesus’ death competed with another, and the one that won was the least plausible, and most resembles modern day conspiracy theories. I guess people have been thriving on paranoia for quite some time. My question is, what will it take to evolve past that way of thinking?

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