Believing in stupid things.
Some of the conspiracies that we fall for require a stretch of the imagination at best, and at worst, are absolutely ridiculous. But absurdity doesn’t stop more than a few from being sucked in. It’s estimated that at least half of Americans believe conspiracy theories.
Very often we make the mistake of giving the players too much credit — conspiracies are complicated schemes involving a lot of characters and multiple stages stretching way out into the future. All of the pieces have to synchronize perfectly for things to work just right.
Frankly, most conspirators aren’t that clever or lucky. Even if 1 or 2 players are smart enough, at least a few won’t be. Nor are they trustworthy. A few will leak the details, either through bragging, pangs of conscience, or accidentally on purpose. There’s just no honor among thieves.
Why are they so prevalent now? One reason is us-versus-them politics. We assume, or maybe even expect, the other side will do something dastardly. These theories reinforce what we already believe, and that makes us believe even more. Even if they’re ridiculous, we’re willing to suspend our disbelief to justify our own opinions.
Some folks are more prone to fall for conspiracies. Those who believe in the supernatural — ghosts and extra-sensory perception, for example – are particularly vulnerable.
Lately, social scientists have come to divide people into two groups — Intuitionists rely on their gut feelings and instincts; and Rationalists, who focus on research studies and facts. Intuitionists are more conspiratorial in their thinking.
From a political perspective, the right wing has become more intuitionist, driven by Evangelical Christians, radical pundits, and Donald Trump. The truth is, Trump is the one of the greatest promoters of conspiracies and misinformation, and Trump voters are most likely to believe in them (by the way, so are Brexit voters.)
This is not to say that the left doesn’t have its conspiracies. The anti-vaccine movement, for instance, emerged from the left. To this day, Hillary Clinton holds that the right wing is working against her and her family. By believing that, she and her supporters can dismiss every accusation and investigation as a false attack, and so they can dismiss any charges.
In simpler times, many of the conspiracies focused on religion and ethnicity. However, even today, some buy into the idea of an anti-Christ (Obama was the last accused). And, of course, anti-Semitic theories still abound — many people believe that Jews, through banking, Hollywood, and the news media, are attempting to take over America and the world.
The idea that Jews are working to control the world is particularly idiotic. Jews make up less than 2% of the U.S. and 0.2% of the world populations. How does one justify that such a small group can accumulate that kind of power? And don’t forget that to achieve their objective, the world-wide population of 15 million Jews would have to work together to a single-minded purpose, and not tell anyone about it.
Here are a few other conspiracies floating around today that defy any sense of reason:
- Alien reptiles who were shape-shifters came to Earth about 500,000 years ago to mine gold (they weren’t very good, given how much they left for us locals). They’re still here, and you might have heard of a few — the Bush family, Margaret Thatcher, Bob Hope, and the British Royal Family. This one doesn’t get widespread support — only 4%. Still, 4%!!!
- The Earth is flat, something even the ancient Greeks knew better than to believe. Flat Earth theorists implicate NASA as the perpetrator of the round earth idea, and they believe GPS devices are rigged so pilots think they they’re flying around a globe. The Flat Earth Society has thousands of on-line members.
- A group of international elites are working to create a new world order to serve their specific needs. By the way, the New World Order is headquartered underneath the Denver International Airport. That airport is too big and far away from the city center to be anything else, theorists believe (bless their hearts).
- Our government can control the weather and use it as a weapon. That great American nit-wit, Alex Jones, is a proponent of this one — he asserts that the military can create and steer the direction of tornadoes, something they did in Texas in 2013, killing two dozen people.
- Jones is also pretty sure the military has chemical weapons that are turning people gay — that’s why there’s so many more homosexuals now. Their purpose is to limit the number of people having children.
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been building concentration camps on U.S. soil, anticipating the day when martial law will be imposed.
These are amusing. But some conspiracy theories are dangerous. They can inspire extremists to crime and terrorism, or lead people to make decisions that are against their self-interests.
- Vaccines are linked to autism, a “fact” covered up by pharmaceutical companies. The anti-vaccine movement has led to increased rates of infection and death from diseases. Measles has sickened more people in the first half of 2019 than in any full year since 1994.
- Along with killing us with vaccines, pharmaceutical companies are sitting on cures for some illnesses so they can keep selling non-curative drugs. Almost 4 in 10 buy into this one.
- The Sandy Hook shooting that left 26 dead was a hoax. Alex Jones claimed it was staged by gun control advocates, but he backed down after eight families sued him.
- Large agricultural companies are suppressing information on the negative effects of genetically modified foods. Ultimately, this will lead to higher cost of food because of the added expense of conventional farming.
- Hillary Clinton ran a child sex trafficking ring out of the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in the D.C. area. This claim, again pushed by Alex Jones, led Edgar Maddison Welch to fire shots into the restaurant.
- Global warming is a hoax, a result of distorting scientific findings. Beyond the basics of our survival, denying this phenomenon means our government won’t invest as vigorously in alternative energy development, and so we could be left behind as a major producer in this emerging industry.
- Everything is rigged. This one comes from both the left and the right — Donald Trump with voter fraud, and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren with everything else. Such rhetoric allows for scapegoating, and makes people feel hopeless and alienated. They also serve to suppress the vote — why vote if elections are rigged?
- The “Deep state”, or a group of powerful individuals, controls our nation’s politics and government. A 2017 poll indicated that 48% of Americans believe in the existence of a conspiratorial deep state.
- The Ukraine interfered with our elections, not the Russians. President Trump’s push of this debunked theory allows Vladimir Putin to continue sowing discord in the U.S.
- Joe Biden and his son Hunter engaged in corrupt activities in Ukraine and then-Vice President Joe Biden helped to protect a company for whom his son worked. This theory was completely debunked long ago — the investigation into the Ukrainian company was inactive when Hunter began working at the company. The former Ukrainian prosecutor general said there are no grounds to investigate either of them.
Believing in such things can make you seem weird to others, if not downright confused. But here’s the real problem — conspiracy theories are both a symptom and a cause of the polarization in our country. We need to trust that our government and our institutions operate in our best interests, and we’re not just unwilling victims of some vast corrupt scheme. Sacrificing truth and logic and surrendering ourselves to propaganda because it makes us feel justified makes it impossible to return to some level of normalcy, and impossible for opposing sides to have meaningful debates on policy.
Instead, all we’re left with is hate, and no path to move forward.