In this time of fear and uncertainty, conspiracy theories are everywhere. This has the effect of making a chaotic situation even worse. We find ourselves now in a situation where, if there is widespread skepticism towards the media, many people might not follow social distancing guidelines as a result. Some conspiracy theories hold that everything, the media included, is controlled by a select group global elites, the puppet masters of world history. Thus, conspiracy theories are particularly dangerous as they are a key source of this type of skepticism.
Why are we drawn towards conspiracy theories? I’ll admit, I had a brief flirtation with conspiracy theories when I was in high school. I consider it, oddly enough, very important for my intellectual development, although its importance lies it how it propelled me forward to something deeper. When I first read The Da Vinci Code, I became obsessed with the question of whether there was a secret society that has preserved the hidden bloodline of Christ. Eventually, as I kept reading, pursuing every trail of clues I could find on the subject, I thought to myself: well, the book claims to have evidence that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child; the Catholic Church claims to have to evidence that they did not have a child. I realized that before I could decide which claim was true, I had to figure out the nature of evidence. What is evidence? What is truth? How do we know when something is true? What is knowledge? And so on. Conspiracy theories were, for me, a springboard into philosophy. That’s why I consider it an important stage my in development. Once you reach the philosophical stage however, rarely do you return to the conspiratorial. And I never returned.
But I clearly remember being drawn into that world on an emotional level. These theories had some sort of psychological pull, an allure perhaps best captured by what John Chadwick, the classics scholar who deciphered the Ancient Greek writings known as Linear B, wrote: “The urge to discover secrets is deeply ingrained in human nature; even the least curious mind is roused by the promise of sharing knowledge withheld from others.” I thought I would take this opportunity, therefore, to discuss the psychology of the conspiracy theory. Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? The best answers to that question, in my opinion, can be found in the writings of three figures: Karl Popper, Umberto Eco, and Alan Moore.
The philosopher of science Karl Popper defines a conspiracy theory in the following way: “What do I mean by a ‘conspiracy theory’? The conspiracy theory of society is just a version of this theism, of a belief in gods whose whims and wills rule everything. It comes from abandoning God and then asking: ‘Who is in his place?’ His place is then filled by various powerful men and groups—sinister pressure groups, who are to be blamed for having planned the great depression and all the evils from which we suffer.”
What’s wrong with this type of theory, for Popper? The problem with this conspiracy theory of society is, first, that it assumes that various powerful groups are capable of influencing society without any unintended consequences. This unrealistic given that all social situations have unintended consequences. He gives the following example to illustrate his point.
“Whoever wants to sell something always depresses the market value of what he wants to sell; whoever wants to buy something raises the market value of what he wants to buy. This is true, of course, only for small free markets. … You will agree with me that there is no need to prove that the man who wants to sell something usually has no intention of lowering the market price, and that the man who wants to buy something has no intention of raising it. We have here a typical instance of unwanted consequences. The situation described is typical of all social situations.”
If an all-powerful group pulling the strings of world history really exists, then it would appear not to be subject to this law of unintended consequences. They would be like no other group of people that ever existed in human history. Second, it should be the aim of social science, according to Popper, to explain how the unintended consequences of social situations work. The conspiracy theory of society fails to explain the very thing a genuine social science is meant to explain.
Popper became a well-known philosopher of science for his analysis of what is known as “the demarcation problem.” His solution to the problem gives us a possible hint as to why conspiracy theories are so appealing. The demarcation problem is simply: What separates genuine science from pseudo-science? Why is Einstein’s theory of relativity properly scientific, and astrology is not? Popper’s solution to the demarcation problem was that scientific theories can, in principle, be shown to be false. Scientific theories are, in Popper’s language, falsifiable. They can be tested, and they can be ruled out. Scientific theories make predictions that can be observed in the natural world. If those predictions are not observed, the theory is ruled out.
Popper wrote: “Einstein’s gravitational theory had led to the result that light must be attracted by heavy bodies (such as the sun), precisely as material bodies were attracted. As a consequence it could be calculated that light from a distant fixed star whose apparent position was close to the sun would reach the earth from such a direction that the star would seem to be slightly shifted away from the sun; or, in other words, that stars close to the sun would look as if they had moved a little away from the sun, and from one another. Now the impressive thing about this case is the risk involved in a prediction of this kind. If observation shows that the predicted effect is definitely absent, then the theory is simply refuted.” Had this effect not been observed, the theory would have been shown to be false.
Astrology, on the other hand, cannot be falsified, and as a result it is not genuinely scientific. “Astrology did not pass the test. Astrologers were greatly impressed, and misled, by what they believed to be confirming evidence — so much so that they were quite unimpressed by any unfavourable evidence. Moreover, by making their interpretations and prophecies sufficiently vague they were able to explain away anything that might have been a refutation of the theory had the theory and the prophecies been more precise. In order to escape falsification they destroyed the testability of their theory.”
Conspiracy theories are similar to astrology, and this might explain, in part, why we are drawn to them. They (a) appear to have great explanatory power. “These theories appear to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred.” What this really means, however, is that anything can be interpreted in light of a theory. (b) Conspiracy theories seem to be confirmed everywhere, by everything. “It was precisely this fact—that they always fitted, that they were always confirmed—which in the eyes of their admirers constituted the strongest argument in favour of these theories. It began to dawn on me that this apparent strength was in fact their weakness.” These facts constitute the appeal of the conspiracy theories; but, if we follow Popper, the very thing that gives the theory its appeal renders it a poor theory, unscientific. Good theories are those which we try to rule out, not those which we try to confirm. If you are looking for corroboration, you will always find it. But trying to rule out a theory involves a genuine intellectual risk.
Conspiracy theories avoid falsification because they operate according to the logic of the secret. The all-powerful group has a secret plan that can never be fully uncovered. The existence of the secret plan allows the theory to avoid being falsified. Using the notion of secrecy, a conspiracy theory is vague enough that it can simply be re-interpreted to avoid falsification. “The Illuminati wanted that to happen because it’s part of larger plan, more secret, more sinister, more unknowable.” The real truth is always one level higher. This game can continue without end, the true secret always beyond reach. Governed by the logic of the secret, the conspiracy theorist can say, for any event that seemingly rules out a particular theory: it was all part of a bigger plan, and that plan is secret. In this way, the theory is never ruled out, never falsified, never abandoned.
Italian philosopher and semiotician Umberto Eco wrote the master work on the logic and the psychology of the secret. Foucault’s Pendulum is about a group of writers who purposefully invent a massive conspiracy theory stretching back across world history, which they call “the Plan,” and which conspiracy theory-enthusiasts come to believe in – with deadly results.
In many ways, the novel is a narrative exploration of the some of themes he talked about in his Tanner Lectures given at Harvard in 1990, called Interpretation and Over-interpretation: World, History, Texts. Conspiracy theories are over-interpretations – or paranoid interpretations – of world events. In one of the lectures, Eco said of the secret: “Nevertheless, there can be no final secret. The ultimate secret of Hermetic initiation is that everything is secret. Hence the Hermetic secret must be an empty one, because anyone who pretends to reveal any sort of secret is not himself initiated and has stopped at a superficial level…” The endless pushing back of the secret further and further, towards an inner sanctum forever beyond reach means the theory can never be tested; and if the theory can never be tested, it can never be falsified.
But why do we like playing this game of secrets? In Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco explores a deep psychological truth of conspiracy theories: we want to believe them. We want to believe them because, if there is a Plan, then you are ultimately not responsible for your unhappiness. “There can be no failure if there really is Plan.” What a liberating thought! Anything wrong with my life is the result of a conspiracy – against me!
This leads me to one of the best comments I have ever come across on conspiracy theories. It came from comic book legend, Alan Moore, author of such works as Watchmen and V for Vendetta. In an interview, discussing the idea of a global conspiracy, Moore said: “Yes, there is a conspiracy, indeed there are a great number of conspiracies, all tripping each other up … the main thing that I learned about conspiracy theories is that conspiracy theorists actually believe in the conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the twelve-foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control, the truth is far more frightening; no-one is in control, the world is rudderless.”
We believe in conspiracy theories because it is comforting to believe in them.
The conspiracy theory has the potential to explain everything. The conspiracy theory seems to be confirmed everywhere, by everything. The idea that there is an all-powerful group of evil elites controlling everything is, in the final analysis – comforting. This is its ultimate appeal, and this is its ultimate weakness. Self-transformation comes by facing the chaos of the world directly, not by avoiding it.
You can read Popper’s short piece, The Conspiracy Theory of Society here: https://www3.canyons.edu/faculty/marianaj/Popper.pdf.
You can read a short summary of Popper’s views on the demarcation problem here: https://staff.washington.edu/lynnhank/Popper-1.pdf.
You can read Umberto Eco’s lecture on over-interpretation here.
Wash your hands.