Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories

For many people (including as many as 22 million Americans) the 20th July 1969 doesn’t mark the day when man first walked on the moon but the high water mark of one of the most audacious hoaxes in history – the conspiracy inside NASA to fake the moon landings.

Believers in the ‘moon landing hoax’ conspiracy point to the lack of stars in any of the photographs taken on the moon; the conflicting directions of shadows when there should have been only one light source; and the moon dust the astronauts walked through that should have been blasted away in their descent. Far from being on the moon, say the various conspiracy theories, the ‘astronauts’ were being filmed in absolute in Area 51, the high security air-force base in Nevada.

Area 51 itself is at the nexus of a number of conspiracy theories – the hoax moon landing; the storage of crashed UFOs and recovered alien bodies; the containment of live aliens; the development of top secret aircraft under the cover story of UFOs; and the development of top secret aircraft using recovered alien technology. Some of these are mutually exclusive – UFOs can’t be both the cover story for secret technology and its secret basis. However believing in contradictory ideas isn’t just possible for believers in conspiracies, it’s actually more likely that they will be able to.

A University of Kent study gave a group of students five different theories about the death of Princess Diana – one in which she faked her own death, and four where different groups and individuals were responsible for her assassination. They repeated a similar idea using two conspiracy theories about Osama Bin Laden – one in which he was still alive, and one in which he was already dead before the raid on his compound. As Michael Wood who led the study reported “the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered”, along with “the more they believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when US special forces raided his compound, the more they believed that he is still alive.”

What allows people to believe in such elaborate and often contradictory theories? The first thing to deal with is the stereotype of the believer in conspiracy theories as a white male loner with extremist views. Belief in conspiracy theories crosses all gender, age, class and race distinctions, and all political leanings as well. Conspiracy theories aren’t the sole province of those on the political left, seeing evidence of networks of the rich and powerful. Those on the right are just as likely to believe in conspiracy theories, but theirs will tend towards belief in the coordinated bias towards liberal values in the media, and a conspiracy by the scientific community to promote the false idea of climate change.

One valid indicator of how likely someone is to subscribe to conspiracy theories is a person’s general level of trust in other people. Unsurprisingly distrust of others predisposes them to suspect collusion between other people, making them more likely to develop or accept conspiracy theories. In a similar way high levels of stress and low self-esteem are also more prominent in those who believe in conspiracy theories, although how far these contribute or are caused by these beliefs is unknown.

Two further compelling psychological reasons to believe in conspiracy theories are common to all of us. The first is apophenia, our inbuilt tendency to see patterns in events and information. This can easily distort our perception of facts and events, and is reinforced by our tendency to confirmation bias. Once we have developed or accepted conspiracy theories we are likely only to look for or accept information and ideas that confirm our thinking.

The way that conspiracy theories are constructed also supports our tendency to confirmation bias. Contradictory evidence may be regarded as not just false, but as deliberately planted misinformation, thereby confirming the existence of the conspiracy.

One last explanation for why people believe in conspiracy theories is often overlooked – that people believe in conspiracies because they actually happen. The shameful episode of the Tuskugee syphilis experiment, a forty year study in which African-American men were left untreated, without their knowledge or consent, so that doctors could study the unchecked progress of the disease, is just one example from the last century. This points up the essential difference between conspiracy theories and delusions – delusions are always wrong, but conspiracy theories are sometimes sadly right.

If you still laugh at people who believe world leaders  worship a huge stone owl but you wish “good morning” when you meet a magpie then perhaps you should read my blog about superstition.

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