It's All One Big Damn Conspiracy... Or Not
"People love conspiracy theories." – Neil Armstrong
“Devil worshiping pedophiles basically run the New World Order. They love death, and they love killing babies.” – Alex Jones
Something for Nothing
In certain cluttered basements and dimly-lit garages throughout the narrow alleys and vast acres of this country, there exists an accepted mode of thinking about the state of the world. It goes like this: "The complete lack of evidence is the surest sign that the conspiracy is working." Please do me a quick favor and reread that sentence.
Now, if the absence of something resonates with you as a logical line of argumentation for the existence of the thing in question, please stop reading this piece. The plan here isn’t to insist on the presence of phantoms, but rather to examine the human need for conspiracy and the reasoning behind our motivations. This isn't meant to deny the existence of conspiracies (there are undoubtedly several brewing as I type this sentence), but rather to illuminate the idiocy of individuals who would insist on the existence of nefarious clandestine enterprises based precisely on the absence of any evidence of such.
More commonly, this is known as an appeal to ignorance, which states that something must be true simply because it cannot be proven false. This is no doubt a deliciously convenient argument for anyone whose position is unraveling in a heated debate, but it is nevertheless a logical fallacy - it doesn't actually hold any water. An appeal to ignorance is an excuse to cling to a baseless belief by attempting to subvert the validity of observed truths. It's an attempt to ask irrelevant questions ad infinitum as a way of permanently filibustering a logical conclusion because said conclusion is inconveniently incongruous with an unshakeable agenda.
The "War" for Your Mind
So why is it that conspiracy theorists are so devoutly insistent on pursuing their Google-fueled investigations? There are a number of reasons, but most of them seem to point more toward individual insecurity and a narcissistic impulse than genuine interest in uncovering concealed truths.
Michael Barkun, professor emeritus at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, is an expert in political extremism and the relationship between violence and religion. He’s also one of the leading conspiracy theory scholars in the United States. In an interview with Chip Berlet of New Internationalist Magazine, he states that there are three separate appealing categories for the conspiracy theorist:
First, conspiracy theories claim to explain what others can't. They appear to make sense out of a world that is otherwise confusing. Second, they do so in an appealingly simple way, by dividing the world sharply between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. They trace all evil back to a single source, the conspirators and their agents. Finally, conspiracy theories are often presented as special, secret knowledge unknown or unappreciated by others. For conspiracists, the masses are a brainwashed herd, while the conspiracists in the know can congratulate themselves on penetrating the plotters' deceptions.
So, according to Barkun, conspiracists are trying to circumvent outdated (i.e. accepted) institutions to interpret the world around them by splitting it into fantastical binary extremes to seek out the perceived ‘evil-doers,’ and they’re doing so as a means of confirming their own special brilliance. One need look no further than the current ring leader of this circus for confirmation of this hypothesis.
Notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the Texas-based radio host and founder of the popular conspiracy site Infowars.com, is the perfect mix of ego, fear, and mental illness. Think Joseph McCarthy, but instead of accusing everyone of being a Communist, he accuses everyone of being either a demon or a sheep. He envisions himself as the lone crusader for truth and justice, but is actually a paranoid, unstable, hardass, who is simultaneously skeptical of fact, incapable of coherent thought, and delusionally convinced of his own brilliance. (This person went on his radio show and blamed the government for creating the tornadoes ["weather weapons"] that struck Oklahoma last spring.)
When interviewed, Jones cannot physically restrain himself from screaming irrelevant nonsense at his host and mocking other panel members’ accents. He seems truly incapable of taking anyone without a southern drawl seriously. (Naturally, he’s also suspicious of academics.) Still, despite his brazen lunacy, over 3 million listeners tune in to his syndicated radio show, which airs six days a week on more than 70 radio stations across the United States. Most of these listeners tend to be young, impressionable libertarians (political hipsters) who propagate a repetitive mantra based on an ancient document in an attempt to opt out of paying their taxes. (Taxes are also a conspiracy.)
Kings of Convenience
Surprisingly (or perhaps, thanks to Alex Jones, Glenn Beck, etc., not so surprisingly), this brand of crazy is spreading like wild fire. According to an article posted just last month on TPM, 13% of Americans believe the American government carries out "false flag" operations, 26% of all Americans believe Muslims within the government are incorporating Sharia Law into the U.S. Judicial System, 36% of Americans believe the current administration is "secretly trying to take everyone's guns away," and 44% of Republicans believe that armed rebellion "might be necessary."
These numbers are almost as staggering as the lack of evidence to support their claims, which is exactly what allows conspiracists to continue their crusade - a willing ignorance of facts. Remember, the lack of evidence only serves to affirm their suspicions, and when proof is presented, it must have been planted. In this way, the true conspiracist is able to make something literally out of nothing, which also means that there is no reasoning with them. This thought paradigm also means that very few of these individuals will ever come to their senses, and their numbers will only continue to grow as (ironically) they are shepherded along by obnoxious media personalities.
Research tells us that this willingness to not only believe, but to propagate these beliefs, makes perfect sense. According to Viren Swami, a psychology professor at the University of Westminster who conducted survey and laboratory research on the nature of the conspiracist in 2010, “The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories... If you know the truth and others don’t, that’s one way you can reassert feelings of having agency.” So paranoia begets further paranoia as means of reaffirming autonomy, until the whole world is just one large cover up. The reasoning behind such an exponential, existential leap is that these theories aren't based on evidence, logic, or rationale; they're based on emotion and a larger worldview about the political elite and their empirical desire to crush 99.9% of society.
Plausibility vs. Naive Certitude
Now, not everyone who has questions about the Kennedy Assassination, the Moon Landing, or 9/11 is a radical, delusional, narcissist. There had to have been at least one more shooter, the flag appears to be blowing in the wind, and somebody must know what happened to those black boxes. But these are potential clues to a greater truth, not certain conclusions about skeleton theories. Furthermore: Do secret societies like the Bilderberg Group and the Skull and Bones exist? Of course they do; they just aren't all that secretive. The difference between a rational human and a conspiracist is that the former believes these organizations influence global policy, while the conspiracist believes these are organizations influence global policy and want to place your grandparents and all known puppy and/or kitten dissidents in a compound surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards.
There's possibility, there's plausibility, and there's fantasy. Conspiracists struggle with the distinction, but what they lack in discernment, they more than make up for with hyperbole.
Dear Mr. Fantasy
When I was four-years old, my older brother snottily informed me on our way home from school one day that Santa Clause wasn't real. As you can imagine, or likely recall from your own childhood, this was a traumatic experience for me. Not only did it severely deafen my sense of wonder, but in an instant, it also transformed my mom and dad from the caring, compassionate parents they were into absolute masters of deceit. There was no magic. There was no fantasy. Just a couple of pseudo-adults trying to give their children a nice Christmas. Screw them.
I was faced with a serious dilemma. I could either call out my parents for feeding me a line of crap, replete with tears, screams, and indignant foot stamps, or I could say nothing and talk myself into believing that it was actually my malevolent sibling who was the liar. I opted for the latter, enjoying another four years or so of Yuletide ignorance as bliss. Believing that a fat, red-faced, magical flying man who lived in the vast recesses of The North Pole could climb down billions of chimneys to deliver copious amounts of loot to greedy children was just so much more fun than facing up to the reality that Christmas actually only consisted of my mom and dad, a trip to Wal-Mart, and a little late night gift-wrapping.
Isn't the fantasy always more fun?
Kludt, Tom. "Poll: Large Numbers of Republicans Believe Conspiracy Theories on Guns, Sharia Law." TPM. 2 Oct. 2013. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.
Koerth-Baker, Maggie. "Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories." The New York Times. 21 May 2013. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.