9 November 2016
I have the TV on to catch some of the commentary on the US presidential election as the results trickle in. I’ve just heard a journalist ask a voter who said he voted for Trump, why he did so. The answer was “He doesn’t lie”! The journalist then asked “So everything Trump says is truthful?” which received the classic reply “Probably not, but that’s politics”.
Recently I have been at dinner tables where other guests have earnestly expounded what can only be called conspiracy theories. My first reaction is incredulity that people who seem normally sociable and of reasonable intelligence and competence actually believe that the CIA orchestrated the attack on the World Trade Center towers, that Apollo 11 did not land on the moon, that President Obama is a Muslim with a cunning plan to undermine the American dream. Even if one keeps one’s temper and sense of humour and attempts to counter with logic and reasoned argument, they make it clear they are not for turning.
Some serious academics have researched why people believe in conspiracy theories and have published the results of their research. Examples are Rob Brotherton (Suspicious minds: Why we believe in conspiracy theories, 2016), J E Uscinski and J M Parent (American conspiracy theories, 2014), Michael Wood (https://conspiracypsychology.com/author/disinfoagent/).
They have concluded that because human beings have the ability to find meaningful patterns in the world, we sometimes see patterns that do not exist, particularly when we feel events are beyond our control. Real-world events that become the subject of conspiracy theories are complex and unclear. The theories are a way of easily making sense of these events and restoring our confidence in the face of uncertainty and powerlessness. Believers in conspiracies favour a worldview they can uncritically defend. They see the world as full of malice and planning instead of circumstance and coincidence. They are often alienated from the societies in which they live and do not trust the government or the media.
A significant finding of one study is that 42% of those who believed in conspiracy theories are without a high school diploma but that 23% of believers have post-graduate diplomas. It is erroneous, therefore, to discount them as at best, misguided and at worst, plain stupid. After all, one in five Americans with post-graduate diplomas believe in at least one conspiracy theory.
There is also a positive correlation between beliefs in contradictory conspiracy theories. This means that a person who believes one theory is very likely to also believe in a theory that contradicts it e.g. the more participants in one study believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered.
It seems to me that a discussion with someone who believes in conspiracy theories is a waste of breath. They will not react positively to logical argument or to incontrovertible evidence. They will believe what they’ve chosen to believe no matter what, which is depressing for those of us who feel that we are rational creatures who can learn from diligent research and new ideas and move onto a more enlightened future. It also explains the voter who chose Trump because he does not lie but in the next breath acknowledges that Trump does in fact lie because that’s how politics work.
And the liar (the “irascible egomaniac”, the racist, the misogynist) is now the next president of the USA! We’ve stepped into the abyss.
Update: 11 November 2016
This article says it better than I did