Let’s be very clear about this; conspiracies are real, but Conspiracy Theories are fake, imaginary, and fictitious. (I intend to follow Cassam’s convention, using initial capitals to denote fake Conspiracy Theories, and lower case for real conspiracies.) Conspiracy Theories merge with fake news, alternative facts, and general misinformation. There are also conspiracy allegations, often in relation to specific events; the allegations usually allude to governmental malfeasance. Similar allegations in the past have often been shown to be (largely) correct after lengthy pressure for a formal inquiry from concerned parties. Real conspiracies, after all, are only those that have been exposed. Here, I intend to mainly cover Conspiracy Theories, and to show how dangerous they can be. Much of the “debate” around Covid-19 and vaccine hesitancy or “anti-vaxx” shows Conspiracy ideation; I intend to discuss this in more detail in a further post.
Both conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories have a long history. There was a real conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar in 44BC. Anti-Semitic Conspiracy Theories were common in the Middle Ages (and still are). These built on the idea that the Jews had killed Christ, and involved the abduction and murder of Christian children, and drinking their blood. Lending money at interest, usury as it was then called, was a sin in the Christian tradition; many Conspiracies dealt with avarice, as Jews were the only moneylenders then; this only changed after the Reformation.
More recently, the CIA and MI6 conspired to overthrow the democratically elected (and very popular) government of Iran in 1953, and to replace this with the Shah who was seen as “west-friendly”. Project MK Ultra was an attempt at mind control by the CIA. There was a conspiracy to spy on the Democratic Party in the Watergate building; this led ultimately to the resignation of President Nixon. The Tuskegee study was an unethical long-term observational survey of poor black share croppers, and what happened when they became infected with syphilis. They were lied to and told they were receiving treatment; they were not given penicillin when this became available.
A curious effect of some conspiracies is unintended outcomes. Caesar was assassinated because it was felt he was too powerful; soon afterwards the Roman Republic was replaced by the Roman Empire, with Augustus (Octavian) as first emperor. The Shah was later replaced by the mullahs and an Islamic Republic often actively hostile to the West. All suspected Conspiracies and the like now have the suffix “-gate” routinely added.
More recent Conspiracy Theories include the (Bavarian) Illuminati, an 18th century secret society which some believed were responsible for the French Revolution. They were said to be working to gain political power and advance a New World Order. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an early 20th century claim that the Jews were intent on world domination; they are crude, plagiarised forgeries. (“Protocol” is used in the sense of “minutes of a meeting”.) The Protocols are still widely believed in Islamic countries. The Nazis made good use of them as propaganda, to support their (eugenic) belief in Aryan supremacy. They also made good use of the Reichstag fire in 1933; they blamed it on communists, and suspended civil liberties. They were then able to pass the Enabling Act which allowed Hitler to rule by decree, making him a dictator. In reality, the arson attack was the work of a single, mentally disturbed young Dutchman. (There are plenty of other Conspiracy Theories around the Nazis and Hitler; he, it is averred, escaped from Berlin and lived out his days in Argentina, or is in suspended animation there, awaiting the appropriate time to return.)
There are multiple far-right Neo-Nazi groups today with the same anti-Semitic and white supremacy ideation. In 2011 Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in Norway; he was a member of a far-right anti-immigration party. In 2016, a week before the Brexit referendum, the British MP Jo Cox, a “passionate defender of the EU”, was murdered by Thomas Mair; he too held far-right views, and had links to Neo-Nazi organisations. Conspiracy Theories are dangerous.
Conspiracy Theories propagated by the “far right” often involve science, immigration, and terrorism; those propagated by the “far left” often involve wars, big corporations, and governments — particularly the US government. The right are authoritarian, and accept greater inequalities — a form of social dominance. At the extremes though, the right and the left converge. The right will tend to demean or derogate Muslims, LGTBs, and scientists; the left will demean bankers, millionaires, and soldiers.
Two broad types of CTs can be discerned; those that are systemic, often involving tropes of world domination, and evil organisations such as the “Deep State”; they often have anti-Semitic backgrounds. Event CTs are a response to specific incidents, such as the assassination of President Kennedy, or the attack on the Twin Towers.
All Conspiracy Theories are potentially dangerous, not just those involving far right ideologies and neo-Nazi organisations. For example, in the 2016 “Pizzagate” CT, it was alleged that the Democrats in the US were running a human trafficking and paedophilia ring from the basement of the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington DC. A heavily armed man went to “investigate” and fired several shots inside; fortunately, no one was injured. The pizza parlour doesn’t have a basement.
There are common features, such as reliance on belief and faith rather than evidence, and CTs cannot be falsified — very much like pseudoscience — and can rely on circular reasoning. The absence of a basement in the Comet pizzeria is evidence of just how cunning the conspirators are, and how they can deceive the most vigilant investigator, because there obviously is a basement. Indeed, CTs are characterised by near perfect competence and secrecy, even when this involves very many people.
Conspiracy Theories rely on other fallacies and cognitive biases for their “intellectual” support. The conjunction fallacy or “Linda problem” is often apparent in Conspiracy Theories. (In this we are given background about Linda, and asked whether she is (a) a bank teller, or (b) a bank teller and a feminist. The “obvious, intuitive” answer is (b), but is wrong. There is a high, say 95%, chance that she is a feminist, and a low, say 5%, chance that she is a bank teller. Thus, to be both she is 5% x 95% which is 4.75%, and less than the chance that she is a bank teller.)
Conspiracy theories employ the proportionality bias; if something “big” happens, then something “big” must have caused it. Therefore, the assassination of President Kennedy cannot have been the work of a lone gunman. There were “big” consequences after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. While the official inquiry put the blame on a conspiracy by Osama bin Laden, was this really a sufficient cause? There are now CTs which say that the US government knew about the attacks in advance, but did nothing because it helped their desire to topple Saddam; alternatively, the US government was responsible for the attack — take your pick. Conspiracy Theories exclude randomness and chance; nothing happens by accident, everything is caused and planned, an intentionality bias; but nothing is what it seems, and everything is connected. Attribution biases are perceptual errors about the behaviours of others. Confirmation biases seek only information that fits the predetermined Theory; both of these are very commonly present.
Real, exposed conspiracies are “small” with concrete and limited objectives. Compare the Watergate conspiracy with the anti-Semitic world domination tropes in many CTs. The Tuskegee study was “small” in comparison the CTs around the use of biological weapons such as anthrax or the coronavirus where the aim, yet again, is world domination by an elite.
Conspiracy Theories are the work of activist true believers or producers. These people are so certain of the correctness of their views that it is next to impossible to reason with them. Indeed, such is the magnitude of the difficulty that it is often not worthwhile. Many producers do seem to have significant personality problems, though “incels” and “tin hats” are examples of stereotypes.
There are CT entrepreneurs, people who use CTs for their personal benefit and thereby make a good living from them. In the US, Alex Jones is the best known; in the UK it’s David Icke. He believes in alien life forms who have colonised Earth, and as shape-changing reptiles are now the elite, the “people” who really run things. This is another version of the New World Order. (I am not making this up.)
Consumers of Conspiracy Theories are people who are concerned, sceptical individuals aware that governments aren’t always squeaky clean. They seek out information, often from social media sites, and tend to put greater weight on self-proclaimed “experts” there than on real experts whose output isn’t always immediately accessible.
In Part II I’ll discuss some of the psychology behind Conspiracy Theory ideation, and describe in more detail the CTs around Donald Trump and those he has been promoting, and the consequences of all this. I’ll indicate who have exposed real conspiracies, and how we can attempt to counter CTs.
Robert Campbell is a retired surgeon.