We all have heard of at least one preposterous conspiracy. The one with aliens building ancient civilizations or the one with lizard people controlling the elite, the Illuminati or some other secret society are famous examples among others. What is it that attracts us to these outrageous ideas? Why do we feel curious or even enlightened to know the truth behind these, even when our rational mind tries to dispel the notions as mere ramblings? I seek to explore the origin and continuation of such theories in the following paragraphs.
Before science was a thing, man looked upon the mysteries of nature and attributed them to the supernatural, everything was a god, and thus arose the pantheon of deities among the ancients. However, as the phenomena kept recurring, the ideas of man evolved and slowly arose the practice of understanding the natural order around us, a proto-science if you will. Men discovered the earth wasn’t flat nor did the sun revolve around the earth, thunder and lightning were natural occurrences and so most natural phenomenon could be explained.
Enter conspiracies, at their core they are speculative explanations of complex sociological and economic phenomenon without concrete evidence in logic, reason or science to put a powerful actor behind a powerful event. This way we have something solid to deal with, with the flawed hope that by exposing this powerful actor behind these events would somehow solve the issue. The brain doesn’t like mysteries it cannot comprehend and while this is frustrating, simply putting an effigy to our unfounded fears is by no means a healthy coping mechanism. We must first understand that there are many, many things we don’t understand fully and most explanations are descriptions of what happens usually not the why. We can understand quite easily how stuff works, but understanding the why, is a whole different level of complexity. We must be humble enough to admit our lack of knowledge in the vast system of things so we don’t end up misguided by our prejudices.
Many may argue that a conspiracy theory is harmless and is often just a rambling, the real danger is misinformation which inevitably leads to discrimination and opposition without understanding the core issues or even important issues. Most of these deal with fringe topics which divert our attention from the more pressing concerns before us. In some ways blaming an external actor feels good because the dissolution of responsibility feels like a burden lifted especially when we bear the brunt of an unfair world. In essence they personify a need for control over things we otherwise cannot control. Moreover, the danger lies in certain actions these small groups may take which can endanger the whole community, case in point anti-vaxxers, global-warming deniers etc.
The psychological explanation is that as we evolved our brains tend to notice patterns in things. As a survival tool in the wild, it was an extremely useful skill to have, and would’ve helped us recognize danger in (say) eating rotten stuff (I ate this last time and got food poisoning so maybe I shouldn’t eat it). However, our brains got so good at it we may have what is called illusory pattern perception meaning we see patterns even when there aren’t any. It’s easy to feel in control especially knowing that others don’t know what you know or see what you see. The feeling of exclusivity is promoted since these conspiracies are often bred in situations of misery or deep emotional trauma and when supported by a group of like-minded individuals, the acceptance is overwhelming.
Dealing with conspiracy theories can be challenging but, what is needed is not a barrage of arguments rather a deep conversation with the person. I say deep because more often than not, these conspiracy theories are an explanation to rationalize the pain and helplessness of some deeply scarring event which leads them to seek an alternative explanation, no matter how outlandish or outrageous it seems to a non-participant. The first step would be to uncover the source of their fears and whether some semblance of control can be reinstated in their lives either through behavioral changes or simple mindfulness.
Like an intelligent skeptic, one must see that the burden of proof lies on the individual to provide proof of their hypothesis, but this can be hard considering their basic stance is, “there is no proof,” since those in power would’ve erased all remnants of their wrongdoing. Here I believe a thorough education and approach to life, a liberal, inquisitive outlook matters, which is a long term undertaking especially if the person is deeply indoctrinated. Love, kindness and empathy are required rather than judgement and ridicule. There is no harm in doubt, but to be rooted therein without questioning it to its logical end is folly. And above all it requires patience. Patience both from the one who promotes it and the one who seeks to destroy it.
In conclusion, it’s hard not to see the proponents of conspiracy theories as tin-foil wearing, crazy people, living in basements and eternally paranoid. But if we are to address harder questions of human connections, insecurities, traumas and emotionally overwhelmed individuals, we need to embrace them as human beings and not exclude them. We need to provide them the emotional and psychological support they need and an environment where they feel safe. It is hard and often unrewarding considering that without the cooperation of the individuals themselves, change is nigh impossible. Yet as members of the intelligentsia it is our duty to help those in need, to love them when no one would and try to correct them without judging their stance. My appeal is again to those who see the truth and seek to help, start with an individual, we all know someone who believes it, maybe your support is what that person needs right now.