The Faux Appeal of Conspiracy Theories

Dear Dr. Hurd:

I would be interested, if you would like, to hear your thoughts on how and why people are so drawn to conspiracy theories, and why they react so negatively to being asked for proof.

Dr. Hurd’s reply:

First, we have to identify the nature of the error with conspiracy theories.

The basic error in conspiracy theories is they give (alleged or real) ‘bad guys’ more power than they really have, or could possibly have.

People talk of plots in which usually one key person is in charge of conspiring to commit evil against the innocent majority. Such an assumption assumes that evil is actually very powerful, even if good or innocent people are willing—in mass numbers—to stand up to it.

In reality, genuine evil refers to the irrational, and the irrational is by definition ‘ weak.

Consider bullies. If you stand up to a bully, he or she is more likely to back down, or at least be deflated. If you take the abuse, or avoid any confrontation or conflict of any kind, this will empower the bully to become even more hostile. Does this prove that the bully is really strong and powerful? Of course not. The bully is only as powerful as his or her victims allow him or her to be.

Consider the horrible case of Nazi Germany. Hitler was voted into office, not because most people necessarily wanted a Holocaust, but because people’s attitudes and beliefs became consistent with those responsive to a bullying dictator promising the moon. Hitler became powerful because his words and deeds (at least initially) matched the irrational attitude of the people who, at least initially, asked for it. If the German people of the time had been adamantly committed to individual freedom, private property and freedom of speech, Hitler would have remained the underground criminal and outlaw he always deserved to be.

It’s the same principle with a ‘conspiracy.’ In order to accept most conspiracy theories, you first have to assume that certain irrational entities or individuals have more power than they really do. As the American government goes bankrupt, people start to worry about a ‘conspiracy’ involving the Chinese government, or even our own government, to impose a totalitarian state on us overnight. In fact, this could not happen without the permission of the majority of the people.

The growing fiscal crisis in the government does, of course, make us very vulnerable to all kinds of threats, including perhaps the manipulations or aggression of a fascist dictatorship like China. But the United States government would not be in this position were it not for the evasion, denial and ignorance of most Americans, who keep telling our government to spend and borrow more to pay for entitlement programs, while at the same time (in total contradiction) telling them to impose fiscal discipline. We are only as vulnerable as our own evasions and contradictions—our own irrationality—require us to be.

The appeal of conspiracy theories arises from the error itself. The error, as I’m saying, is ‘Evil has power.’ The error overlooks the fact that evil only has power its victims grant to it. However, once you’re convinced that evil has the upper hand—by its very nature—then it logically (and psychologically) follows that somewhere, somehow, somebody is out to get us.

The false belief leads to all kinds of bizarre theories. The world is flat, some claim, and the government has conspired to give us false pictures from space that suggest otherwise (not that you need these pictures to prove the earth is round.) Or 9/11 didn’t really happen, still others claim. They connect the provable fact that we have elected leaders distasteful of liberty and individual rights (Bush, Obama) and they give these irrational officials more power than they could possibly have. Whether America ultimately ends up in a total dictatorship or not, you can be sure it won’t be due to the alleged brilliance of people like George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Bad leaders are symptoms of a society gone wrong. The only reason we’re vulnerable to them is because something has gone wrong with the society itself, and the least intellectually and morally capable, in that context, rise to the top.

People mistakenly accuse good guys of conspiracies as well. The antitrust laws in the United States were passed because profit-seeking businesses allegedly conspired to create cartels, or monopolies. This reasoning gave the good guys — or any bad guys involved — more power than they could ever have. Because so long as we have a free market, even a cartel can be overrun, before long, by a company willing to provide the same product or service at a lower price. The myth persists today, as “Wall Street” (translation: profit) is maligned as evil, and an honestly earned million (or billion) is considered the equivalent of ill-gotten power rather than honestly earned success. Most people don’t fall for obvious conspiracies, but most have fallen for the basic underlying error that makes conspiracy theories possible.

To grasp the error of any conspiracy theory, you have to really look hard and close at evil. What is evil, in actuality? Is it something that can sustain itself, or something that by definition is a parasite on the objectively good, rational and powerful? Think of a serial killer, or one of these shooters who opens fire on innocent people (including children). Are these people rational and strong? Would they be anything at all without their destructive rampages? Or are their destructive rampages all they have to give them a sick, phony and dangerous sense of ‘self-mastery’ they could never otherwise even imagine to achieve?

Once you get that the irrational is, at its core, weak and impotent, you’re no longer prey to the seduction of any conspiracy theory.


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