Anatomy of a conspiracy theory

Photo by David Holzel
Photo by David Holzel

Days after the terrorist attacks in Paris that left 17 victims dead, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told reporters gathered at a press conference that the French themselves had done the killing. Why? To set up the Muslims for blame.

“The duplicity of the West is obvious,” he said. “As Muslims we have never sided with terror or massacres.”

That same day, the mayor of Ankara, Melih Gokcek, said the Mossad was definitely behind such incidents” in an effort to “boost enmity towards Islam.”

In Russia, the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda ran the headline: “Did the Americans stage the terror attack in Paris?”

And in California, Jack Lindblad, the Green party’s 2014 candidate for state Senate, said the Paris shooters were acting on orders of the United States and the Mossad to keep Europe “under [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s thumb.”

None of these explanations took seriously the evidence that investigators have been compiling since brothers Charif and Said Kouachi allegedly killed 12 staffers of the Charlie Hebdo magazine on Jan. 7 and Amedy Coulibaly killed four people and wounded four others at the Hyper Cacher supermarket two days later.

In these versions, the perpetrators were not motivated by radical Islam or alienation from the French mainstream. The victims were not the innocent dead. Instead, the victims were the Muslims themselves, rendered helpless by forces out of their control.

Conspiracy theories are “a pushback against authority,” said Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, who writes extensively on the anatomy of conspiracy theories. “Psychologically, people who believe them are looking for a simple explanation for something complex – it’s just one secret organization pulling the strings.”

So the 9/11 attacks were an inside job. The Ebola virus is an escaped bioweapon. Fluoridated water is being used by governments to make their citizens docile. And the Charlie Hebdo
attack was a “false flag” operation, in which the victim would appear to be the culprit, to sow strife between the West and the Islamic world.

In The United States of Paranoia, author Jesse Walker divided conspirators into five categories:
“There is the Enemy Outside, an alien force based outside the community’s borders; the Enemy Within, fellow citizens who cannot be easily distinguished from friends; the Enemy Above, plotting at the top of the power structure; the Enemy Below, conspiring in the underclass; and the Benevolent Conspiracy, which isn’t an enemy at all,” he wrote.

Conspiracies are a response to powerlessness and distrust of authority. They offer disorienting counter-narratives to the world which most of us inhabit. But the mental gymnastics behind them are surprisingly straightforward.

Studies show that conspiracies “cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational status,” write political scientists Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent in American Conspiracy Theories.

Yet some might be more susceptible, Shermer said. “People who tend to think everything is connected, that everything happens for a reason. Even if you’re not religious, there are secular versions of this – Marxists or just people who are anti-government.”

Humans are a pattern-seeking species and for that reason “our brains are not designed to understand chance.” For instance, cancer clusters happen randomly, he said, but our brains look for patterns.


The Princess Diana test

It turns out that if you believe in a conspiracy, you’re more likely to believe in other conspiracies – even if they contradict.

A study found that the more someone believed that Princess Diana was murdered, the more they believed that she faked her own death.

The study’s authors explained it this way: Once you believe that “one massive, sinister conspiracy could be successfully executed in near-perfect secrecy, [it] suggests that many such plots are possible,” they wrote in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The result is that conspiracy can become “the default explanation for any given event – a unitary, closed-off worldview in which beliefs come together in a mutually supportive network known as a monological belief system.”

Other factors contributing to conspiracy theories are confirmation bias – “We tend to attribute different motives to other people than we do to ourselves,” Shermer said – and fundamental attribution error – omitting context and chance when analyzing others’ behavior.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that the French, not Muslims, were responsible for the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that the French, not Muslims, were responsible for the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.

Evolution makes us do it

Our hominid ancestors were small, weak and not terribly fast. So if there was a rustle in the grass, they acted on the assumption that there was a predator in hiding. If it turned out to be just the wind, “that’s a low-cost error,” Shermer said, one that didn’t hurt the survival of the species. “But if you think it’s just a rustle and it turns out to be a predator, you’re lunch.”

Shermer believes we’re hardwired through thousands of generations of genetic selection to prefer the low-cost error. If it quacks like a conspiracy, it just might be one.

“The thing about conspiracy theories is that they’re not impossible,” Shermer said. “Conspiracies do happen.”

There was the CIA’s use of LSD on unwitting test subjects, and the Public Health Services’ experiment in which the syphilis of a group of African Americans was allowed to go untreated. These conspiracies were real.

“The government does enough bad or stupid things that some skepticism is good,” he added. “But like all things, it’s good in moderation.”


You can’t combat conspiracy theories with facts

The believer in a conspiracy is caught inside of “self-sealing reasoning.”

“Evidence alone doesn’t do it. You have to convince them it’s OK to change their minds,” Shermer said.

For example, climate change skeptics might come around if they become convinced that fighting global warming “is a golden opportunity for capitalism,” he said.

Shermer has proposed a conspiracy theory detector. Among the clues that an assertion – for example, “Jews are poisoning the wells” – is a conspiracy:

• Proof of the conspiracy supposedly emerges from a pattern of “connecting the dots” between events that need not be causally connected;

• The agents behind the pattern of the conspiracy would need nearly superhuman power to pull it off;

• The conspiracy involves large numbers of people who would all need to keep silent about their secrets. (The more people involved, the less realistic it becomes);

• The conspiracy encompasses a grand ambition for control over a nation, economy or political system. (If it suggests world domination, the theory is even less likely to be true);

• The theory tends to commingle facts and speculations without distinguishing between the two and without assigning degrees of probability or of factuality;

• The conspiracy theorist refuses to consider alternative explanations, rejecting all disconfirming evidence and blatantly seeking only confirmatory evidence to support what he or she has a priori determined to be the truth.

“So when they say, ‘The Jews did it,’ ask: ‘What’s the evidence?’ ” Shermer said. “In the case of 9/11, [the perpetrators] said they were going to do it, they did it and we have the evidence.”

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