In this article, separated into three parts, we will present a general overview of conspiracy theories by asking and answering a series of questions about the subject.
What is a Conspiracy?
A simple definition of a conspiracy is an important event whose accomplishment would be the result of an intentional plot by a covert group whose actions are unknown to the general public, and the final outcome will be detrimental to most people. Many conspiracies in human history are real.
Why do humans engage in conspiracies? There are several general justifications.
to preserve the status quo
to achieve ideological/political agendas
to cover up failures
to assign blame, identify scapegoats, and to exact revenge
to gain power/influence/popularity
to create economic advantage (create new markets or promote scarcity)
Real conspiracies require time to plan and execute the plot. It must be done in secret which is paramount to its success. It must be relatively simple (this may seem counter intuitive, but complication jeopardizes secrecy). There usually involves some element of revisionist history. By definition, it must be accomplished by more than one person.
What is a Conspiracy Theory?
A simple definition of a conspiracy theory is an important event whose accomplishment would be a result of an alleged plot by a covert group or individual whose motives are unknown to the general public. The plot may include a wide range of largely unrelated arguments and methodological flaws that describe an effort to steal something of value (freedom, power, or money) from the people.
The connotation of the term “conspiracy theory” is used to identify yet unproven conspiracies which usually reside in speculation. During the past 50 years, the term has changed from being simply a theory about a realistic conspiracy to meaning a theory that is unfounded and irrational; even if it enjoys a very large consensus among people.
Some phenomena, such as the existence of UFO’s, are NOT conspiracy theories in themselves. They are simply theories aimed at clarifying an event. If you are describing a government cover up of UFO activity, then that would be a conspiracy theory, regardless of whether the cover up was real or imagined.
The definition of a conspiracy theory was expanded by Michael Barkum, Professor of Political Science at Syracuse, during the last decade. He added three elements of the conspiracy theorists’ beliefs to the definition. These are:
1. All actions occur by design. Nothing happens by accident or coincidence.
2. Nothing is as it seems. Appearances are deceptive as conspirators hide their identities and activities.
3. Everything is connected. Patterns are everywhere. The conspiracy theorist must continually link or correlate all data in order to learn the truth.
ARE THERE REAL CONSPIRACIES?
Of course, not all conspiracies are imagined. Real conspiracies are known to have existed throughout history.
Author Michael Parenti contends that the CIA fits the definition of a conspiracy in using covert actions to maintain our security. He states that it is also a government institution. He says the CIA, as an example is, “an institutionalized conspiracy.”
WHY IS THERE SUCH A WIDE APPEAL FOR CONSPIRACY THEORIES?
Throughout the history of our species, we have felt from time to time that we are at the mercy of forces we cannot control. They may be natural or man-made. Most of the time we go about our day expecting, and experiencing, events that could be called normal. But once in a while we sense that things are not always what they seem.
Today everything is moving faster than ever and we are struggling to comprehend a technological world that is becoming more and more complicated; a world where the individual is less and less in control of his own life.
The powers of authority seem to treat our access to information on a need to know basis. Much is kept secret in the interests of national security. Even when “national security” is not an issue, private industry is frequently cloaked in secrecy - nuclear generators with faulty safety procedures, savings and loans discounting mortgages, prescription drug recalls, and so on. Many of these events are explained away as “just doing business.”
Conspiracy theories claim to explain what institutional analysis cannot or will not, making sense out of a confusing world. Traditional analysis requires effort and time to complete. If it is not forth coming in an expedient manner, the conspiracy theory is born.
Conspiracy theories explain things in a simplistic way, black or white, light and dark. All evil and conflicting evidence is traced back to a single source (the conspirators).
Conspiracy theorists appeal to the emotional vulnerability of some groups by insisting that appearances deceive, conspiracies drive history, nothing is haphazard, and the conspirators always gain.
Evidence offered by the theorists is presented as new or secret knowledge previously unknown by the public. It had been discovered in spite of the conspirators’ defenses and deceptions. Other sources of explanation that do not support the theory, are ignored.
Those believing in a conspiracy theory cease to see it as a theory at all. They reason that it’s not a theory if the conspiracy is actually true. No proof of any conspiracy doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist.
“Real eyes realize real lies”
ARE SOME PEOPLE PSYCHOLOGICALLY DRAWN TO CONSPIRACY THEORIES?
Without a doubt. Conspiracy theories have a strong but subtle power to influence beliefs.
A person who believes in one conspiracy theory is likely to believe in others. A kind of “I want to believe” (X-Files) mentality. Those who do not believe in one will tend not to believe in others.
The machinery of the human bias
Part of our psychological makeup includes the biases we have as humans. In part, epistemology (the philosophical study of knowledge and truth) studies the biases we have toward conspiracy theories.
One bias we have is that we expect a significant event to have a significant cause. In spite of all evidence, we are more likely to believe that major events are, in part, due to conspiracies. We naturally think “who benefits?” from the event; what are the hidden motives?
Humans also have the inner desire to find patterns in coincidence, even though coincidences are not causal. In other words, we can find conspiracies in any kind of significant event. Many people believe that everything is a result of a enormous and complicated conspiracy.
Most people believe that things will be better once conspirators are removed from positions of power.
“Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you”Paranoia has always been closely associated with the culture in which it exists. And cultural stereotypes have had a strong influence on paranoid behavior in America, whether it’s Bonnie and Clyde, Charles Manson, or the Columbine shooters.
There is a similarity between the delusional thinking of a clinically paranoid person and the plots put forward by conspiracy theorists. Michael Barkum also believes that an element of “political paranoia” exists as well, meaning that the plot is not directed against any specific person but against the society’s way of life, its culture.
“Conspiricism straddles a blurred and shifting boundary between pathology and normalcy.” (Barkum)
The real danger that a paranoid person faces is that sooner or later everything in his life is being manipulated by someone else. Not only that, but everything he sees as happening to him might be the result of a single person or group. For almost every problem, a paranoid person sees conspiracy as a simple shortcut to the cause.