Conspiracy theories have been is existence from time immemorial. It is only recently that courtesy of social media, they have become more mainstream.
Surge in the popularity of the certain conspiracy theory is often witnessed when endorsed by celebrities. The American rapper B.o.B, renowned actor Charlie Sheen and sports broadcaster David Icke are few names that have put their weight behind certain conspiracy theories.
Some theories defy science and even logic. For example, the recent jibe by the rapper B.o.B that the earth is flat. This absurd claim cropped up a millennia after scientists had ascertained Earth’s radius (see link).
Why do conspiracy theories exit?
Theories are formulated because of our need to explain a phenomena/events. Absurd explanations are based on lack of knowledge or clarity. Couple that with an, pre-existing notions, religious beliefs, ideology and a sense of grievance and Bingo! we have a recipe for conspiracy theory. These theories stand on ideas that are based on un-falsifiable proofs.
For example, consider the following dialogue:
Mr A: Did you know that the current government was behind the attack on the airport that destroyed 5 planes and killed 500 civilians?
Mr B. Why would a government destroy its own airport and kill its own people?
Mr. A: So that they can blame it on the rogue group
Mr B: But the Rogue group itself has accepted the responsibility in a video and they did it to pressurize the government to release its group members from jails.
Mr. A: Don’t you realize, the government is trying to vilify the rogue group by itself making that video and gain sympathy of the masses.
In this example, the idea rolled out by Mr A may not be outlandish. After all there are governments who do not have the interest of people at heart. However, the problem here is two fold. First is the rejection of the positive proof (here in form of the video of the rogue group claiming to be the perpetrator). The second is the furnishing of unverifiable claims by Mr. A. If a person is raised on dispelling positive proof than it becomes harder and harder for him to accept the blindingly obvious truth.
What is the science behind conspiracy theories?
Dr Daniel Jolly author of “Psychology of Conspiracy theory” explains ” In the modern world, where time is less and there is too much information at hand to digest, human are becoming more and more prone to taking mental shortcuts.”
“People seek big causes for big events in their life. For example when win a lottery or find love of their life, they tend to feel it was written in the stars, it was fate etc. because its a big event”. This means that a simple cause for a big event is often unacceptable because of the natural hardwiring of our minds.
Dr Jolly gives the example of the death of princess Dianna. It was undoubtedly a huge and tragic event for a nation and hence it was hard to accept that an everyday car accident would be responsible for such a big loss. Humans seek contentment through parity in the levels of cause and effect.
Aside from mental shortcuts, a sense of grievance and powerlessness is also endemic among all conspiracy theorist. Consider Football fans. A team that is narrowly losing the league or getting relegated, their fans will always feel a greater sense of injustice regardless of the quality, effort and composition of their own team. Many fans will feel that referees and other officials are part of secret group that has been bribed by the leading team to consolidate its position. On the other hand, the fans of the team that is leading the table will be dismissive of any such notion and would use glaring statistics to prove the merit of their team.
From this example it feels like most people are to some level conspiracy theorist. James McConnachie , co-author of “Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories” agrees with this premise. He explained on a radio show “We are all conspiracy theorist’s because we all have our biases. It all depends upon how much we commit to them privately and how much we commit to them publically”
In addition to the sense of grievance, bias and mental shortcuts there is also the challenge of creativity that feeds into making a conspiracy theory plausible. Often, theorist are at competition with each other for coming up with the most extravagant and obscure reasons. According to James McConnachie “Conspiracy theories are as much an engine of creativity as they are a vehicle of disempowerment and anxiety.”
Can the belief in conspiracy theory be dangerous?
It would be good to examine two cases, The “Vaccine Causes Autism” Conspiracy in USA and “Polio vaccine causes impotence” popular in Pakistan. Parents who believe in these theories are more likely not to have their children vaccinated.
Because of a successful campaign lead by the WHO, Polio has been successfully eradicated from almost all the countries. Polio virus now remains in only three countries. They are Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. In all three countries, the theory that Polio vaccine causes impotence is rife. As a result, parents do not get their children vaccinated despite the vaccine made available at their doorsteps. Unfortunately because of their ill beliefs, children are still suffering this crippling disease.
Conspiracy theories become more sinister and dangerous if faith is vested in them by those residing in echelons of power. Holocaust in Germany and Ethnic cleansing in Bosnia happened because of propaganda based on conspiracy theories by the presiding incumbent governments of the time resulting in desensitization of masses. The shifting of moral compass made the inhumane task of genocide much easier.
Are conspiracy theories more common in some regions than others?
It should be noted that countries with despotic regimes where media is under strict regulation are more susceptible in believing conspiracy theories. North Korea is one classic example. Similarly countries where masses are sold a narrative about a looming threat or a certain enemy waiting in the shadow, are also prone to false belief.
It has to be mentioned that clandestine/ false flag operations do happen. To approach the truth, one must seek positive proof rather than bank on an unverifiable account.
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