What will the next major world event be? It’s difficult to make predictions, as the physicist Niels Bohr once said, especially about the future. But one thing we can already state with absolute confidence: whatever happens, the event will soon spark a range of conspiracy theories. Some people will claim that nothing is as it seems. Everything was carefully staged behind the scenes, they will say, and we’re being deceived on a massive scale. Whatever the official version of events endorsed by mainstream media and by authorities, it will be dismissed as one Big Lie.
As you may have noticed, the novel coronavirus pandemic has already spawned numerous conspiracy theories, sometimes replicating faster than the virus itself. Some people have rumored that SARS-CoV-2 was engineered in a Chinese lab as an act of biological warfare, others insist that the vaccine against COVID-19 already exists, but is being withheld from the public by a powerful elite. Some even claim that COVID-19 doesn’t exist and was invented to cover up the symptoms caused by novel 5G networks. The favorite culprit of corona-conspiracies is probably Bill Gates, who somehow knew about this virus in 2015 already, and who is now bankrolling efforts to develop a vaccine.
And yet, despite worries to the contrary, we are not living in an age of conspiracy. People have always discerned secret plots involving powerful people. In the Middle Ages, for instance, many devout Christians believed that the Black Death was spread by the Jews deliberately poisoning wells. So why are conspiracy theories so timeless and pervasive? And how come virtually every historical event can be spun into a conspiracy theory, and will invariably be so spun? The past decade has seen a sustained research effort into conspiracy theories by psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists. They have tried to figure out why some people and some communities are more susceptible to conspiracy beliefs than others, and what sort of factors trigger conspiratorial thinking.
One major finding coming out of this research is that people are more likely to resort to conspiracies under conditions of uncertainty and when they experience low feelings of control. Belief in conspiracies is also associated with lower levels of analytical thinking, with socio-economic disadvantage, and with a tendency to detect patterns in an environment. But research also shows that these correlations are far from perfect. A high level of education does not inoculate someone against belief in conspiracies, and there are plenty of people with extremely high status and levels of control (a certain President comes to mind) who peddle all sorts of conspiracy theories. Indeed, there are so many different conspiracy theories on the marketplace that, as political scientist Joe Uscinski wrote in his recent book on the topic, “Everyone believes in at least one or a few conspiracy theories.”
So why do we believe in conspiracies in the first place? The most straightforward answer is of course the one that conspiracy buffs will be quick to point out: Conspiracies are a real phenomenon. No sensible person would deny that people occasionally form secret coalitions to achieve some nefarious goal. The pages of history are replete with examples of such plots: The murder of Julius Caesar was a conspiracy, as was the October Revolution in Russia and the Watergate break-in and cover-up, to list a few notable examples. Indeed, almost all government putsches, assassinations, and political revolutions fall under the rubric of “conspiracies.” People have been conspiring against other people for as long as people have been around. A species that has the cognitive abilities to engage in strategic planning, to form coalitions with others, and to strategically conceal information will almost certainly engage in conspiracies.
From an evolutionary point of view, it therefore makes sense that we have also evolved defenses against conspiracies. As Julius Caesar found out, being on the receiving end of a conspiracy can be highly detrimental to your biological fitness. And in order to foil a conspiracy, you first need to be believe it’s real. Those among our ancestors who were alert to clues suggesting that people were conspiring against them, and who managed to expose the plot before it was executed, were more likely to survive long enough to procreate. As with many other recurrent dangers, the problem of identifying conspiracies is solved by “error management theory,” which describes how to deal with errors carrying asymmetric costs. Inferring a conspiracy when there isn’t one (false positive) is less dangerous than failing to spot one when there is (false negative). Evolutionary psychologist Randolph Nesse compared this rule to the design of a smoke detector: We want the device to sound the alarm when there is an actual fire, even if that means having to put up with the occasional false alarm. We do try to strike a balance: Just as we don’t want our smoke detector to wake us up every night, we don’t want to turn into full-blown paranoiacs. But it pays to err on the side of caution, and error management theory determines exactly how far one should err, depending on the respective costs.
In that respect, conspiracy beliefs have similar roots to belief in magic and superstition, which also result from the logic of error management. Because ferreting out cause-and-effect was so important for our ancestors, we evolved brains that are susceptible to spurious causal correlations (“Better safe than sorry!”). But there is something special about conspiracy theories beyond these psychological roots: their warped epistemology. For an epistemologist, conspiracy theories are weird beasts. In effect, they are the only theories which predict an absence of evidence in their favor, and even the presence of evidence against them. If you conspire against someone, usually you don’t want your plans to be known to that person, since that would rather defeat the purpose of your plot. Even after your nefarious plans have been brought to fruition, you may still wish to keep the lid on the secret, for fear of reputational costs or social punishment. If you suspect that some people are conspiring against you, you will therefore not be deterred if the alleged conspirators deny everything, or if you don’t readily find evidence of some sinister goings-on. If your enemies are really smart, they might even fabricate evidence against your conspiracy hypothesis, to throw you off the scent.
Even though this train of thought makes sense, you can see how it might lead you astray. By their own logic, conspiracy theories allow you to explain away any apparent refutation or lack of evidence. Your theory can always be rescued from refutations and contrary arguments by simply widening the circle of conspirators, or by making them smarter and more powerful. If some piece of material evidence seems to refute your theory, you can say that it has been planted there. If an eyewitness contradicts your story, perhaps he was bribed. If an investigation by some reputable newspaper or government agency fails to unearth any signs of conspiracy, this just proves that they too must have been complicit in the plot. Indeed, academics who research conspiracy communities are regularly accused of sinister malfeasance by their own subjects.
These tacks are not just lame excuses for clinging to one’s pet theory. Pseudoscientists of every stripe resort to so-called immunizing strategies and ad hoc maneuvers when reality offers resistance. But this sort of reasoning follows from the very logic of conspiracy theories. If you are still in an early stage of investigating a possible conspiracy, you should not be deterred by your failure to unearth evidence of wrongdoing. Any detective knows that material evidence (fingerprints, DNA, a smoking gun) could conceivably have been planted by the real culprit to frame a perfectly innocent person (although such things happen less often in real life than in crime dramas with far-fetched plot twists). But at exactly what point should you abandon your conspiratorial hypothesis? Unfortunately, there’s no bright line separating reasonable theorizing from full-blown paranoia. Here’s what I find the most useful rule-of-thumb: if your conspiracy can only be rescued from refutation at the cost of making the alleged conspirators extraordinarily clever and incredibly powerful, then it’s probably time to give up your theory.
Take the claim that the World Trade Center towers were brought down by controlled demolition on September 11, 2001. Nobody has ever found any evidence of such an operation, but that’s exactly what we would expect if it had been carefully arranged in secret by powerful people, isn’t it? The trouble is that, as demolition experts will tell you, preparing a large building for controlled demolition is a complicated and laborious procedure, which may take weeks or even months. The notion that these huge buildings had been prepared for demolition in the weeks leading up to 9/11, without a single employee or visitor noticing anything suspicious (and without a single person spilling the beans afterwards), strains credulity to the point of free-fall collapse. As Benjamin Franklin once said: “Three people can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
But with their warped epistemology, conspiracy theories can easily account for this sort of objection. After all, the 9/11 Truthers will tell you, how exactly are you so certain that it’s impossible to pull off such a complicated conspiracy? From your past experience with real conspiracies? But we only hear about those cases in which the facts were indeed revealed. If there ever have been conspiracies on the scale necessitated by the controlled demolition hypothesis of 9/11, they will never have made it into history books. Even the apparent evidence for Benjamin Franklin’s thesis (namely, the numerous failed attempts to keep a secret) can be explained away with a conspiratorial twist. Perhaps the conspirators sometimes deliberately allow for some small and unimportant truths to be spilled, in order to lull us into a false sense of security. By spoon-feeding us evidence that suggests that every conspiracy is exposed sooner or later and that it is impossible to keep a secret, our attention is diverted away from what is truly happening behind stage.
The philosopher Stephen Law compared irrational belief systems to “intellectual black holes,” in which people are drawn in and held captive. That metaphor is especially apposite for conspiracism. As you get sucked deeper and deeper into a conspiracy theory, it becomes more difficult to escape its gravitational pull. Moreover, one conspiracy theory often feeds into others. Researchers have found that one of the strongest predictors for belief in any particular conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories. This, too, is perfectly reasonable. Once you have accepted the notion that we have been massively deceived about one historical event (say, the moon landing), and that the conspirators have never been held accountable, you will become more suspicious about other official accounts of history. Indeed, why would you believe anything you read in the newspaper? One conspiracy leads to the next one, and both are reinforced by each other. Before you know it, you have crossed the event horizon of the black hole, the point beyond which return is impossible.
Now we can see why no historical event is immune to conspiracy theories, and why they will always sprout around major news stories like mushrooms after a hard rain. If you want to create your own conspiracy theory next time around, here’s a simple recipe to follow:
The official story. Whatever the official version of events accepted by mainstream media, governments, or scientists might be, say that it’s a cover-up fabricated and disseminated by a secret group of powerful people, to disguise something far more sinister. By definition, the efforts of the conspirators will appear successful, since the view they want to impose on the rest of society is exactly the official, mainstream one. A slight complication arises if the received view of events already involves a conspiracy, as with the official 9/11 story (which, after all, involves a criminal plot by Al Qaeda against the United States). But such cases are easily dealt with: Just posit a higher-order conspiracy, in which the conspiracy of the official version is just a false-flag operation. Whoever is blamed in the official version is, in fact, innocent.
Refuting the official version. Scour the official version for any unresolved questions, gaps, uncertainties, puzzling details, or minor contradictions. Find as many of these as you can. These “errant data,” as philosopher Brian Keeley calls them, are your chief resource when setting the stage for your conspiracy theory. Now start by asking questions about the official story. If not all of them can be readily answered, then you have proof that the official version cannot possibly be true, that something far more sinister is going on. Since no historical account of any event, no matter how well-documented, is ever fully complete, this step will not be too difficult.
Exasperate your critics. People will try to explain your errant data within the framework of the official story. Don’t give up. Keep asking more questions and throw up more errant data. (You can even make stuff up; if your opponent can’t find the source, it must have been deleted from the Internet by the conspirators.) Eventually your critics will lose patience and start ignoring you, since it always takes far more time to answer a question than to pose one. Once they throw up their hands, ask them why they refuse to address all these unresolved questions? Tell them they must be hiding something.
Cui bono? Find anyone who has benefited in some way from the event in question, or could conceivably have benefited. That’s your culprit. As major historical events will always happen to benefit someone or another, this step also won’t be too difficult. (If Trump’s mishandling of this pandemic costs him his re-election, conspiracy theorists won’t have to look far for an answer to the cui bono question). If you can’t identify a good culprit, you can just skip this step. You always have the convenient excuse that the perpetrators were so adept in covering their tracks that they’re impossible to identify.
Lack of evidence for your conspiracy theory. As pointed out already, absence of evidence need never discourage you. If there really is a conspiracy going on, absence of evidence is precisely what you would expect. Didn’t I tell you the conspirators are very devious?
Evidence against your conspiracy theory. Whatever the nature of this evidence might be, you can always turn it on its head and present it as supporting your theory. It is reasonable, after all, to assume that the perpetrators have fabricated evidence to throw courageous truth-seekers such as yourself off the scent.
How to deal with critics. If you are attacked, accuse your critics of being complicit themselves, of being stooges paid to discredit honest investigators who risk exposing the plot. Or, of course, just gullible dupes who have been fooled by official propaganda.
I don’t mean to just disparage conspiracy theories as child’s play. Some of these steps may require considerable ingenuity and creativity. At some level, I even admire certain conspiracy theorists, with their self-sealing logic and marvelous agility at fending off counterattacks. Indeed, once in a while I can even feel their gravitational pull myself. Even though I firmly believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, that Neil Armstrong really walked on the moon, and that 19 hijackers with box cutters really brought down the Twin Towers, on some days I can feel the black hole of conspiracism exerting its epistemological pull on me, despite all rational objections. The theories may be crackpot, but their appeal endures.
A few months ago I was preparing my paper for an academic conference on conspiracy theories in Miami, which was eventually cancelled due to the pandemic. While writing my paper, I was listening to the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. With its dreamscape into a dark underworld of sex and violence, and with its mysterious cabal of masked men performing a ritual of human sacrifice, this seemed like an appropriate backdrop for writing about conspiracies. And wasn’t it Kubrick himself who staged the moon landing in his Hollywood studio, and later cryptically ‘confessed’ to his involvement in his later movies? While listening to British composer Jocelyn Pook’s piece Masked Ball, in which Romanian monks chant backwards over an eerie string section, I felt my brain snapping into an ancient cognitive reflex: But what if it’s all true? What if somewhere in this world an ancient cabal of powerful men is plotting the next phase in their plan for world domination, confident that only a few individuals, widely ridiculed as “conspiracy crackpots”, have caught on to their evil schemes? Wouldn’t we expect not to find a shred of evidence for all this?
(A shorter version of this piece was published on the blog of the American Philosophical Association. Thanks to Nick Brown for proof-reading.)