Climate change, Benghazi, the Fed: The science behind the right's irrational obsession with conspiracies

No matter the topic, a conservative fringe views it through a conspiratorial lens. New research explains why

Published October 12, 2014 10:59AM (EDT)

Darrell Issa, Rand Paul, Pat Robertson                (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reed Saxon/Gene J. Puskar/photo montage by Salon)
Darrell Issa, Rand Paul, Pat Robertson (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reed Saxon/Gene J. Puskar/photo montage by Salon)

The world is full of conspiracies, large and small. Little kids conspire to eat cookies behind their parents’ backs, while parents conspire to hide grownup truths from their children. On the other extreme, tobacco companies conspire to addict, and (unfortunately for the bottom line) inevitably  kill, a vast ocean of customers.  In between such extremes, the plots of countless stories involve conspiracies of one sort or another, simply because humans are social creatures who readily conspire (literally, “breath together”) to get things done that they might not be able to do alone.

With all this conspiring going on, it’s not surprising that some folks would notice — and many have. The writers of all those stories, for example. But some folks who notice have an annoying tendency to get things all wrong.  What makes most stories interesting is precisely the fact that conspiracies are human creations, and we humans are fallible lot, we mess things up all the time. We can’t help it. It’s just our nature.  As a result, conspiracies are usually rather messy and limited affairs, often undone by other conspiracies, or by their own internal tensions, like the scheming on a typical "Seinfeld" episode.

But some folks see conspiracies as anything but a reflection of our nature. They see conspiracies almost wholly as “other,” deeply sinister, and maddeningly perfect — or at least nearly so. Such folks are properly known as “conspiracy theorists.”  They’re not wrong to believe there are conspiracies everywhere around them — as many of their critics mistakenly believe — but they are wrong about the nature of the vast majority of what’s really there, as well about how powerful and important conspiracies are, absent other forces working in tandem with them — such as the enormous economic and political clout possessed by tobacco companies.

The philosopher Brian L. Keeley wrote a brief but insightful article in 1999, “Of Conspiracy Theories,” from the perspective of epistemology (the philosophical study of knowledge).  In it, he defines conspiracy theories as “a proposed explanation of some historical event (or events) in terms of the significant causal agency of a relatively small group of persons — the conspirators — acting in secret.” Although his analysis is insightful, this definition fails to capture the historical/social science sense of what’s commonly meant by the term, to wit: that it’s an explanation of human events via behavior that deeply violates ordinary norms, usually including serious criminal acts. Another paper by social psychologists provided a definition more in line with this:

Conspiracy theories are lay beliefs that attribute the ultimate cause of an event, or the concealment of an event from public knowledge, to a secret, unlawful, and malevolent plot by multiple actors working together.”

To clarify: One list of “33 Conspiracy Theories That Turned Out To Be True” (discussed below) included the Manhattan Project as an example. This fits with Keeley’s definition, but it’s strikingly at odds with how the term is generally used, and the reasons are simple: the actions involved did not, on their face, deeply violate ordinary norms, and were similar in secrecy to other wartime research efforts, such as the development of radar and codebreaking efforts which greatly accelerated the development of modern computers. Of course it’s true that the atomic bomb was a weapon like no other — and even some who worked on it were profoundly troubled thereafter — as well they should have been. However, it was developed in the course of a war like no other, with the prospect of a 1000-year Reich, not in an historical vacuum.  Hence, the morality involved was clearly contested, with many potential deep ramifications, rather than being a clear-cut violation of ordinary norms.

Two further points. First, those involved in conspiracy theorizing invariably bring with them a moral overlay — they seek not only to understand some historical event, but to judge it, and those responsible, usually quite hastily. This is particularly evident in the example of the Manhattan Project. By simply assuming (or at least implying) that the actors were nefarious, the conspiracy theory account prejudges and dismisses precisely what ought to be a most serious matter for our moral reflection. They completely misdirect our moral attention. Second, in doing so, they themselves frequently violate norms — norms of civilized discourse, most visibly, but also, more subtly, norms of reason itself, which come into sharper relief precisely by studying how conspiracists violate them.

In short, the false image that conspiracy theorists have is a natural consequence of a set of cognitive characteristics that researchers and scholars like Keeley have identified which do not necessarily indicate false beliefs on a one-to-one basis, but that do impair the ability to think critically, consider alternatives, accept contradictory feedback, and otherwise gain a more rounded perspective — both in terms of facts as well as morality.  In the worst case, such thinking inadvertently leads to rejecting the very possibility of any sort of systematized knowledge at all — a point that Keeley carefully considered.

A more recent paper, “Recursive Fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation” (which I discussed here back in May) identified six such characteristics (or criteria) from the literature on conspiracist thought, which were then used to analyze blog comments attacking an earlier paper on the role of conspiracism in rejecting global warming science. (“Recursive Fury” was then recursively attacked by conspiracists, and shamefully retracted by the journal which published it, not for any methodological or ethical reasons, but because of legal liability issues — itself an example of how conspiracist thinking can cripple scientific inquiry.) The paper explained:

We derived six criteria from the existing literature to permit classification of hypotheses pertaining to LOG12 as potentially conspiracist (see Table 3). Our criteria were exclusively psychological and hence did not hinge on the validity of the various hypotheses. This approach follows philosophical precedents that have examined the epistemology of conspiratorial theorizing irrespective of its truth value (e.g., Keeley, 1999; Sunstein & Vermeule, 2009). The approach also avoids the need to discuss or rebut the substance of any of the hypotheses.

To illustrate the usefulness of this sort process perspective approach, we turn to each of those characteristics in turn, quoting an excerpt of the description (with formal citations removed), followed by some commentary.  After that, we’ll return to that reflect on that list of conspiracy theories that turned out to be true, to reconsider just what it might mean, in light of this sort of process perspective.

The first conspiracist characteristic identified is “nefarious intention”:

First, the presumed intentions behind any conspiracy are invariably nefarious. Conspiracist ideation never involves groups of people whose intent is to do good, as for example when planning a surprise birthday party. Instead, conspiracist ideation relies on the presumed deceptive intentions of the people or institutions responsible for the “official” account that is being questioned.

One example cited is the book "Watermelons: The Green Movement's True Colors," about which the publishers say: "Green on the outside, red on the inside, the liberty-loathing, humanity-hating "watermelons" of the modern environmental movement do not want to save the world. They want to rule it."

You can’t get much more nefarious than that … unless you want to get into the Satanic ritual (child) abuse moral panic of the 1980s and '90s. As Wikipedia notes:

Scholarly interest in the topic slowly built, eventually resulting in the conclusion that the phenomenon was a moral panic, with little or no validity beyond paranoia.

Official investigations produced no evidence of widespread conspiracies or of the slaughter of thousands; only a small number of verified crimes have even remote similarities to tales of SRA.

That moral panic produced books like "Don't Make Me Go Back, Mommy: A Child's Book about Satanic Ritual Abuse." It’s not hard to imagine how nefarious these imaginary conspirators were. Buzzfeed has some sample illustrations here.

But it’s not always so batshit crazy. As a journalist, I’ve had plenty of frustrating experience dealing with institutions putting out official stories, so I could easily sympathize with less extreme conspiracists in this regard. But, professionally, it’s a luxury I can’t afford.  Most people repeat the official story in good faith; error is far more common than evil. Lack of institutional transparency and accountability is one of the most serious and widely-seen maladies of our time. But the conspiracist interpretation of why it occurs does far more to obscure matters than to bring them to light — even when it stops far short of wild stories about Satanic rituals.

The second conspiracist characteristic is “persecution-victimization”:

"A corollary of the first criterion is the pervasive self-perception and self-presentation among conspiracy theorists as the victims of organized persecution. The theorist typically considers herself, at least tacitly, to be the brave antagonist of the nefarious intentions of the conspiracy; that is, the victim is also a potential hero."

This clearly applies in spades to the “victims” of Satanic ritual abuse. The article cites another example: “when isolated scientists who oppose the scientific consensus that HIV causes AIDS are presented as persecuted heroes and are likened to Galileo,” as described in the book "Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience and Human Tragedy." AIDS patients who’ve rejected treatment also present themselves heroically … and can still be seen online in video testimonials after they die, as recounted in the Guardian by award-winning UK journalist Brian Deer. Moral: One can be a true victim and yet be absolutely clueless as to what you’re the victim of. You can become a victim of your own mistaken beliefs.

The third conspiracist characteristic is “nihilistic skepticism”:

"[D]uring its questioning of an official account, conspiracist ideation is characterized by “…an almost nihilistic degree of skepticism”; and the conspiracy theorist refuses to believe anything that does not fit into the conspiracy theory. Thus, nothing is at it seems, and all evidence points to hidden agendas or some other meaning that only the conspiracy theorist is aware of."

Calling this “wacky,” as many are inclined to do, dramatically understates what a serious attack it is on the very possibility of ever knowing anything at all. “Trust no one,” may make a cool tagline for a TV show, but no one can actually live like that. We trust people all the time — to point us to right aisle in a store, to tell us where they want to meet for lunch, etc.

Yet, as Keeley noted in his 1999 paper, “These theories throw into doubt the various institutions that have been set up to generate reliable data and evidence. In doing so, they reveal just how large a role trust in both institutions and individuals plays in the justification of our beliefs. The problem is this: most of us — including those of us who are scientists and who work in scientific laboratories full of expensive equipment — have never carried out the experiments or made the empirical observations that support most contemporary scientific theories.” Hence, the vast majority of scientific knowledge depends on trusting others, not blindly, but through a carefully developed system of rigorous sifting and cross-checking.

As Keeley put it, “In modern science, this procedure involves the elaborate mechanisms of publication, peer review, professional reputation, university accreditation and so on. Thus, we are warranted in believing the claims of science because these claims are the result of a social mechanism of warranted belief production.”  And this, ultimately, is the full scope of what the conspiracy theorist would ask us to abandon — as the withdrawal of “Recursive Fury” gave us a foretaste of. Without this social mechanism of science, we would know very little at all.  Such are the fruits of nihilistic skepticism.

We can see a small hint of this outcome in the world as seen by “young earth” creationists — those who insist on a literal reading of the Bible (ignoring the contradictions between Genesis 1 and 2), and thus say the world was created 6,000 years ago. Of course this means that they reject evolution, but that’s only a small fraction of the science they nihilistically reject. They also reject tree rings, since, as of 2009, the University of Arizona’s bristlecone pine database established a timeline of 8,836 years — almost 50 percent older than the Young Earth creationists claim the earth to be.  They also reject carbon dating — using elaborate arguments, the most noteworthy of which are debunked here by the National Center for Science Education. And there’s also the little problem that the “big bang” happened over 13 billion years ago. NASA’s also got an excellent Big Bang webpage, providing even more of the incredible knowledge of our cosmos that creationist conspiracists demand that we abandon, in deference to their purportedly “divine” nihilistic skepticism.

The fourth conspiracist characteristic is “nothing by accident”: "Fourth, to the conspiracy theorist, nothing happens by accident. Thus, small random events are woven into a conspiracy narrative and reinterpreted as indisputable evidence for the theory."

A classic example of this sort of thinking is a list of coincidences supposedly linking the Kennedy and Lincoln assassinations, which first appeared shortly after Kennedy was shot. (My personal favorite is “Booth shot Lincoln in a theater and was caught in a warehouse. Oswald shot Kennedy from a warehouse and was caught in a theater.” It’s so bizarre, surely it must mean something! Where’s Agent Mulder when you really need him?)

This characteristic reflects something deeper about conspiracist thinking — it has less in common with science than immediately meets the eye. In "The Battle For God" (introduction here), Karen Armstrong talks about two contrasting modes of human understanding: logos, which is concerned with understanding how the world works, and mythos, which is concerned with meaning and purpose.  The importance of mythos is obvious, Armstrong explains: “Unless we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair,” and supplying significance is what mythos is all about.

In contrast, logos has no problem with random, accidental occurrences. Our grasp of the world around us is always imperfect; there is always more going on than we can possibly know. So long as we know enough for the purposes at hand, we need not concern ourselves with pieces that don’t fit together, with randomness, noise, little bits of chaos. But for mythos, everything has meaning, even the absences, which is why they have to be reinterpreted to give them meaning, when it seems that they have none.

The fifth conspiracist characteristic is “must be wrong”:

[T]he underlying lack of trust and exaggerated suspicion contribute to a cognitive pattern whereby specific hypotheses may be abandoned when they become unsustainable, but those corrections do not impinge on the overall abstraction that `something must be wrong’ and the `official’ account must be based on deception.... [I]t does not matter if any particular hypothesis is right or wrong or incoherent with earlier ones because “…the specifics of a conspiracy theory do not matter as much as the fact that it is a conspiracy theory at all”….[i]t may not even matter if hypotheses are mutually contradictory.

Clearly, the most extreme example is the embrace of mutually contradictory beliefs.  You might think this is a joke, but it’s not. People actually do think that way, as shown by a 2011 paper, “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories.” As explained in its abstract:

The present research shows that even mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively correlated in endorsement. In Study 1 (n = 137), the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered. In Study 2 (n = 102), the more participants believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when U.S. special forces raided his compound in Pakistan, the more they believed he is still alive.

Furthermore, the explanation for these seemingly bizarre beliefs was simple and straightforward:

Hierarchical regression models showed that mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively associated because both are associated with the view that the authorities are engaged in a cover-up (Study 2) [emphasis added]. The monological nature of conspiracy belief appears to be driven not by conspiracy theories directly supporting one another but by broader beliefs supporting conspiracy theories in general.

The last sentence here makes a point worth keeping in mind: while conspiracists tend to focus obsessively on specific details, what really drives them is a transcendental belief, which by its very nature cannot be proven or disproven — it is purely a matter of faith, albeit a negative one: a belief that others are serving the Devil, as it were.  This reinforces my point above — that it’s much more a matter of mythos than first meets the eye. More often than not, conspiracy theorists have a conspiratorial intent of their own.

The sixth conspiracist characteristic is “self-sealing”:

Finally, contrary evidence is often interpreted as evidence for a conspiracy. This ideation relies on the notion that, the stronger the evidence against a conspiracy, the more the conspirators must want people to believe their version of events. This self-sealing reasoning necessarily widens the circle of presumed conspirators because the accumulation of contrary evidence merely identifies a growing number of people or institutions that are part of the conspiracy.

As an example, the paper points to the response following “ClimateGate,” the pseudo-scandal that resulted from the illegal hacking of personal emails by climate scientists, which were then selectively quoted to portray a conspiracy to hide or manipulate evidence. An unprecedented set of nine separate inquiries ensued [links here], all of them clearing the scientists of all substantive charges, whereupon the investigations were then attacked as being part of the wider conspiracy! See, for example, U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher's speech in Congress on 8 December 2011, where he said:

We now know, the scientists, clamoring for subservient acceptance of their theory of man-made global warming, were themselves making a sham out of scientific methodology.  Now we know.

I am speaking, of course, about Climate Gate…. The unauthorized release of those internal memos, exposed the shenanigans of the man-made global warming alarmists, and the crime being committed against science and the public.  Even though hand-picked panels of their peers held a “kangaroo court” and loudly proclaimed that there had been no wrongdoing, public confidence was justifiably shaken.

These cognitive characteristics do a much better job of focusing our attention on what’s most important about conspiracy theories — not the truth or falsity of any particular claim, but the overall soundness of their approach.  With this process-based perspective firmly in mind, we now turn to the aforementioned story “33 Conspiracy Theories That Turned Out To Be True.”  While most of the items identified in this story really do exist, the same cannot be said about a distinct subset of the list involving the largest-scale conspiracies alleged, those having to do with national or global political dominance.

It’s not that elite corporate dominance doesn’t exist — there are a variety of different sound scholarly approaches showing that it does. Examples include sociologist William Domhoff’s work on class domination dating back to "Who Rules America?" first published in 1968; Martin Gilens’ 2013 book, "Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America" and his followup paper co-authored with Benjamin Page, "Testing Theories of American Politics:Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens," showing that elites wield significant political power, while ordinary citizens have almost none; Thomas Ferguson’s book, "Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems," which explains how corporate donor blocks, not average voters, drive the political system; the 2011 paper, “The Network of Global Corporate Control” by Stefania Vitali and co-authors, identifying a core "super-entity" of 147 tightly knit companies that controlled 40 per cent of the total wealth in the network, and so on.

The literature is quite clear, elite corporate dominance is real. Yet, conspiracy theorists have managed to get things incredibly garbled, even though this core intuition is correct. The list of “33 Conspiracy Theories That Turned Out To Be True” includes a subset of seven which relate to elite corporate dominance:

22. The New World Order

27. Bohemian Grove

29. The Round Table  [not the Business Roundtable]

30. The Illuminati

31. The Trilateral Commission

32. Big Brother or the Shadow Government

33.The Federal Reserve Bank

Of these seven, only three can actually be shown to exist — less than half — and their roles are severely distorted and misrepresented in the accounts provided. Remarkably, despite the story’s title, even the author himself doesn’t argue that all these conspiracies actually exist. The entry on the Round Table (not to be confused with the Business Round Table) reads more like an argument that no such organization exists, while devoting considerable attention to other supposedly-related organizations, most notably the Council on Foreign Relations. The Shadow Government is described in terms of several somewhat overlapping master texts, one of which, "Report from Iron Mountain," is now widely recognized as the satire/hoax that it always was (but not by die-hard conspiracists!) The Illuminati have been disbanded since before the United States were formed, and the author reluctantly admits to its almost certain non-existence, but then seeks to prop it up by claiming that the Rothschilds were members, and that they control half the world’s wealth (a claim not supported by the Stefania network analysis cited above.)  Bohemian Grove is certainly real, but it’s more of an annual event than an organization.  The Trilateral Commission is real, but only one of many international organizations, while the actual Federal Reserve differs significantly from the description offered in this document. This leaves us, finally, with the New World Order, which is arguably the clearest example of what most of the list is not: a purely fictitious entity. Here is how the entry on it begins:

The New World Order:  This popular conspiracy theory claims that a small group of international elites controls and manipulates governments, industry and media organisations worldwide. The primary tool they use to dominate nations is the system of central banking. They are said to have funded and in some cases caused most of the major wars of the last 200 years, primarily through carrying out false flag attacks to manipulate populations into supporting them, and have a grip on the world economy, deliberately causing inflation and depressions at will.

You’ll note that this entry doesn’t even pretend to claim that the New World Order is real.  It then goes on to toss together a variety of other hobgoblins:

The people behind the New World Order are thought to be international bankers, in particular the owners of the private banks in the Federal Reserve System, Bank of England and other central banks, and members of the Council on Foreign Relations, Trilateral Commission and Bilderberg Group. Now, although this conspiracy theory was ridiculed for years, it turns out that the Bilderberg does meet and requests no media coverage. They receive no media coverage. The world’s elite meet every year and it goes largely unreported, for what?

The point is not that all these organizations are fanciful — they’re not.  Those listed above, at least, are all quite real. It’s the light that they’re seen in which is so distorted, so misleading.  For a realistic view of the Bilderbergers, for example, we can turn to journalist/author Jon Ronson, who actually talked to some of them, only to discover how low-key their actual influence was (more of a networking group than anything else). Particularly interesting is this quote, from Denis Healey, a founding member of Bilderberg: "To say we were striving for a one-world government is exaggerated, but not wholly unfair. Those of us in Bilderberg felt we couldn't go on forever fighting one another for nothing and killing people and rendering millions homeless. So we felt that a single community throughout the world would be a good thing."

This should hardly be surprising, particularly in the 1950s, when Bilderberg started, and the memories of World War II and all the conflicts which lead up to it were still quite fresh. Folks inclined in the direction of a global community, if not government, because of the pointless destructiveness of war. It’s not hard to follow the logic.  But it clashes wildly with the conspiracists’ accusations.  You see, they’re always going on about how the global elites cause wars and depressions: "The Rothschild dynasty owns roughly half of the world’s wealth and evidence suggests it has funded both sides of major wars, including the United States Civil War."

I’m not arguing that elites don’t have far too much power in the world — they do. Nor am I saying that their policies are for the best, so we shouldn’t worry — anyone who believes that has been asleep for longer than Rip Van Winkle.  But if we want to effectively counter the pernicious impacts of elite rule, we first need to acknowledge it’s not 100 percent evil. We need to have a much more coherent, more scientifically grounded understanding of what it is and how it works, as provided by the sorts of academic research that I cited above, for example. This includes a recognition that elite rule is pernicious primarily for structural reasons, rather than because of individual evil.

A further look at what’s said about the New World Order can bring a few last noteworthy points into focus. First, that the conspiracist viewpoint tends to be inherently reactionary, defending an implicitly simplistic “commonsense” conception of how things should be against what it sees as the pernicious and arbitrary meddling of elites.  And second, that it explicitly turns a blind eye at best to malevolent influences within its own ranks. The second point can be illustrated by the matter-of-fact tone of the following passage, which, one should recall, is offered as a stand-in for the promised, but non-existent, actual evidence that “the New World Order” actually exists:

American writer Mary M. Davison, in her 1966 booklet The Profound Revolution, traced the alleged New World Order conspiracy to the creation of the U.S. Federal Reserve System in 1913 by international bankers, who she claimed later formed the Council on Foreign Relations in 1921 as the shadow government. At the time the booklet was published, “international bankers” would have been interpreted by many readers as a reference to a postulated “international Jewish banking conspiracy” masterminded by the Rothschilds and Rockefellers.  American televangelist Pat Robertson with his 1991 best-selling book The New World Order became the most prominent Christian popularizer of conspiracy theories about recent American history as a theater in which Wall Street, the Federal Reserve System, Council on Foreign Relations, Bilderberg Group, and Trilateral Commission control the flow of events from behind the scenes, nudging us constantly and covertly in the direction of world government for the Antichrist.

Now, some folks would think that with no hard evidence, and folks like Pat Robertson and Mary Davidson leading the way, you just might want to rethink the road that you’re on.

But anyone who would think that is obviously in on the conspiracy, right?

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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