What The New York Times Missed When It Tried to Explain Conspiracy Theories

Powerful people can be paranoid too.


Maggie Koerth-Baker has an article in The New York Times that surveys some recent research on the psychology of conspiracy believers. As a summary of what those researchers are saying, the story is solid enough. Unfortunately, most of their research is framed in question-begging ways.

I don't have space to list all the problems I have with the claims in the Times piece, but my biggest issue is illustrated by this sentence:

63 percent of registered American voters believe in at least one political conspiracy theory, according to a recent poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University.

That is indeed what the poll says, but phrased that way the figure is approximately 37 percent too low. Virtually everyone who has any political beliefs at all believes in at least one conspiracy theory. Imagining conspiracies is just part of how human beings tend to perceive the world: It's where our drive to find patterns meets our capacity for being suspicious, particularly when we're dealing with other nations, factions, subcultures, or layers of the social hierarchy. This habit manifests itself across the political spectrum, and it always has. And it is intensified by the fact that conspiracies, unlike many of the monsters that haunt us, do sometimes actually exist. (Koerth-Baker acknowledges that last point—she mentions Watergate, Iran-contra, and the Tuskegee experiment—so presumably when she writes "political conspiracy theory" she means "political conspiracy theory that is not accepted historical fact.")

As a result, the article's attempts to generalize about conspiracy believers fall flat. When Koerth-Baker quotes the psychologist Viren Swami, who says "The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories," Swami isn't really talking about conspiracy theories in general; he means a particular sort of conspiracy theory that stresses that "the official story" is wrong and that powerful people are covering up the truth. There have been plenty of conspiracy theories through the years that are not especially interested in debunking "the official story" (sometimes they are the official story) and that aim their suspicions at people who are not particularly powerful. Koerth-Baker cites a review-essay that Swami co-wrote for The Psychologist, reporting that it reveals "a set of traits that correlate well with conspiracy belief." But the Psychologist piece brushes too quickly past an important sociological question: What gets defined as a "conspiracy theory" in the first place?

The answer has more to do with who is promoting a theory than with what it contains. If you announced in the 1970s that a network of underground Satanic sects was kidnapping kids and sacrificing them to the devil, you may well have gotten tagged as a fringy conspiracist. In the 1980s, on the other hand, allegations that once were confined to Jack Chick comics were broadcast on mainstream TV shows, from Oprah to 20/20. (Several of those programs featured "expert" commentary by a guy with a history of claiming he was a former high priest of the Illuminati.) Officials took those stories seriously too: People across the country went to jail for allegedly engaging in ritual Satanic child abuse. And then, gradually, the hysteria faded, and the sorts of conspiracy claims that had been uncritically endorsed on 20/20 in 1985 went back to being framed as fringy "conspiracy theories."

The Satan scare was particularly bizarre, but it is hardly the only or even the largest moral panic to seize the government and mass media in the last few decades; and moral panics, which are paranoid by their very nature, frequently include fears of conspiracy. But they only appear in the literature that Koerth-Baker is reviewing to the extent that they intersect with the X-Files model of an outsider chasing the Enemy Above, not a powerful figure fearing an Enemy Below, an Enemy Outside, or an Enemy Within.

So when the Times piece concludes like this…

Psychologists aren't sure whether powerlessness causes conspiracy theories or vice versa. Either way, the current scientific thinking suggests these beliefs are nothing more than an extreme form of cynicism, a turning away from politics and traditional media—which only perpetuates the problem.

…all I can say is: At the same time that American slaves were whispering that white doctors were plotting to kidnap and dissect them, the planter class was constantly seized by fears of slave conspiracies. At the same time that the Populist Party's rabble-rousers were warning about East Coast banking cabals, Eastern elites were perceiving Populism itself as a product of a conspiracy. At the same time that the New Left was formulating conspiracy theories about Lyndon Johnson, Lyndon Johnson was pushing the FBI for evidence that the Communist bloc was behind the country's riots. In the past few years, the paranoia of some of the activists opposed to the current adminstration has provoked yet more paranoia from the administration's defenders. Now, people who wield power can still have anxieties about the things they can't control, so you can certainly argue that even powerful people's suspicions are driven by a sort of powerlessness. But I don't see them reacting by turning away from politics or traditional media. I see them spreading fear there.

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