Conspiracy Theories

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

Powerful people can be paranoid too.


Superman is skeptical.

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.")

LOST: one alt-text. If found, please call (202) 456-1111.

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.

Doesn't count!

…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.

Bonus advertisement: Hey, I just wrote a book about this stuff! Read about it here! Pre-order a copy here!

NEXT: Gunman Kills 12 at Baghdad Brothel

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Don’t fear the munchies…..=obnetwork

    1. Has Sugarfree seen this? Maybe he’ll re-think his unthinking devotion to the war on drugs!

    2. And then of course, you could always print some pizza.…..p=features

      1. It’s just appalling that we’re going to have printed pizza, but no fusion, AI, flying cars, or moonbases.

        1. Look dammit, they’re working on make Back to the Future II a reality one project at a time. We’ll get to flying cars and hoverboards soon, but first we have to figure out a way to make teenage girls who look like Michael J Fox.

          1. That’s lame. I want mo’ better future.

          2. +1 Grey’s Sports Almanac

        2. Once we get the 3d printers down, we send one up there and just print a moonbase. Duh.

          1. Ah, yes, von Neumann printers.

            1. After a tragic coding error, we have turned the entire moon into pizza.

              1. Error? A giant, vacuum-sealed pizza? I think that’s the opposite of error.

                1. You like cold pizza? You savage.

                  1. Through the use of massive solar arrays and possibly H3 fusion reactors on the Moon, the pizza could be reheated, one slice at a time.

            2. Who’s printing copies of von Neumann?

              1. First von Neumann, then the copies of von Neumann began printing copies of von Neumann. It’s all very meta.

      2. I thought there’d been 3-d printing of cakes for some time. Doesn’t count if it’s only the icing, not the baked part?

  2. 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.

    Yep, I know people that believe in crazy conspiracy theories like the US government illegally sending guns to narco-terrorists in Mexico for some nefarious reason and that government officials tell a blatant lie to cover up a terrorist attack on a US embassy, and attempt to undermine the 1st amendment in the process.

    Crazy teabaggers.

    1. The thing is, there’s different levels to each conspiracy. For instance, I think bankers get together behind closed doors and develop strategies to affect public policy. It’s called lobbying, and it’s a conspiracy of sorts, and 100% of people “believe in” that conspiracy. But you can go from there all the way to alien lizard men that have for 1,000 years been breeding humanity into a gigantic, gold-mining slave race like David Icke thinks. Or, like most people, you can be somewhere in between. But we’re all conspiracists on some level.

      1. Right, like is it a “conspiracy” that progressives set up advocacy groups like ACORN in order to influence public policy and turn out votes for Democrats? Is that a conspiracy?

        Sure, kind of … the news media doesn’t really report on it, but it’s not like these people are hiding it either. That’s what political activism is. At some level all political acitvism is a conspiracy.

  3. “””were warning about East Coast banking cabals”””

    What a crazy idea, Lloyd Blankfein is just doing Gods Work.

  4. So who called the alt-text number?

    1. It’s Dondero’s cell phone.

    2. I did. That was well done.

      1. What happened?

          1. Fucking subliminal programming…

    3. I remember when Doonesbury did that.

      1. I remember when Doonesbury did that.

        Yeah, well, I did it in my high school newspaper before Doonesbury did it, so…

  5. What about tea party conspiracy theories that prompted the IRSs action?

  6. That’s a whole lotta work for a very subtle plug.

    1. To them, long-winded = credible.

    2. That’s a whole lotta work for a very subtle plug.

      Subtle? It’s got three exclamation points in it.

  7. There is a significant difference between actual historical conspiracies (IRS treatment of Tea Party groups), and the conspiracies offered by the conspiracy theorists (IRS was created by European Jewish bankers): The former are confirmed by the evidence and comfortably fit within a rational framework of plausibility, while the latter exist solely as unconfirmable speculation and and are so implausible most Hollywood script writers would reject them as absurd.

    Conspriracy theories are full of logical fallacies, cherry picked data, focus on apparently unexplainable anomalies, and invariably involve Jewish bankers, multi-generational plots by secret governments, appeals to experts outside their fields, belief in the super-human cunning and efficiency of governments, etc. Conspiracy theorists do not argue, they assert. They claim they are only asking questions, but angrily reject any answers that don’t conform to their preconceptions. They claim the government is at fault, but demand the government investigate. And of course it’s impossible to believe just one conspiracy theory. As Murray Rothbard once quipped, “they’re all true!”

  8. I’m generally skeptical of conspiracy theories because I don’t really believe that’s how the world works. Except those “conspiracies” that are completely out in the open, as in people have publicly stated that X is their agenda/strategy at some point in time.

    Occasionally, however, I well entertain the possibility of certain conspiracies. I.e. that someone in congress was involved in directing IRS officials to supress conservative groups. But I always keep these at arms length and stay mostly agnostic about it. It’s a possibility, I wouldn’t be surprised if evidence of X emerges, but I don’t necessarily think it’s true.

    Just for example, I suspect that bin Laden’s body was not actually dumped in the ocean but was flown back to the US and was at the CIA headquarters in Langley for some period of time. (Whether they have since disposed of it I have no idea). I base that on a couple of oblique news reports and the general implausibility of the notion that they’d kill him and immediately dump the body. I’m not going to expound this theory and I’m not out there promoting it, but I think it’s *possible*.

  9. she should have held more closely to the research and called them “unfounded conspiracy theories”, becase conspiracies obviously happen. It is the unfounded ones and how it is determined that they are unfounded that is the issue. The research is far more interesting than the article.

  10. Somebody at the Junto told me around the turn of the century a story of a medical-political conspiracy that adversely affected him gravely. It sounded very interesting, but when I offered to tell my friend David Lindelof about it, he wasn’t interested because the alleged conspiracy didn’t go up high enough, involving only members of the NY legislature, the Regents, and some other bodies, and not something like space men or the death of JFK.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.