Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories make so much sense to the people who believe them, while “non-believers” are left shaking their heads… This week Slate featured a blog post from about a 9/11 conspiracy theory. In answer to the question “what do 9/11 truthers believe?” Mark Rogowsky said truthers claim that the WTC towers fell because of an elaborate government bomb plot, not because of the planes that flew into them or the resulting fire. According to Rogowsky, such people argue that the collapse was caused by tons of explosives that government agents set up in each tower in the days or weeks before the attack, without anyone noticing. The plane hijackings, also supposedly arranged by the government, were to distract people from what was really going on.

Alien (creature in Alien franchise)

Alien (Photo credit: Wikipedia) My own photos mysteriously disappeared ….

He addresses other things that happened that day, as well, but what interests me most is what he says about the mindset of the truthers—that they choose to believe “a lot of really stupid things” that others have disproved, and that their version of what happened is inconsistent and implausible. In fact, they view simple explanations as something for the weak-minded, because only something convoluted could be right. “In short, 9/11 truthers believe things that there is absolutely no reason to believe contain any truth whatsoever and certainly no important truth. They take details from the official reports that they don’t understand and try to inflate them into ‘evidence’ of a coverup.” Rogowsky is obviously frustrated by this, but my point here is not to defend either side.

I’d never thought too much about conspiracy theories, so at first I had trouble thinking of many examples. Speculation about the Kennedy assassination, the US “moon-landing hoax,” the DaVinci Code, Area 51. Google reminded me of many others. (By the way, I’m grateful to those who have kept the alien theories going, because without them we would never have had Fox Mulder and the X-Files, which I loved. That show depended on Mulder’s belief in a government plot to conceal The Truth, which was truly “out there.”)

What I have studied seriously is beliefs and the way they can change, or not. Conspiracy theories are a great example of how people can hold on to beliefs so tightly even when presented with proof that they are wrong—or what other people accept as proof. If people believe in something strongly or become part of a sub-culture of believers, then that becomes part of their identity. People don’t like to give up who they are, certainly not under pressure from someone else. And if you disagree with them you might be in on it, or maybe you’ve drunk the kool-aid. However, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to stick to one’s guns. Sometimes the conspiracy theorists are right. (Besides, if people always paid attention to evidence or the lack of it—and criticism coming from “non-believers”—no one would have any faith.)

Where do these theories come from? From distrust of 1) government or 2) some other powerful person(s) who presumably try to hide the truth from the regular people. Are there any conspiracy theories that don’t see one or both of these as the masterminds? I would guess that, the less powerful people feel and the less they trust their leaders, the more likely they are to believe in conspiracies. If people don’t believe what they are told by authorities and the media, they can “check out” of politics. Or they can develop other explanations of events—even if the official version is more plausible. But distrust and cynicism aren’t the same as believing in conspiracies. When does one cross over from skepticism and critical thinking into so-called “foil-hat” territory?


  1. That is a great question. I know people who I would consider rational skeptics. Some of these people also believe what I consider crazy conspiracy theories. It begs me to wonder if I am making a fair definition of rational skepticism and crazy conspiracy or is it me who is irrational and crazy? The lines are drawn by the interpreter, are they not?

    1. Thanks a lot for leaving a comment in the tip jar!
      I also know some rational skeptics who have surprised me with things they’ve said. Maybe I’ve surprised them too? You’re right about perspective: reasonable-ness is in the mind of the beholder. We all probably see our own theories of how/why things happen as logical. If we didn’t, we’d come up with some other operating system. But we have biases and incomplete information (even with the internet, or because of it?), which leaves room for our imagination to fill in the gaps, especially where the powerful and mysterious government is concerned.
      I haven’t made up my mind yet, but “the line” must also have something to do with how many people believe in a particular conspiracy. The larger their group, the less they’re perceived as wingnuts.

  2. Conspiracies are almost never real. When they are, they usually turn out to be something like investors trying to rig pork belly futures: white collar crime. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I wish more people would remember that.

    1. Thanks for reading!
      “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Nicely said. Last night on NPR someone commented that conspiracy theories cannot be resolved through investigation, because people are going to believe what they believe. I turned on the radio in the middle of that conversation, but I think it was about the different views of what happened in Benghazi.

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