The Nature of Conspiracy Theories

From The Wall Street Journal:

In the age of QAnon, it is of little comfort to learn in Michael Butter’s “The Nature of Conspiracy Theories” that such malevolent fables have been around for some time. Cicero devised one. Winston Churchill, at least once, passed along another. What’s different now, claims Mr. Butter, is who believes them, who spreads them and how they are disseminated. Once common among the elites, conspiracy theories were stigmatized, in the West anyway, during the postwar years. “We used to be afraid of conspiracies,” the author relates. “We are now more afraid of conspiracy theories,” a fear that helps account for the attention they attract.

But only partly: Ideas that might once have been confined to a pamphlet are now easily available on the internet, a space where anyone can be an expert and where conspiracy theories can provide a splendid living for those who peddle them. The internet has “largely nullified” the media’s “traditional watchdog role,” a change that Mr. Butter, who writes from a leftish-establishment point of view, mourns more than is entirely healthy.

Perhaps inevitably in these times, Mr. Butter examines the connection between populism and conspiracy theories. The connection is real enough, although support for the former does not have to meansuccumbing to the latter. Nevertheless it’s no coincidence that susceptibility to conspiracism is associated with feeling powerless or (something obviously relevant to the rise of populism) “the fear of becoming so.”

But the underlying appetite for conspiracy theories stems from something far deeper than social and/or political disaffection. It arises, Mr. Butter suggests, from the way “evolution has trained the human brain to make connections and recognize patterns.” We are delighted to “find” these connections, even when there are none—so great, I suspect, is our reluctance to accept a random and indifferent universe. There is a decent argument to be made that conspiracy theories helped fill the psychological gap left by religion’s retreat, even if, as Mr. Butter records, they long predated the Enlightenment’s revolt against God.

But the underlying appetite for conspiracy theories stems from something far deeper than social and/or political disaffection. It arises, Mr. Butter suggests, from the way “evolution has trained the human brain to make connections and recognize patterns.” We are delighted to “find” these connections, even when there are none—so great, I suspect, is our reluctance to accept a random and indifferent universe. There is a decent argument to be made that conspiracy theories helped fill the psychological gap left by religion’s retreat, even if, as Mr. Butter records, they long predated the Enlightenment’s revolt against God.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

36 thoughts on “The Nature of Conspiracy Theories”

  1. In the age of QAnon, it is of little comfort to learn in Michael Butter’s “The Nature of Conspiracy Theories” that such malevolent fables have been around for some time.

    Add to that the Great Russia Hoax, and conspiracy theories are indeed alive and well. The Russian conspiracies make the QAnon folks look like pikers.

    What kind of person would believe either? Critical thinkers?

  2. “conspiracy theories helped fill the psychological gap left by religion’s retreat”

    Conspiracy theories, I believe, are the last bastion of religious thinking. Quite a few conspiracy theorists are also very religious and I think that the same part of the brain that accepts the magical thinking of an invisible tyrant in the sky who watches and judges everything also happily accepts an invisible cabal of whoevers plotting against all that they find good and right or secretly controlling the world.
    Both are sloppy logic with no understanding of cause and effect, let alone critical thinking. At times I wish I was a thriller writer, I could have a lot of fun with conspiracy theories.

    • Ah, the village atheist chimes in. I should be very amused if I could somehow get you to confront St. Thomas Aquinas and tell him his logic is sloppy, his thinking uncritical, and he does not understand cause and effect. After that, maybe you can start in on Gregor Mendel or Georges Lemaître.

      But you just go ahead and exhibit your arrant bigotry for all to see. And while you’re at it, keep banging away with that strawman argument that shows you have absolutely no idea what religious people believe or why they believe it. Your ignorance would be pitiable if you did not pride yourself on it.

      • Hey Tom,
        The MORAL and ETHICAL foundations people can draw from religion are just fine in my book so long as they stick to them and don’t start using their religion as an excuse to be harmful to those who don’t believe the same thing.. Oh and by the way I was Catholic until it became obvious that I was just speaking to myself during prayer so it’s not like I don’t understand the religious mindset, I was actually convinced that I was going to become a priest someday.
        Show me God…real physical, undeniable proof… go ahead I’ll wait. He’s a figment of the imagination. He isn’t some old guy in a robe who is going to appear in a pillar of fire or rain a plague down on me for daring to have ceased buying the fantasy.
        Oh and on the topic of Thomas Aquinas’ belief in an invisible man in the sky – in THAT respect he was engaging in sloppy thinking. To twist his own words: To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary… probably because they refuse to see the obvious or hear any alternative that doesn’t involve a fairy story. You can be a brilliant thinker and still be deluded. Odin, Zeus, Tezcatlipoca, Vishnu, Yahweh, they’re all in the same category – myths.

        So thanks for being a jerk and making it personal in the comments. I’m not going to continue this further because PGs blog is not meant for childish fights.

        • Edmund, I understand why you were offended by Tom’s comments and also why you would prefer not to continue with this discussion.

          However, I’d just like to note the your reaction to “conspiracy theories helped fill the psychological gap left by religion’s retreat” is not consistent with my own experience. The level of religious belief and observance in England has declined drastically over my life time and I’ve noticed that this decline has been balanced by a great increase in a whole host of supernatural and anti-scientific beliefs (conspiracy theories being only one of many strange ideas and, until recently at least, only a minor part of them).

          Looking back on the younger versions of myself and my friends I think that the religion that we were taught actually acted as a kind of inoculation against magical ideas – at least other than those taught by the Christianity (even if, as in my case, the religious teaching never resulted in religious convictions). The religion was Protestant and had no problems with incorporating and accepting scientific results (for Catholics or various fundamentalists the effects may have differed).

          I was initially sceptical of Émile Cammaerts claim that “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing. They then become capable of believing in anything.” Observing the long time rise of irrationalism, I very much regret that I now think he was undoubtedly correct (at least in general, individuals can still swim against the tide).

        • My only comment is that there is no negative proof, either. That there is/are no Supreme Being(s) is also an anthropogenic mental construct – that must be taken on faith.

          Your apparent assertion that belief in any conspiracy is “magical thinking,” I shall simply put down to extremely sloppy wording.

            • Doubt concerning an unprovable (at this time) proposition is not the same as assertion that the proposition is false.

              Note that “doubt” about an orbiting tea cup is the word that Bertrand Russell used. I disagree entirely with his ideology, but if nothing else, the gentleman was a precisionist in his language.

              • Yes. I think he said the Christian God was just as unlikely as the orbiting tea cup. However, neither can be proven false.

            • Oh, I know this one.

              Wiki – Russell’s teapot

              To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice.

              I have a number of Mars probes suddenly get destroyed because they ran into Russel’s teapot.

              The other example is:

              Wiki – Junkyard tornado

              The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable to the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.

              I routinely have tornados run through a junkyard and leave a fully assembled vehicle or other object of power that comes in handy for Story.

              Each wiki page above invokes Occam’s Razor. The trouble with Occam’s Razor is that it can make butchers of us all.

              Also, look at:

              Wiki – Wicked problem

              See also, Super wicked problems, on the same page.

              That is related to “Simple” and “Complex” answers.


              This has been a most useful page.


    • I cannot agree that conspiracy theorists are usually religious, unless you are making the point that the Leftist extremists (SURE that there are scads of White Supremacists lurking around every corner, weapon in hand, just looking for the opportunity to use them) are a religious cult.

      Which is not a bad characterization of them.

  3. As the above two comments show, this is one of those prickly subjects that requires a little more unpacking than most people realize.

    First conspiracy theories, whilst an argument can be made that they’re rooted in ‘magical thinking’ that I feel is dismissive of a complex problem of what it means to be conscious and the cognitive mechanisms of homo sapiens. It would be fairer to say, pareidolia is the root cause. The ability to see patterns in chaos that increase fitness.

    With regards to religious beliefs, they are common across humanity, last time I checked 95% of all humans have some spiritual beliefs. It’s as if humans evolved to have religious beliefs, but again a very complex subject that’s not easily discussed in the comments section of a blog.

    The nature of consciousness is a complex problem, arguably one of the hardest because we’re like goldfish in a bowl of water not understanding we live in water contained in a bowl. That’s a summation of a complex argument into a simple metaphor. Metaphors can be easily broken, but that signifies nothing other than a metaphor is a map, not the territory.

    • Part of the issue with conspiracy theories is that they try to explain too much. For example, Jeffrey Epstein’s ability to get his hooks into powerful people indicates that the high elites of our society may actually be less moral than us degenerate masses. However, the leap from there to “the country is being run by a secret cabal of pedophiles” is not justified by the available evidence.

    • Faith (of all kinds, not just religious faith) would be an interresting subject to discuss if it weren’t for the prickliness and defensiveness that it invariably triggers. Growing up I was strongly cautioned never to discuss in public religion, partisan politics, or sports team affiliation, for nothing good can come of it. The warning has held up; even neurologists end up in contentious quagmires. Discussion of Faith never ends well, mostly because people’s sense of self is inextricably tied to their beliefs.

      Which is too bad because we’ll never have a proper science of thought if we cannot rationally and civily discuss and analyze the need for Faith and role it plays in sustaining personality, be it in the axiomatic belief in a particular religion or the equally axiomatic, unquestioned, and absolutist Denial of all religions.

      Ultimately, I think Faith and Denial stem from the same neurological mechanisms and the same need to reconcile the self and the world. We are tribal creatures yet individually distinct and the dissonance of our dual nature is irreconciliable.

      Bees have it easy.
      So do solipsists.
      Everybody else? We’re doomed. 😀

        • In theory.
          In the real world, alas, it leads to wars big and small.
          Remember Charlie Hebdo?

          Conspiracy theories are an inevitable consequence of people’s unwillingness to accept realities that don’t conform to their beliefs. The simpler the better.

          Only one nation demonstrates the ability to go to the moon for over a generation?
          Obviously fake, right?
          No amount of discussion has killed that conspiracy theory even though the reason has been clear from day one: nobody was willing to spend that much just to expand the frontiers of knowledge (and make a point).

          Look at every conspiracy theory and you’ll find they are all driven by either Faith or Denial, which as I said are two sides of the same coin.

          Think of “ebooks are a fad”, “Indie books are all trash”, “tsunami of swill”, “Amazon loses money to kill bookstores”. Have any those theories gone away zfter a decade or more of discussion.

          Better to accept a comforting theory than recalibrating and accepting reality.
          Discussion never enters their picture and it is fruitless to even try it.

          • I think that the process of buying into a conspiracy theory starts with a deep-seated mistrust of the opposition.
            You would have a suspicion (which might well be based in fact) that the opposition despises you, has no concern for you as a human being or as a fellow citizen, and would truly be – at best – indifferent should you die as a result of their proposed programs being put into play.
            It STARTS with lack of trust. From that point, conspiracies are just an extension of the belief that they wouldn’t be AGAINST a situation that ill-advantaged you. Might even work to make sure it happened, but, at least, wouldn’t raise a finger to stop that eventuality.

            • And where does the lack of trust come from?
              The “otherness” of the opposition.
              Kin and other. Classic tribal reaction.
              It’s intrinsec.

              As is seeing patterns in clouds, malice in incompetence, and other neurologically-based human follies. That right there is ample reason to fear a True AI. 😉

          • In the real world, alas, it leads to wars big and small.
            Remember Charlie Hebdo?

            Agree. Remaining quiet also has significant risk. So discuss.

            I don’t expect to rid the world of conspiracy. theories. Their existence is an observable fact. As I noted above, the Jewish Conspiracy theories have survived for 1,600 years. But remaining silent because of their resiliency isn’t much of a choice.

            • It’s safer, though.
              My mission in life isn’t to wake up 7 Billion aggresive “sleepwalkers” but to survive their messes.
              I’m not much for pushing boulders up a hill.

  4. Conspiracy theories, I believe, are the last bastion of religious thinking.

    I doubt there will ever be a last bastion of religious thinking. It endures in all cultures, and has for as long as we know. I’d bet on it outlasting what is currently called critical thinking.

    If such thinking does manifest outside of religion, then perhaps it should simply be called XYZ thinking since it would obviously be independent of religion. It would be interesting to explore XYZ.

  5. “Conspiracy Theories” are fun, great for story, not much use in the “Real World” where they fall apart so easily. As a kid in the 70s I was inoculated against “Conspiracy Theories”.

    – Here it is, a fun serendipity.

    I went looking for the film “Local Hero” with Burt Lancaster. The only way to get it at a reasonable price was in a set. One of the movies was “Executive Action”. Just for fun, I fired it up, and there is the film that has me ask, “What has this to do with the Kennedy Assassination.” anytime people babble about “Conspiracy Theories”. HA!

    Executive Action – Trailer

    Look at the credits at the end. The film was made by the guy who did “Seven Days in May” and was written by Dalton Trumbo.

    Wiki – Executive Action (film)

    Once you’ve watched the movie, no conspiracy theory can ever stand the light of day. Watch the “special features” and see so many people speaking in such reverent hushed tones. HA!

    BTW, Read Kurt Andersen’s book, Fantasyland, for all manner of reasons why America is so susceptible to “Conspiracy Theories”. America was basically built on them.

    • “Conspiracy Theories” are fun, great for story, not much use in the “Real World” where they fall apart so easily.

      Depending on one’s objectives, they can be of great value in reaching those objectives. We don’t have to approve of the objectives, just recognize them. Many can be truly horrible. The problem is that the conspiracies don’t easily fall apart. Consider the last sixteen hundred years of the Jewish Conspiracies.

    • They fall apart easily?
      Is the Faked Moonlanding theory gone?
      Is the False Flag 9/11 theory dead?
      If the FDR knew of Pearl Harbor Ahead of time dead?
      How about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion?
      The Holocaust never happened?

      Look to the Black Legend and a half dozen disproven historical narratives that still hold currency.
      Conspiracy theories endure longer than reality.
      Its why Big Lie practices endure.
      Right now we’re seeing another half dozen being born that will still have currency centuries from now.

      To paraphase Heinlein and others: “Never underestimate the power of human gullibility.”

      • The “Conspiracy Theories” fall apart so easily if you are not sleepwalking through life.

        When the movie came out in 1973, I saw it on the CBS Monday Night Movie. Since then, anytime someone talks “Conspiracy Theories”, I always ask, “What has this to do with the Kennedy Assassination”, and it shuts them right down. That one simple question disrupts the dream they are in, and they stumble to a halt, long enough for me to walk away. They blink, forget I was even there, and keep stumbling along.

        This is someone sleepwalking:

        Raw: ‘Pizzagate’ suspect records message to his family on way to DC

        What disrupted his dream, was discovering that there was no basement, and he had his “Oops” moment which led into his next nightmare.

        “Pizzagate” suspect charged after allegedly firing shot in D.C. restaurant

        The past year, the Pandemic has disrupted so many sleepwalkers, you can see them stumbling into each other as their former dream is no longer smooth, uninterrupted. The clashes come when each sleepwalker reacts against the other sleepwalkers around them.

        It’s not safe to wake a sleepwalker.

        • The “Conspiracy Theories” fall apart so easily if you are not sleepwalking through life.

          Could be. Using that standard, we share the planet with billions of sleepwalkers. The conspiracies walk from one generation to the next.

          We deal with them, or we become subject to them. I’ll start with discussion.

  6. Conspiracy theory of the day:

    Because PG publicized conspiracy theories as an Issue, one (or more!) of the Rosicrucians, the Trilateral Commission, or the College of 35th-level Masons has taken him away. Proof? No posts since this post, publicizing a book concerning conspiracy theories… and we’ll know it’s true if this blog stays bereft of new materials for the magical interval of 24 hours 47 minutes 13.7 seconds…

    The line between “conspiracy theory” and “propaganda” is remarkably thin and difficult. Exhibit 74: A certain book disseminated, using cutouts, by the Охрана containing an astounding variety of antisemitic material, some of which continues in use today. I’m not naming the book for obvious reasons. (Sadly, some committed antisemites believe it to be a true account.)

  7. PG’s been on the road today and is just catching up on the comments here.

    As the OP mentions, conspiracy theories have been around for quite a long time, long before Christianity got started.

    When PG read the OP he was reminded of the arguments old guys used to have in bars when PG was barely old enough to go into a bar about whether Roosevelt knew the Japanese were going to bomb Pearl Harbor before the attack or not. One old guy claimed that FDR purposely let Pearl Harbor happen so he would have no trouble marshalling the nearly-dictatorial power he held as a war-time leader, a continuation of the power he held under the New Deal.

    The other old guy claimed that FDR and his military advisors were a bunch of idiots who overlooked all the signs and intelligence that pointed to Pearl Harbor attack because they were too dumb to know any better.

    PG is of a general predisposition never to discount the possibility of ineptitude in any major government action or inaction.

    On the other hand, conspiracy theories are so much fun to uncover.

    • I do absolutely LOVE conspiracy theories in books – I’m addicted to Tom Clancy and others of that type.
      But, in real life?
      Come on! The simplest explanation is usually the right one (Occam’s Razor). Many, if not MOST, of the political hit jobs are just made up. Not by foreign powers, for the most part – look to the opponents of those targeted by the lies.
      SOME of the substance is based on a kernel of truth:
      – Did Trump cavort with hookers? Unlikely. However, the story got some traction because Trump was known to be a bit of a dog at times.
      – Was Biden engaged in covering up corruption by his family? Likely at least somewhat exaggerated – however, Biden has demonstrably played fast and loose with the truth in the past. He has also aggressively pushed back on accusations against family members.
      – Did H. Clinton deliberately destroy emails when working as Secretary of State? The facts will likely never be known (the official government reports raise as many questions as they answer). However, never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity. HRC was known to permit her staff to handle confidential and classified material (she is not all that ‘techy’ and – like many people – preferred to read and absorb reports/correspondence in hard copy). Technically not permitted (hence the violation), but somewhat understandable.
      However, the erasure and destruction of the contents of her hard drive do seem to be deliberate.
      The same with many other scandals/concerns – one side tries to investigate, the other to conceal. BOTH positions come out of a sense of mistrust about motive.
      The longer I think about this, the more I am convinced that:

      • Unfortunately, Occam’s Razor needs to be honed almost continuously. It’s not a disposable available from a BigBoxStore with no thought at all; determining what is really the simplest explanation takes some thought, especially when it relates to “human behavior and/or belief systems.”

        None of which is to denigrate Occam’s Razor as an analytic tool — it is only to note that just like the average toolbox contains things other than a hammer, actually analyzing a problem probably requires other tools, too: Screwdrivers. Chisels. Perhaps most of all, measuring tools — because sometimes, the “simplest” explanation is darned complex (e.g., statistical mechanics… which, believe it or not, is actually “simpler” than the hodgepodge that was tried before it!).

  8. The flip side is that while half baked theories endure, true conspiracies are willfully ignored.
    Now, the Knights of the Golden Circle were idiots worthy of a Mel Brooks movie, but Lenin’s Bolsheviks and today’s CCP are anything but.
    And Putin’s crew are hardly chopped liver.

    The beat goes on.

    On a close tangent:
    Sn: You write about “delusions of infestation,” where people believe their bodies are teeming with insects. I was struck by the stories of people with this condition, and that they seemed to have no other mental illness.

    A delusion is just a fixed idea that’s incorrect. When you hear that someone is delusional, you might think they’re schizophrenic or psychotic. There can be cases where there’s overlap with mental illness, but a lot of cases start off in a normal way. A person feels an itch, there’s a real physical sensation. It’s not too hard to imagine they’d think something is crawling on them and that it could be insects. It becomes extremely important to the person to convince people that they’re right and not crazy. So the person gets deeper and deeper into [the delusion], and it becomes harder and harder to get them to accept treatment.

    There are antipsychotic drugs that can help people let go of the idea and treatments that can solve underlying problems — skin problems, for example, or nerve problems that can cause the sensations. [Treatment with antipsychotics] makes it all sound very scary. That’s one reason this problem goes so unrecognized and untreated — because of the stigma around mental illness and because it seems like people must be crazy. Our squeamishness and fear of people who are experiencing this, our deep discomfort with it, has really created a trap for people.

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