Get out your tinfoil hats. We’re going to talk conspiracy theories.
In general, the peculiarities of how we discern the theories we believe from those we don’t. And, specifically, what those beliefs or disbeliefs say about us as individuals.
First, I’ll make the assumption that if you are reading a newspaper column, or at least recognize the names “Mulder” and “Scully,” you are familiar with conspiracy theories. They range from mainstream speculations many people believe, such as John F. Kennedy assassination theories, to fringe concepts that many people dismiss, such as the “chemtrail” theory that posits the government is delivering biological agents through the white clouds trailing high-flying jets.
FOR THE PURPOSES of this column, I’ll focus on theories purported to involve the U.S. government because those have the most widespread social, political and economic impacts. Films such as Men in Black and Independence Day would have no pop-culture currency if not for the widely held suspicion the government has possessed alien life forms and technology since 1947.
Conspiracy theories persist because – in addition to a constant spate of broken promises (Yucca Mountain, “Read my lips – no new taxes,” “You can keep your health insurance”) – the government flat-out lies to us.
The thunderous boom and sunlike glare that alarmed New Mexico residents in the early morning hours of July 16, 1945, was not the world’s first nuclear weapon. It was an explosion at a “remotely located ammunitions” depot. The second attack on the U.S.S. Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin on Aug. 4, 1964, the very attack that gave President Johnson the push to send troops to Vietnam? It never happened.
Yes, the truth is out there, but when it finally materializes (41 years, in the case of the Gulf of Tonkin incident) the public usually has forgotten, or no longer cares, about the lie.
Which leads us back to the whole point of this exercise: What makes us doubt the official party line in some instances and not others?
One might assume a person who believes in a JFK conspiracy theory should believe most, if not all, conspiracy theories. After all, couldn’t a government powerful enough to snuff out the leader of the free world in public view, and successfully cover it up for decades, be capable of doing anything?
But that’s not how we think. We base decisions on our overall level of trust in government – in a nameless, faceless bureaucratic sense – and our specific viewpoint on whoever happens to be in the Oval Office at the time. And I believe emotions shape those decisions as much as hard evidence.
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