I’ve recently written about conspiracy theories, which means I have been recently attacked by conspiracy theorists. I thought I’d take a moment to briefly reflect on the evolution of conspiracy theorist…
The conspiracy theorist is, of course, not a new breed of human. All the basic psychological building blocks of conspiracy thinking are inherent in the human psyche, including distrust of authority, wanting “inside information,” and real or imagined persecution-and, to be fair, often a dearth of critical thinking skills such as the ability (or desire) to separate anonymous rumor from established fact.
The conspiracy theory is at its heart a profoundly populist notion. It’s the common man demanding a peek behind the curtains of power-power in the form of information. Knowledge is power and information is the currency of conspiracists. For millennia there were no conspiracy theorists to speak of because most people had little or no access to independent information. News traveled very slowly from region to region, and anyway it didn’t really matter because there wasn’t much news anyway (“uncle Abraham’s cow died, more news as it happens”). Information and knowledge about the world came mostly from religious leaders. What went on in distant lands (or even neighboring countries) had little relevance to most people who spent their lives farming or fishing, living and dying without ever having strayed more than a few hundred miles from their birthplace.
The invention of the moveable type printing press was a boon to conspiracy theorists for the simple reason that books and knowledge was transportable. Instead of one source of knowledge there were dozens, or perhaps hundreds, and in some cases the authors had different viewpoints on the same subjects. As the old saying goes, a man with one watch knows what time it is, but a man with two watches is never sure. If two authors disagreed, then someone claiming to be an authority was wrong-or even perhaps intentionally deceptive and intentionally hiding a truth.
Modern technology helped give birth to the modern conspiracy theorist as well. Decades ago conspiracy theorists largely relied on short-wave radio and crude stapled-and-photocopied mailings to gain followers and spread their enlightened truths. In the 1980s personal computers allowed conspiracy writers to create much more professional publications-in appearance, if not content-as well as “underground” magazines. One fascinating exception is the curious case of the . . .